Church of Our Saviour

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COS Reads: Love and Death

Love & Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow, by Forrest Church

In 2008 the Rev. Forrest Church, an author and a Unitarian minister in New York City, discovered that a cancer first diagnosed in 2006 had returned, and he now had just a few months to live. In a letter to his congregation he wrote, “In more than one respect, I feel very lucky” and promised to sum up his beliefs about love and death, the cornerstones of his long career as a minister, in one last book about this test—“the final exam” as he calls it—of his religious faith.

Love & Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow is that book—short, candid, and very eloquent. Rev. Church meditates on his experiences with the deaths of family members, including that of his father (Sen. Frank Church of Idaho), friends, and parishioners. He also ponders the public’s fascination with more-dramatic deaths, such as those who perished on the Titanic and the death of a celebrity like Princess Diana. Weaving these observations with portions of his sermons, he explains why he has come to believe that death’s purpose is to help us become compassionate and loving.

This realization came to Rev. Church slowly. He went through a divorce, struggled for years to find ways to comfort grieving parishioners, and became an alcoholic. On the road to sobriety he finally realized he would never be his father’s equal—and didn’t need to be. At that point, his “mantra” for finding balance and confronting his fears became “Want what you have. Do what you can. Be who you are.”

In other words, he advises, count your smallest blessings and be frequently grateful for them; do the little things—not the impossible—to show love and try to make amends if you need to (pick up the phone, write a note); and don’t try to be someone you’re not, but instead use your special gifts and talents realistically. Dying peacefully, he believes, requires living in ways that minimize the amount of unfinished business left in our relationships, by seeking and giving forgiveness and finding ways to love one another.

Rev. Church provides down-to-earth advice for those who are terminally ill, those visiting them in the hospital (in the “Bedside Manners” chapter), and those trying to care for them at home. One surprise for him, for example, was realizing that he had made peace with his death long before his four children and wife had. He knew he had to help them face their sadness and regrets, and he discusses how to have and manage such difficult but ultimately rewarding conversations.

He also writes very movingly about Jesus’ crucifixion, fear, and anguish—and about the essence of resurrection, “the saving gift of Jesus’ love, transcending the power of death.” Church believes that we, too, will transcend death, if only we will try while we still have some time. “Life is a gift, not a given. The path of life is strewn with trapdoors. Every day is a miracle,” he writes. For Church, our life after death hinges on our ability to create—as Jesus did—a legacy of love while we’re living.

This is a practical, wise, and deeply compassionate book. You can also read a (highly condensed) version of the book’s key concepts in Rev. Church’s article “Moving from Crisis to Awakening,” in Business Week. The book is available from Robbins Library in Arlington.

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