Today's blog post is our first from Rev. Forrest Church, author of Love & Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow. Rev. Church served almost three decades as senior minister and is now Minister of Public Theology of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in New York City. He was educated at Stanford University, Harvard Divinity School, and Harvard University, where he received his Ph.D. in early church history. He has written or edited numerous books, including Life Lines: Holding on and Letting Go; Lifecraft: The Art of Meaning in the Everyday; So Help Me God; and Freedom from Fear.
Death is central to my definition of religion: religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die. We are not the animal with advanced language or tools as much as we are the religious animal. Knowing that we must die, we question what life means. The answers we arrive at may not be religious answers, but the questions death forces us to ask are, at heart, religious questions. Where did I come from? Who am I? Where am I going? What is life's purpose? What does all this mean?
All of these questions obviously have special urgency for me now that I have been told I have only months left in my life. Hearing word of my diagnosis of terminal cancer, a longtime parishioner, who has known her full share of death, wrote me of her heartache. "My heart has been broken again," Camille wrote, "and for that I am overwhelmingly thankful; without love this would not be possible." She had it just right. And she and others in my congregation made me think that I needed to write one last book, one that would consolidate my thoughts on love and death. Fighting the most convincing deadline of my life, I none-the-less experienced great joy writing Love & Death. I discovered, in confronting my diagnosis, that death is not life's goal, only life's terminus. The goal is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for. This is where love comes into the picture. The one thing that can't be taken from us, even by death, is the love we give away before we go.
Life seems to last forever but is over in a flash. As I approach the age of 60, counting down my remaining days, I'm keenly aware of that. Yet I'm also more aware than ever of the gift each day brings, filled with opportunities for gratitude and engagement. Among the many gifts life has brought me is the opportunity to share my thoughts, not only from the pulpit but in my books, where I am able to condense a lifetime of searching and finding into a shareable space, inviting others into worlds of contemplation I have been guided to and have discovered. That was the case with virtually all of my thirteen previous books and certainly proved to be the case with Love and Death. It poured out of me in just three weeks, right after I got my terminal diagnosis. Somehow, knowing my time was limited (which is true for all of us), focused my soul. The act of writing, even in the shadow of death, was a celebration of life, as sustained a celebration as I have enjoyed throughout a rich and sustaining career as a writer. I am grateful, first to the folks at Beacon, who responded with such enthusiasm and published with such alacrity, getting the book printed and bound in record time. To booksellers who have always supported my work, who have so often invited me into their magical spaces to read. To my readers, always.
Every writer and reader enters into a conversation, by no means one-sided and potentially very rich and dynamic. Readers' thoughts complete a writer's work. As I move, as leisurely as possible, to the terminus of my life, it gives me surpassing pleasure to be engaged one last time in a conversation about things that matter so deeply, to each of us individually and to our world. You are essential to this conversation, because you help shape and extend it through your own thoughts and acts. As is true for every writer, you, the reader, give meaning to my work. It is a shared endeavor, and, I hope, a shared joy. In this final chapter in my writing career, I'm happy to discover a new medium—the blog—which allows me to commune so directly with you.
You may also be interested in watching Forrest Church's sermon on Love and Death; reading an excerpt from Love & Death reprinted in UUWorld magazine; or listening to this interview on the Tavis Smiley show about So Help Me God: The Founding Fathers and Their First Great Battle Over Church and State.