Based on excerpts, adapted with permission, from Love and Death: My Journey through the Valley of the Shadow by Forrest Church (Beacon Press, 2008).
Reverend Forrest Church is a minister of a very large Unitarian Universalist church in New York City. Rev. Church has cancer. The cancer is serious and cannot be cured. Rev. Church knows it will take his life.
Rev. Church is sad that his life will end before he can finish doing all he wants to do and before he can meet the grandchildren he expects will be born some day. But he is not afraid of dying. He is comfortable with the fact that his turn has come, and he must soon say goodbye.
When he learned he had cancer, Reverend Church wrote a book about what was happening. The title is Love and Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow. The title refers to a verse in Hebrew scripture known as the 23rd Psalm. The verse talks about walking "through the valley of the shadow of death."
In his book, Rev. Church has a lot to say about death to his family, to friends, to members of his congregation, to anybody else who reads the book and to you. Death is sad, he says, especially for the people who are left behind. However, death is not scary. Death is the natural end of life.
We know all of us will die, and because we know that, we have religion. Religion helps us think about big questions, like "What will happen when I die?" "Where did I come from?" "Does God exist?" and "What is life's purpose?"
We do not know what will happen when we die. That is a mystery. Maybe there is a heaven. If there is a heaven, it might have angels, harps and puffy clouds... or, it might not. In any case, Rev. Church believes, people who die will all know peace.
God is a mystery, too, a mysterious connecting force that makes everything one, a force you can call "Divine" or "Holy" or whatever you want. God is the name many people use for the highest power we know, but God is not a "puppet master" pulling strings and deciding just who dies when.
Knowing that we will die, what should we do? We should live, we should laugh, and we should love, says Rev. Church.
The minister writes that he learned something about living from his own children. One day, when they were young, he was walking them to school. On a busy New York City street, a car swerved around a corner and almost killed them all. Forrest Church was angry. But, he remembers, "my kids just laughed, romping blithely down the sidewalk, jumping from tree to tree as they always did, trying to touch the leaves." The kids were celebrating the joy of life, and they "had the right idea. Why didn't I think to jump and touch the leaves?"
Laughing, really living, and loving all require more courage than dying does. Dying comes naturally, yet we have to work at laughing, really living, and loving. To love is especially difficult, because we may lose what we love. But love is super important, important enough to use along with "death" in a book title. Why? Because love survives us when we die. Love is the one thing death cannot take away. Our love goes on and on and on after we die. That much we do know about what happens at death.
What does "really living" mean? How should we live? In three special ways, according to Reverend Church. These three ways are his "mantra," he tells us. A mantra is something a person says over and over again in order to remember and do what the mantra says. This is Forrest Church's mantra: "Want what you have. Do what you can. Be who you are."
Think about those three things. Does doing them sound easy? It is not. Try to want what you have. Try to do what you can. Try to be who you are. You will see it is difficult. You will also find it is very worthwhile.
Rev. Church, who knows he will die soon, says:
We should laugh, really live, and love. We should want what we have, do what we can, and be who we are.
Forrest Church and his book may help other people—maybe you, maybe me—to accept those challenges of life. That is one way Rev. Church's love will live on after he dies.