Where, O death, is your victory?

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“In Christ, there is no hope without pain, no dignity without humiliation, no salvation without death. God knows what we go through.” Photo: Laura VN/Shutterstock

During my youth in Florida, I used a cynical but common nickname for the place: God’s waiting room. So many people from around the world retire to the U.S. state, Canadians among them, that it’s difficult not to pick up an understanding of gerontology by osmosis. Aging, sickness and death—while a part of life everywhere—are year-round residents of the Sunshine State. A favourite joke from when I was 20 or so: “All my friends are dead.” There was some measure of truth to it. As a young person in Florida, I had outlived friends in their 70s and 80s.

I wasn’t planning a trip to my home state this September, but in the early-morning hours of Sept. 16, I found myself on a southbound flight—tickets purchased the night before. It was on this flight to Florida, where a family member’s serious illness had summoned me, that I began my editorial letter for this issue. Our serendipitous theme for November: health and wellness.

Given my background, I’ve never felt estranged from aging, ill health or death. Yet familiarity bred more contempt within me than comfort; I have long feared the prospects of my own decline and disappearance from earthly existence. I remember a particularly fraught night, perhaps when I was five or six, when I stared into the darkness of my bedroom and realized that sooner, rather than later, my grandparents would inevitably die. That understanding spread like a fire in my mind, igniting a fear of what was to come for my grandparents, my parents and, ultimately, me. Time is but a thin partition between the present moment and the inevitable.

This fear has persisted in my life, even after my baptism and entrance into the faith. I believe many people fear the end of life, though I know not everyone shares my apprehension of oblivion. The pain and vulnerability associated with dying might encourage some people to suppress thoughts on their mortality. Still more may find the uncertainty of death—its time and cause—difficult to manage, or they may preoccupy themselves with the notion of unfinished business. No one likes the idea of leaving loved ones behind. For my partner, the prospect of lying indefinitely under flickering fluorescent lights, lacking control over unpleasant environmental aesthetics, is unpalatable.

Such phobias are rooted in perceptions of death, pain and aging that are neither biblical nor realistic. I believe postmodern culture posits the following: Health allows us to achieve our life’s work and goals, a key to happiness. Pain halts us in our journeys. Death is the sad end of that journey and, therefore, could be described as the absence of health: it’s the thing that happens when our well-being has been permanently extinguished. It also puts our plans to pasture and disconnects us from those we love.

What follows from these propositions, at least for me, is a sort of endless experimentation with life, a manipulation of variables that seem inside of our sphere of influence—even when outcomes are far beyond our control. One of my favourite and most faithless ways to plan my endless life has been through dietary alterations—a topic and relatively widespread obsession about which the Rev. Martha Tatarnic writes in this issue. What foods might reduce inflammation? How can I never get cancer? What are ways to prevent or reverse heart disease? What foods fight age spots? Is it gluten-free? Is it vegan? Is it paleo? Is it free-range? Is it low-fat? Is it keto? Can I eat this while fasting? Is it genetically modified? Are there chemicals? Are they bad for me? Or, as the elders in the 1985 movie Cocoon wonder, How can I never get sick, never get old and never die? The questions are as anxious as they are endless.

If this all sounds neurotic, it is—but I’m hardly alone in my neurosis, which isn’t limited to food. Of course, these concerns aren’t without basis. I want to feel good, and I want to live long. There’s nothing wrong with that—just as there’s nothing wrong with fighting for life under desperate circumstances. I know people who have overcome tremendous odds on death’s doorstep. New treatments come along, misdiagnoses are corrected or spontaneous remission occurs. Miracles happen.

But I have also seen friends and family make choices that confound the mind and cleave the spirit, all in the hope of avoiding pain or death. Especially difficult to watch have been those who choose to prolong their lives in the face of undeniably terminal illness, sometimes bringing upon themselves a suffering akin to torture. The most painful example from my memory was someone who sought radical, punishing treatments for end-stage, untreatable cancer—a mature person of faith whose suffering was lived out publicly. My heart breaks every time I think about it.

On the other side of the street, expanding access to medically assisted dying—especially to those who live with unmanageable disabilities or who face a long, slow decline to death—also stirs my emotions. That both responses to suffering coexist baffles me. How can some so reject death that they embrace needless and futile suffering, while others so reject suffering that they embrace death?

Scripture reminds us that our bodies and beings are merely on lease from God—and that lease comes with an expiration date and lots of fine print. As soon as Christians forget this—when we view health as a means to an end, something to manipulate in order to avoid death or pain—I think we risk handing victory back to death. Christian hope begins at the suffering, death and resurrection of the Son of God for our sake, and it lives in his promise of an eternal life not beholden to human invention and intervention. In Christ, there is no hope without pain, no dignity without humiliation, no salvation without death. God knows what we go through.

Christians, including Anglicans, are poised to own and operate this way of life— offering an alternative to society’s dogmatic, limited views on pain and death. As I look to Christ, I feel called to a life founded upon two disciplines that pull me away from my self-centred fears and towards true health. The first task is to go and sin no more. The second is to offer the least of God’s people the most I can, to love my neighbour as I love God and myself. I believe Christian life, Christian health and Christian death rest in these two places. When I live there, I can make reasonably informed choices about my health through the lenses of redemption and loving service.

Of course, I struggle with this. I often fail. But this I am learning, day by day: that incomplete adherence to these commandments turns me away from anything that resembles well-being. When stuck in sin and serving others, I offer them a way of life that I am not following. When freeing myself of sin and ignoring others, I obsess over my circumstances at the expense of those around me. In either case, my fear returns and I forget Jesus. A lust for control re-enters my heart, crowding out love of the Spirit. Then I forget God’s most precious promise, one that stretches beyond death: that whoever believes in God shall not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16).

In this promise I believe we find a true form of health in which body, mind and spirit are free to flourish in the wink of this life and in the long life to come. At least, that’s my hope.

Editorial note: The supervisor, editorial, extends special thanks to the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd of Lake Wales, Florida, and its rector, the Rev. Tim Nunez, for the kindness and hospitality offered during his recent visit to Florida.

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Matthew Townsend
Matthew Townsend has worked in editorial, journalistic, and web development roles with a variety of organizations, including the The Living Church, the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester, NY, and the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida. He is a member of Episcopal Communicators and has consulted with a variety of ecumenical organizations, including Atlantic School of Theology, the Presbyterian Endowment Network, and the Associated Church Press.

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