The Common Good

To a Dying Church: Either Die or Live Like You Mean It

Dear Church,

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I received some distressing news today. Oh, I know you thought you’d kept it secret, but I answered the phone when the doctor’s office called to change your chemo appointment.

Chemo? Seriously? What, you thought I wouldn’t find out eventually? I know I seem preoccupied sometimes, but I’m not an idiot. I can see the signs.

I knew something was up when I saw you shrinking, little by little over time. Maybe other people couldn’t tell, but I suspected something bad was going on. You can paste on a smile, and listen to your happy music, and buy new stuff. But anyone who really knows you, realizes your body has been slowly betraying you.

Dying happens. I get that. What really makes me mad, though, is that you didn’t trust me enough to tell me. Maybe you didn’t know for awhile. I guess that’s possible. But the doctor had to have told you, right? I mean, at some point you decided to do something about it — if only to keep it a secret. And if you didn’t know, then you’re not who I thought you were.

See, because if you’d told me, I wouldn’t have taken off because of it. How could I? We’ve been together too long for that kind of nonsense. I know others might react that way. But if you’d been honest with me about this I could have offered more support. At least my sticking it out would have felt like it had some integrity. I thought we trusted each other.

But here’s what I really want to say: Look, you’re dying. So what? All living organisms die at some point. Now, I know that sounds cruel and insensitive when I say it that way, but hear me out.

If you get a terminal diagnosis, there are any number of ways to react:

  • You could deny it (a strategy that, frankly, hasn’t been working for you to date).
  • You could curse the doctor who told you (again, not a particularly productive response — which, I suspect, knowing you as I do — you’ve already done a lot of).
  • You could withdraw, accept the inevitable, and just curl up and die (which, to be honest with you, would certainly be an understandable reaction. There’s no shame in calling in hospice if you’re tired of fighting.).

But there is another response — the one I (not so) secretly hope you’ll choose: You could take your terminal diagnosis as a new lease on the life you have. Instead of throwing up your hands in bewilderment, you could throw up one of your digits in rebellion and do something interesting.

You feel me?

Think about this for a moment: What if you took this terminal diagnosis as an opportunity to quit living in fear, and used it as motivation to do something ridiculously daring? What have you got to lose? You’re on your way out anyway, right?

What if, freed from the concerns of playing it safe for posterity, you stomped on the gas pedal and decided to blow the doors off? What might that look like?

Well, you could stop thinking about preserving your stuff for some undetermined eventuality down the road, and you could start using it right now. Don’t worry about bequeathing it to me, because I’ve got enough crap of my own at this point. Take the plastic covers off it. Open it up. Air it out. Jump on it. Run with it. Offer it up freely to other people. Break it. Enjoy it. Use it. (I’m just going to be brutally honest with you, the generations coming along behind certainly aren’t going to sort it, and catalog it, and polish it, and preserve it the way you’d want anyway.)

Then, you could start doing some really radical stuff, expecting nothing in return. Instead of worrying about the cost/benefit analysis and the ROI on everything, you could just do things that make the world look like God actually loves it.

The clock is ticking, so you could do amazingly generous and slightly crazy things without being concerned whether people would like it or whether it would finally attract the kind of admirers you’ve always been certain you deserved. Feed a hungry person or buy a pair of shoes for that guy who hangs out at the bus stop. Advocate for civil rights, for equality for women, for fairness for LGBT people, for hospitality for immigrants. Make friends with a Muslim. Put a hand on the shoulder of a kid who’s being bullied. Throw open your doors to everyone and invite them to come in. Or sell everything you have and give it to the poor. In other words, you could do the right thing … because it’s the right thing to do—you know the kind of stuff Jesus called you to do if you want to follow him.

You’re not dead yet. And who knows? Quit worrying about dying, and there might be a miracle in your future you can’t yet see.

Love,

Your pal, Derek

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Ky., and a lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of articles ranging from church history to aesthetic theory and the tragic emotions, as well as the forthcoming book from Chalice Press, The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity,[D]mergent.org, and blogs at his own site. You can also find him on Twitter and Facebook.

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