Monday, March 1, 2010

“. . . Until an Opportune Time”

By Eric Von Salzen

Today is my birthday. No, I’m not hinting for cards or presents. I’ve been thinking. Today I’m 67. In 1976, my father died, a few days short of his 67th birthday. I’m now having the birthday my father didn’t get to have.

At the time, I thought that my father’s death was awfully premature. I didn’t, though, realize then how very young 67 is. I do now. Sixty-seven is no age at all. If it weren’t for Social Security and my AARP card, I wouldn’t even call myself a senior citizen, much less “elderly”. I feel like a youngster of 50. Most of the time anyway.

So did my father, until the brain tumor. So, as I said, I’ve been thinking.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about is cancer. I hate cancer. Cancer killed my father. Cancer killed my best friend from prep school when he was barely 50. Cancer killed other friends in their 50’s and 60’s. When I was 15 I had a friend at YMCA summer camp; he didn’t come back the next summer; he’d died of leukemia. Most of the people I know who died prematurely died from cancer.

Of course, one of the reasons for that is that science has defeated so many other diseases that in earlier times would have killed us before cancer got to us. My father, for example, came back from Ethiopia, where he’d been a medical missionary for six months, with tuberculosis. He hadn’t contracted the disease there, though; it turns out he’d had a latent case of TB since his youth, and it became active when he got rundown and exhausted in Ethiopia. Dad thought it was interesting to contemplate that if that disease he’d been carrying had become active years earlier, before the antibiotics to treat it were developed after WW II, it would likely have killed him. As it was, a course of drugs and a couple of months in a sanatorium, and he was cured. Until the cancer got him five years later.

I hate cancer. There’s no excuse for it. I don’t understand why God created it. Of course I know that earthly life is not supposed to be perfect. That’s what makes it earthly. If it were perfect it would be Heaven. I accept that in this world we must bear mosquitoes and hurricanes and Rosie O’Donnell and other greater and lesser tribulations, but isn’t that enough? Must there also be cancer?

The other thing I’ve been thinking about is eternal life. That’s the great promise of Christianity. It’s only natural that we would think about it more as the span of earthly life ahead of us grows shorter. But what does it mean, this “eternal life”?

If you listen to some “liberal” Christians (I hate using political terminology for a religious category, but what can you do?), the Christian promise of eternal life means a fuller and richer life while we’re here on earth, not something we get later after we die. That’s what the Unitarian minister said she believed in the discussion with Christopher Hitchens that I wrote about in “. . . A Knife to a Gunfight.” Well, there’s surely some truth in that. I know that Christianity has made my own life better, and happier, and more fulfilled than it was before. But I don’t think that’s all there is to it.

Certainly that’s not what the first Christians believed. They didn’t risk life and limb, endure imprisonment, torture, and death, to obtain a richer and more fulfilled life here on earth. I can’t imagine Peter, dying crucified upside down, saying to himself that it was the rich experiences of his earthly life that made it all worthwhile. The first Christians, the ones who actually heard Jesus, thought that when he spoke of eternal life he meant something beyond this earthly life, something after and greater. They thought that when he said “eternal life” he meant, well, eternal life.

The other side of the coin is the idea that life here on earth really doesn’t matter, except as a pathway to Heaven. I remember that on a television show about Heaven some years ago, one of the talking heads, a Roman Catholic priest, said that the entire purpose of life here on earth is to get into Heaven when we die. Well, in a way that’s just common sense. As the old saying goes, life’s short, and you’re a long time dead. If you have to balance the importance of your three score years and ten (or four score and seven years, or whatever modern medicine gives you) of life on earth against eternity, then it’s just logical that where you’re going to spend eternity is the most important issue.

The problem is, while we’re living life here on earth it seems pretty important. What happens later seems remote, no matter how important logic tells us that it is. And that perhaps is why Jesus took the time in his ministry to tell us how to have a richer, fuller life while we are here on earth. Doesn’t the Sermon on the Mount, at least in part, tell us about how to live a good life on earth? Isn’t that what the Parable of the Good Samaritan is about? If the only thing that counts is getting into Heaven when we die, why shouldn’t the Samaritan leave the traveler to die in the ditch, as the priest and the Levite did, and let him go to Heaven sooner rather than later? Is the only reason why we should resist casting the first stone, and should forgive those who trespass against us, and so forth that that’s how we get into Heaven? Aren’t these ways of living better on earth?

Perhaps I’ve created a false dichotomy when I contrast the opinions of the “liberal” minister and the conservative priest. Perhaps the way that we’re told will get us into Heaven is often the way that will also get us a better life here on earth. Not always, of course. If we’re called to be saints or martyrs, well then “rich full life” (in the conventional sense) may not be on the menu. Then the promise of eternal life has got to get us through.

And even for those of us who are not called to be saints or martyrs, the promise of eternal life is part of what can make our life here on earth as full and rich as possible. Life at its best nevertheless includes its disappointments, its tragedies, its pains, its losses. I’m not sure that age brings wisdom, but it does provide perspective. There comes a time when you realize that there are dreams that will not be fulfilled, that the crest of the hill is behind you, that dusk is falling. The promise of eternal life perhaps begins to shine more brightly then.

Imagine life as a night at the opera. If you don’t care for opera, then just imagine any opera. If you love opera, then imagine your least-favorite opera, sung by uninspired singers, with a mediocre orchestra. It isn’t a completely wasted evening. Even poor singers may perform a particular song well. The costumes may be colorful. The sets may be imaginative. But it does drag on.

Now suppose that after the opera is over, you know that you will be joining good friends, or a loved one, for a feast, with your favorite foods and libations; you will be able to share with them what was good, and what was disappointing, about the opera. Don’t you think that this knowledge would make it easier to bear the soprano who can’t quite reach the high notes? Wouldn’t this make you more likely to appreciate the rich-voiced basso in the small role?

Or suppose on the other hand that you have nothing to look forward to after the opera. Wouldn’t that make it even harder to bear?

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been thinking about.


  1. Eric, great post. Congrats on your 67th. This post makes a great campanion to Buechner's great book, "The Sacred Journey", which I try to read about every other year. If you haven't read it, put it at the top of your list. This post also reminded of Annie Dillard's view of "life as gift". Great stuff.

  2. Happy birthday! I hate cancer too. My dad died of it in 1987 at the age of 61. I was only 17 at the time. I had a very hard time with his death -- I was alienated from God for many, many years because of it. Like you, I just couldn't understand why God would allow or create something like that. Of course, many years and much prayer later, I began to realize that God didn't create cancer -- it is a product of the fallen world in which we live, a world that is not as God originally ordered it. And that God's solution to that broken world is not to magically make it better, but to enter into its suffering, into our suffering, through His Son, Jesus Christ, who unjustly suffered and died so that all who have faith in Him might live in Spirit and truth, both now and for eternity.

    But, I have to say, whenever I think about my dad and his suffering, it still hurts. And that's every day...

    God's peace to you.

  3. Thanks for sharing that Mark, and God bless you. The hurting doesn't stop. Neither does the love.

  4. No, it would make me want to get up and go somewhere else less annoying.
    I hate opera and wouldn't go if you paid me.