Last week, I celebrated my birthday. This annual occurrence has taken on new meaning in light of what happened last year around the same time. I had major surgery for prostate cancer. The diagnosis was quite unexpected, with absolutely no signs or symptoms beforehand. But my health provider, Kaiser Permanente, caught it in time and the doctors at the National Institutes of Health performed a very successful operation that removed all of the cancer. So far, regular tests have shown there is no more cancer in my body and for that, our family is very grateful.
Gratitude is the right word and the deepest feeling I had while celebrating my birthday, one year after the cancer surgery. The emotion of that gratitude went even deeper when we lost one of my dearest friends, Christian ethics professor Glen Stassen, just a few weeks ago — to prostate cancer that spread outside of his prostate. They didn’t catch Glen’s cancer in time.
I vividly remember my response after the surgery last year — a new recognition of how fragile and utterly precious life is and especially how utterly priceless your closest relationships are--the ones you love most in the world. For me that’s my wife Joy, and my sons Luke and Jack. My larger family got included in that too, my dearest friends where I live and work, and around the world, my extended community.
I resolved to operate every day with that recognition of how precious my life and relationships are to me. But have I had unnecessary arguments in my family since then, have I sometimes “sweated the small stuff,” or temporarily forgot the lessons I learned from my surgery? Yes. Still human, I’m afraid, even after the surgery and the lessons learned last year. But as I enter this new year, I am recalling again, as I often have during this past year, how much life, and those whom God has put in my life, are so ultimately and absolutely valuable and sacred to me. So I vow again, in this new year, to re-commit to practice the preciousness of my life and my relationships — in how I live each day, while still expecting to be human, and always in need of God’s grace.
Last week I also celebrated the release of the paperback version of my most current book, On God’s Side, retitled now to be The Uncommon Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a Divided World . Re-titled (something I have never done before) because of how “uncommon” the ancient idea of the common good has become in our national life and culture and how it has polarized our economy and paralyzed our politics. The spiritual battle of our time will be in how we answer the age-old question, “Am I my brother’s and sister’s keeper?”
The Christian answer is yes, as it is in the Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, and all religious traditions, but that must be worked out very practically and personally and not only in our politics and economics. My book goes into history to lay the foundations for the common good, and show what has motivated and energized world-changing movements. It also begins to provide frameworks for how we can seek the common good today. Specifically, how we raise our kids, choose our vocations, live, work, and worship will all build or undermine the common good, as well as how we hold our political and economic system accountable to the moral values that go deeper than left and right.
I have just learned that the Church of England is now engaging in a nationwide discussion about the meaning of the common good that will challenge everyone, including their churches and congregants, their politicians and business leaders, to measure their behavior by the moral values of that standard. And Pope Francis, who is inspiring the world to take a fresh look at the gospel of Jesus and the meaning of faith regularly called those leaders and all of us to seek and serve the common good. I have included the new Pope’s words in the revised book. I would love to see American churches and all our congregations embrace the gospel so wholeheartedly. So I offer this book as a resource, tool, and perhaps some inspiration for that important task.
The vocation of serving the common good has become my own, which is a great thing to remember and renew on your birthday! I hope you’ll join me in committing to live out this ethic in our daily lives.