Forrest Church’s voice rings in my head today. I finished his memoir last night, and many of his themes are ones deeply embedded in my own life. His 2008 book, Love & Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow, published by Beacon Press, focuses on the two big ideas of the title, especially as they have crescendoed in the last three years– since the Fall of 2006 when he received the diagnosis of esophageal cancer.
Forrest Church is former Idaho Senator Frank Church’s son. He chose ministry over politics in order to become his own person. Church begins the book by telling us that love and death have been the subjects of almost all his sermons at All Souls Unitarian Church–even before he got cancer. When he was 19, his closest friend at Stanford died, leaving him bereft and changed forever. This death taught him that “We cannot protect love from death. But by giving away our hearts, we can protect our lives from the death of love.”
When the doctor gave Church his recent cancer diagnosis, what surprised him most was the immediate acceptance he felt facing death. He had no unfinished business. I hope you can listen and watch him on a Religion and Ethics Newsweekly broadcast last October as he talks to Bob Abernethy about both his own acceptance and his wife and family’s rejection of that acceptance.
Church’s themes are repeated in this book many times. They illustrate the genius of simplicity, the kind that lies on the far side of complexity, and his approaching death seems to have boiled down even that simplicity into the most exquisite sauce. Like a fine chef’s reduction, each chapter of this book returns to what Church calls his mantra:
- love what we have
- do what we can
- be who we are
Church is a Christian Universalist and therefore uses the life and teachings of Jesus as a framework for his theology. As a Mennonite, I appreciate this emphasis, which helps me to see the universal truths of my own tradition.
Forrest Church has come into my own life through an interesting set of “coincidences.”
- Our family spent Christmas eve of 2007 in New York and chose to attend the All Souls Christmas Eve Service before any of us had we ever heard of Forrest Church. We heard him give the now-famous closing prayer (read it here) of the service, which is included in this memoir as the last chapter.
- Our son Anthony was with us and also heard the prayer.
- A few weeks later, he was searching on Match.com and noticed a young woman who was an active member of All Souls
- On Sept. 12 of this year, almost two years later, he and Chelsea will marry–at All Souls
- I ordered Church’s memoir because of Chelsea’s admiration of her minister and my appreciation for her as we welcome her into our family
None of us, including Forrest Church, know the time when death will come. But all of us can learn from him how to prepare–by loving what we have, doing what we can, and being who we are. Only the love we gave away will remain behind. The motto on the wall of my childhood farmhouse home said it in a more Mennonite way: “Only one life, ’twill soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.”
Next Sunday, May 31, 2009, I hope to hear Forrest Church deliver the sermon at All Souls, something he has not done in a long time. Anthony and Chelsea will be celebrating their engagement that weekend with friends and family and have invited all of us to attend church with them. Our daughter Kate and her own fiance’ Nik will be there also. Love has already enveloped us this year, and for that we can only respond with gratitude. What better place to do that than church?
Chelsea tells us we will need to arrive early in order to be sure to have a seat. Apparently, love attracts a crowd.
Forrest Church does not know that his story has woven itself into a Mennonite family from the midwest. But he already knows that love is the greatest force in the universe. He has lived this truth all his life–and, having looked into the jaws of death–is living it even more!