death of a princess

Early in the year, I was thinking about death. In January, the opinion piece that recommended living the year as if it were your last and the deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman put mortality front and center. Sixty-nine years seemed too short a time for a life in the 21st century. Zsa-zsa Gabor, fine–she was supposedly 99; and Richard Adams (the author of Watership Down) was 96. But Prince was in his fifties, like George Michael; and Carrie Fisher was just 60. And that list leaves out a good number of the celebrities we lost in 2016, to say nothing of the friends and family members.

This morning, after seeing the news about Princess Leia, I mean, Carrie Fisher, I stayed a little longer in bed, curled up with my five-year-old daughter. My youngest, my little ‘outlier’–a surprise in my forty-second year, she brought light into my life in a time when things seemed pretty dark. (If only ‘partly cloudy‘ were the worst of it…) If I only live to 60, I thought, she’ll be 18 when I die. If I only make it to 53, though–George Michael’s age–she will be 11. Just 11. It seems so unfair. And unthinkable. But it happens: a friend, a fellow mum from the schoolyard, died this March. She was in her early fifties; her youngest child just 10 years old.

In January, living as though you were in your final year seemed like a kind of New Year’s resolution, to pay attention and remain mindful of your mortality. Because people can and do live longer now, because we (in the US and the UK and the rest of the developed world) are so good at preventing childhood diseases and curing those that used to take young lives, it seems reasonable to expect that we’ll make it to our nineties, anyway. So living in awareness of our mortality takes concentration, focus. Or it did. Before 2016.

Nothing is guaranteed. After a year in which the Cubs won the world series, Leicester won the Premier League, Donald Trump was elected president, and Britain voted to leave the EU; after the deaths of so many people we considered too young to die, we ought to expect the unexpected, the unthinkable.

Something tells me that living 2017 in the persistent awareness of the shadow of death will be more difficult not to do.

 

 

Advertisements

The rubber meets the road

Some days are like that: the sense of the unfairness of the world is overwhelming. I have been following the story of a former student. She's 29. She's a Methodist minister. She is married and has two little girls. She has Stage IV renal cell cancer. Look it up.
 
Doesn't seem fair, does it? I teach theology. Every year, I know which lecture is going to be the hardest. It's the one in which, however the topic is named, we deal with the 'Why?' question. Why do bad things happen to people who don't deserve it? Why does God allow people to suffer? Why? It is the hardest lecture because there are no easy answers. I gave that lecture to this young woman. And however difficult it is to talk about it in a classroom, it is inconceivably more difficult to wrestle with the question when you meet it on the street. There, it lies in wait. It ambushes you. It knocks you down and stands over you, daring you to get up again. It seems–however well you might have coped with it in front of the whiteboard–stronger than you are. You can't answer it.
 
I am amazed, again, by the faith of my students. In the months I have followed her diagnosis and treatment, I have seen an incredible strength and courage, and a refusal to let the 'Why?' question get the upper hand. I often say that my students have the difficult job–to go out, to be the face of Christ in ministry. I teach, and I love teaching; when my students leave the classroom, most of them go out into a world that doesn't know how deeply it needs healing. And when people do seek God, they don't come looking to me. They look to them. I am conscious of this responsibility, and it is humbling. More humbling still, though, is knowing that whatever I have to give pales in comparison to the faith, hope, and love that are the real gifts that the minister requires. All I can do is point to the source, and hope I have gestured accurately and clearly, that I have helped and not hindered the process that began long before students walk into my classroom. Not surprisingly, I pray for my students, all of them, because I know that everything I say and do is useless without the grace of God, without the Spirit of God being poured out into their hearts.
 
And their faith is nothing to do with me–the testimony of so many, especially my cancer-fighting former student. I taught her years ago; now she's teaching me. Next time I give that lecture, I will have her in my heart. I will be more humble in my approach. I will say, 'It's a mystery' with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. But I will also say it in hope, in faith, and with love, because the mystery of the unfairness of the world is the same as the mystery of love that redeems the world. Her faith reminds me of that, reminds me that in the face of the question on the ground, faith still flourishes.
 
Amazing.
 
 

all quiet

Some days are like that. All quiet except for the sound of the rain, then hail, then rain again on the skylights. Sometimes it’s a happy quiet. Today, not so much. I’ve been thinking about tragedy. Not Greek tragedy or Shakespeare, but disaster and loss. Because the ethics essays are in, and two of them are about abortion, I have been thinking about that, too. It’s all of a piece, really: tragedy. When things go awry, terribly awry, and things fall apart.

My position on abortion has always been the same: it’s not for me. Beyond that, it’s complicated. It’s complicated because my reasons for not having an abortion are not universal ethical principles. Yes, I do think that the growing baby in my womb (no, not now!) is a baby, whether it’s a baby at the embryonic stage or further along. That’s not a universally acknowledged truth. It is a narrative: it is the story that I tell to describe what is happening. I wouldn’t terminate a pregnancy not because I think an embryo or fetus has ‘rights’. (Does the embryo have the same claim on my care as my four children? On what grounds could I decide?) Rather, I wouldn’t terminate a pregnancy because I take life as it comes. I look for remaking, not un-doing. Pregnancy happens. Ok, now what? I look forward. My story changes. A new character appears.

The ball is in my court. How do I play it? In my story, just passing it back, or grounding it (to switch to an American football metaphor) isn’t an option. I have to be creative, flexible, discerning and focused, to be generous, and move the ball forward.

I have to improvise. There’s no script, just my sense of the movement of the plot. This isn’t what I planned. Not at all. But life happens to us when we’re making plans, right? This life.

I appreciate that not everyone lives life in the same way. Pregnancies disrupt our routines–and not just the timetable, but the rhythms of our lives. Bad things happen. Rape happens. Domestic violence happens. What then?

That’s when it gets complicated. My story doesn’t involve either of those tragedies. It does involve a child with trisomy-21, one wanted but extremely badly timed pregnancy and one truly unwelcome, shock-to-the-system, life-altering, body-damaging pregnancy. A pregnancy so disruptive to my whole world that I thought maybe it would have been better if I had lied about the test being positive and quietly terminated the pregnancy. Why didn’t I?

Because that’s just not the way I play it. I improvised. And I came up with a sheared pelvis and the costs of daycare and a horrible 18 months of depression and sleep deprivation…as well as an absolutely delightful little girl.

My story has changed.

I realize that not every story has a happy ending. Miscarriage, infant deaths, children dying of cancer and all the trauma and tragedy in the world remind me of that constantly. We can’t undo it. I read the tragic stories through tears. I pray for the parents and the children–those I know, and many, many more I don’t know. I only know a very tiny corner of that grief, but I know a little bit about everything falling apart. I know that space and time and grace and healing are oh, so necessary and sometimes so impossible to seek, or even to receive. I pray for strength to remake, to mold something new out of the shards and the tears. I pray for hope to hold together the hearts of the survivors, the life-bearers.