When I first heard these words in Fall Out Boy’s song, Uma Thurman, I wondered what the heck they meant. How can death find you alive? For whatever reason, this phrase really captured my imagination. Whatever songwriter Pete Wentz meant when he wrote it, those words led me to think more deeply about Jesus’ paradoxical sayings regarding life and death in the Gospels. Reflecting one day on Luke 17:33 — “Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it” — in tandem with this line from Uma Thurman led me to write this in my journal:
Surrendering to life’s deaths can open new doors to forms of life we could never have imagined had we not surrendered, as every new and life-giving possibility requires first a relinquishing of our grip on other possibilities. When my family said “yes” to New Orleans in 2011, we also said “no” to Iowa. That one great surrender to death — a very painful one — has now given rise to a life filled with unimaginable graces. Not one of them would have come to be had we not first consented to die. Each death died for love finds you newly alive.
Then, with all these thoughts flying in my mind, I read this astounding article in the NY Times by Kate Bowler, who is married, is a young mother, has spent her scholarly career studying the “prosperity gospel” movement and is tragically dying of cancer. Her words drip power that comes from the proximity of death:
…The prosperity gospel has taken a religion based on the contemplation of a dying man and stripped it of its call to surrender all. Perhaps worse, it has replaced Christian faith with the most painful forms of certainty. The movement has perfected a rarefied form of America’s addiction to self-rule, which denies much of our humanity: our fragile bodies, our finitude, our need to stare down our deaths (at least once in a while) and be filled with dread and wonder. At some point, we must say to ourselves, I’m going to need to let go.
CANCER has kicked down the walls of my life. I cannot be certain I will walk my son to his elementary school someday or subject his love interests to cheerful scrutiny. I struggle to buy books for academic projects I fear I can’t finish for a perfect job I may be unable to keep. I have surrendered my favorite manifestos about having it all, managing work-life balance and maximizing my potential. I cannot help but remind my best friend that if my husband remarries everyone will need to simmer down on talking about how special I was in front of her. (And then I go on and on about how this is an impossible task given my many delightful qualities. Let’s list them. …) Cancer requires that I stumble around in the debris of dreams I thought I was entitled to and plans I didn’t realize I had made.
But cancer has also ushered in new ways of being alive. Even when I am this distant from Canadian family and friends, everything feels as if it is painted in bright colors. In my vulnerability, I am seeing my world without the Instagrammed filter of breezy certainties and perfectible moments. I can’t help noticing the brittleness of the walls that keep most people fed, sheltered and whole. I find myself returning to the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.
Then I was ambushed by a memoir, the memory of a story dearly precious to my wife and to me. I’ll end with it.
Back in 2002, a dear friend of ours was dying of a terribly painful form of cancer. He was terrified of death, mostly because the sins of his past kept returning to haunt him with a terrifying vengeance. Nothing could console him, even the absolution of Confession. One day my wife took our children to visit him in hospice. When he saw them, be began to cry softly. Our son Nicholas, who was 5 at the time, told him: “Don’t worry, Mr. Pat, everything’s gonna be okay. You’ll get to see God! And your Mommy too!” His words made Pat sob uncontrollably, and cry our in despair: “No! No! I won’t!” Shortly after they left the room, his caretaker — who later called me to relate this story — said Pat was again gripped with fear. But she said to him: “Pat, don’t you see that God sent you that boy to speak to you those words? He will speak those same words to you when you see His face. God will say, ‘Don’t worry, Pat, everything will be okay.'” She said as soon as she said these words he loosened his white-knuckled grip on the bed rails, took a deep breath, sighed and relaxed. She said as she walked out of the room, “he flat-lined peacefully into eternity.”
Death found him alive.