One of the hardest parts of my work, one of the greatest privileges I am afforded, are the conversations I have with persons who are aware that their death immanent. Facing one’s own death with that kind of clarity can lead to some very powerful insights and revelations. If you watch movies or television you have likely heard some of these conversations. With family members and close friends these conversations are highly personal and highly emotional. With persons like Ministers, Doctors, social workers, the conversation is more philosophical, more big-picture, more existential. When people ask me about these conversations they tend to assume the topic is either “Why me?” or “Why did I spend so much time at work when I could have been deepening my relationships with loved ones?”
I can only speak for my experiences with dying people but the most common thread I experience in these intense moments is a variant of “Why is life so unfair?” Here people are not just thinking of themselves, thus it is not the same as “Why me?” It’s the man who wonders about the fairness of a son dying in his 30’s or the woman who travels and is haunted by the beggars she sees when she leaves the resorts. Part of it, talking to a Minister, is about where God is in these matters, why is a good God so absent when bad things happen to good people? But part of it is also the ache of discontent that life has not been fair, that everything we were told since birth, that if we “worked hard and played by the rules we would be happy and content” turned out to be a falsehood. Good people sometimes die young, good people are often forced to live through hard challenges, and people indifferent to the rules of fairness seem to live long and prosper. The dying person, with some time on their hands to reflect about the totality of their life, all life, wants to know why life is so unfair.
There are a variety of answers and responses to this question. Some who sit with the dying can’t wait to share “their” answer to that question. This kind of approach can be helpful but only when the dying person asks. I only share my own answer if asked, otherwise I share the variety of answers I have heard in my lifetime and invite the dying person to explore each one. Telling someone what to think is rarely as productive as you might imagine. Dying people are usually looking for a conversation, not a lecture.
Since humanity emerged from the Earth we have been drawn to the frequency of fairness. The Bible and most of the other great sacred texts of religious people have been grounded in the concept of fairness. But we in the western world have a particular passion for fairness. Our democratic institutions and our capitalist system require an attention to fairness. So you and I have been told since our memories began to hold information that the most important things in life revolve around fairness. And for most of us that fairness translates into what I would call “reciprocity”. You do X and you expect X in return. We are fixated on this, and we can measure all of our efforts and know what we have received in return, whether that be wages, affirmation or honours.
The early church was keenly aware of fairness. And for them the Divine needed to be fair, landowners should be fair, households should be fair. But Jesus had other ideas. When discussing invitations to parties Jesus explicitly states that the host ought specifically to invite people who had done nothing for you. Why? Because if it is understood that the only reason you have a seat at the table is that you invited the host to the table life becomes an entirely transactional experiences. How cold! Our God has other ideas. The book of Genesis is less a science text and more an existential text. The narrative of our God is not “you get what you deserve” but rather “all of life belongs to God and God shares life with us as a gift.”
Professor Karoline Lewis at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minn offers some most interesting insight to this text. “What is at the heart of God? What will you see looking into God’s very soul? Well, at least according to this parable, you will see generousity. Sheer generosity. And, according to this parable, we may not like what we see. Unexplainable, unfathomable, generousity? For no reason at all? No way we can get our heads around that. Why? What’s so hard? I think we have a fundamental discomfort with, even a suspicion of, generousity. Here’s the rub of this parable. That generousity is not something to be understood. And that we have an inherent resistance in receiving generosity. Because our human nature is then to anticipate a quid pro quo situation; to assume that we did something to deserve this generousity. We don’t even know how to respond to true generousity. Really? Me? Why? For no reason? Are you sure? What did I do? What can I do? So we relegate generousity to fairness.”
To return to my conversations with the dying the one common thread those who have found peace of mind share with me is “Life is a gift”. Standing somewhat apart from fairness they ponder the richness that is life and the beauty they have seen and felt. The pain, the ugliness, the suffering, that is there too. But when life is a gift you don’t need to sit with pen and paper and make two columns of good and bad and try to make them balance. When we understand that God gives us life as a gift we understand that it is not for what we did, said or accomplished. When life is given for no reason other than love it can release us from the expectation that we deserve more or less.
Now that does not mean we ought to stop working for a world that has more fairness and more justice. Everyone should have the opportunity to experience life as a gift, to celebrate their gift with joy and meaning. But when life is coming to an end we need to release ourselves from the time-consuming and soul-crushing impulse to measure fairness like it is the definition of our lives.
Please look no further than our own Glen and Carol Knapp. Both live with disabilities, when I visited with them they shared that their respective challenges are dealt with by “leaning on each other”, Glen with his polio and Carol in her walker. Neither is focused on the fairness of their setbacks, rather they see life as a gift and delight in all the relationships, work and mission that come to their day. Not all days are good ones for either of them and they are honest about that. But the satisfaction of their day, or their lives, does not come with a tally of fairness, it comes with the acceptance of receiving a gift and making the most of it.
My friends this gift of life is ours. It is fragile, often painful and never easy to sort out, but this life is a gift. Let’s help others to enjoy their gift but let’s also take the time to rejoice in the unconditional love we have been given by our God. Thank you God for this amazing, free and unearned gift. Amen.