by Berry Friesen (July 14, 2016)
“This life is a thump-ripe melon—so sweet and such a mess.”
Greg Brown, “Rexroth’s Daughter,” Covenant (Red House Records, 2000)
Greg Brown’s pithy bit of wisdom comes to mind often these days. I’m struggling to get my head around the reality of stage-IV kidney cancer and his metaphor fits my need.
Brown’s Covenant album has been playing in our house for many years and I’ve long been aware of the aptness of his description. The “mess” seems to show up unbidden, without much effort on my part. I guess the “sweetness” does too, but my awareness of it is easily eclipsed by my tendency to be preoccupied by the “mess.”
Still, when I’m alert, the sweetness is in plain sight. Just yesterday, rain fell steadily on a landscape sparkling in the sun’s light. Two friends stopped by my house to cheer me up and engage in conversation about life. Both my daughters called with stories from their busy days.
Treatment of stage-IV cancer brings to mind another metaphor: kicking the can down the road. In this morning’s chemotherapy session, the nurse told me cancer is an umbrella term that covers a thousand different pathological mutations. Until the day when we have a thousand targeted therapies, treatment entails lots of guessing. Sometimes a well-placed kick sends the can far up the road; other kicks move it only few yards or miss the can completely.
Whether it’s hit or miss, the can remains well within sight. This is what makes this experience decisively different from life as I’ve known it previously.
I find myself thinking of Jesus these days too. Gospel writers report he healed many people of their diseases. Once Jesus apparently needed some convincing (see the story of the Syrian-Phoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30), but typically Jesus healed simply because it is what he did. Great crowds of people gathered around him, “bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet and he cured them” (Matthew 15:30). Special pleading was not required.
Important as this insight is to me as I say my prayers, it can’t be separated from the fact that every last one of the people Jesus healed subsequently died. Every last one, even Lazarus!
So I am not immortal; my existence as a differentiated being had a beginning and will have an end. As one writer put it, “It is [YHWH] alone who has immortality” (1 Timothy 6:16). YHWH may remember me forever (Psalm 112:6), but even if that is the case, it does not make me immortal.
We all have some awareness of this, I think, no matter the stage of life. At the moment, my particular problem is that the “end” has a name, an identity, a timetable and a method of proceeding toward its goal, which is to end this sweetness we call life.
But back to this fact of mortality, the reality that causes me such sadness these days. It is relevant as well to other beings whose existence is far less fleeting than yours or mine because of resources and capacities beyond what we can imagine. I’m specifically thinking of the empire, which is the core of what we discuss here at this website, even when the topic is very personal.
In If Not Empire, What? John K. Stoner and I address the mortality of the empire in conjunction with our brief discussion of the story of Babel, its tower reaching up into the heavens and YHWH’s scattering of the builders “over the face of all the earth” (Genesis 11:9).
“The anti-imperial message of the story is clear,” we say. “YHWH will prevent evil—which is always present and frequently in charge—from becoming permanently entrenched.” Thus, the story tells us, YHWH’s scattering of the people was a compassionate act of mercy saving Earth from the utter destruction the empire otherwise would surely have caused.
For this kind of mortality, I am exceedingly glad!
I know, it’s a far stretch from my life to the life of the empire. You may find it such a stretch as to be absurd to place the two together in one sentence. And yes, it is nigh-to-impossible to conceive of our own mortality as “a compassionate act of mercy.” Yet within this sweetness called life—living in the place YHWH calls home and does his/her eternal work—mortality binds together all of us: nature, human beings, principalities and powers.
Can we really say we wish it otherwise?