His name was Louis. He didn’t do much, outside of work and watch Wheel of Fortune.
He didn’t travel, didn’t sky dive, didn’t march on Washington. He didn’t even like to go to Kroger, if he could get out of it.
Louis came to church pretty regularly, sat on the third row from the back with his wife. I used to nod to him as I processed on Sunday mornings. He’d half-smile, and go back to looking at his bulletin.
He’d declined to serve on the board, thought Sunday School was more than he could handle socially, didn’t stick around for the pot-lucks. Pretty unremarkable guy, really.
It occurs to me, that some people leave big footprints in this life, marking their journey from one milestone to the next. Louis, on the other hand, could have walked on water and never left a dent in the surface, not a ripple.
One day the doctor’s office called, “Mr. Brady, we’ve gotten the reports back on your lab work. The doctor would like to see you. Could you come in this afternoon?”
Nobody wants that call. How do you spend those hours anticipating that appointment? A nightmare come true.
With clammy hands, Louis pulled open the door to the doctor’s office, took a seat in the far corner of the waiting room, and waited for the news he was afraid would come, the news he felt pretty sure would tell him something didn’t want to hear.
When they finally called him back, he shuffled to the exam room, took his seat on the table As he sat on the fresh white paper, it crinkled the way it does, the way that makes you feel just a bit guilty, like you’ve leaked your ink pen on somebody else’s new couch.
Louis gritted his teeth and waited.
The fact that what happened next didn’t offer any surprises (since he’d had a sense of foreboding, which accompanied the fatigue he’d begun to feel in earnest), however, didn’t lessen the shock. It’s bone-chilling to be told you have Leukemia, no matter how it’s done or how nice the person is who’s doing the telling.
When the doctor finished, Louis got up and shuffled back through the front door. What he found, as the door closed behind him, however, was a different world.
Most people, when faced with such a tectonic shift in their lives freeze for a bit. What to do?
Usually, you double down on your existence, you become even more a creature of habit, afraid that any ripple will disrupt the equilibrium you’ve fought for so long and so hard to achieve. Stay in control. Don’t lose your grip. Nothing new. Hang on tight.
But Louis, perhaps for the first time in his otherwise unextraordinary life, zigged when everything in his experience told him to zag.
Something clicked for Louis that I’d never seen before in him … or just about anyone else for that matter. Instead, of Leukemia being a death sentence, Louis somehow found in it permission for the first time in his life finally to live.
Before the treatments began, he planned a trip overseas. Louis had always wanted to see the Appian Way, wanted to walk that ancient road. So, he went.
His parents had never had money to buy him piano lessons as a child, so, he figured, before he lost his strength, he’d take up the piano. The best thing I can say for his playing is that he played loud. The best thing I can say for Louis, however, is that he played.
And as a result of his lessons, he got to be friends with his piano teacher. He and his wife planned a trip down to Key West with the piano teacher and his partner, where Louis learned to enjoy drinks with umbrellas in them and the joy of swimming naked in the ocean.
He quit watching Wheel of Fortune. He laughed more. He got his ear pierced, and joined the gym.
He decided not to let his remaining months slip away. He found more freedom in dying than he’d ever had in living.
I’m at the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Orlando as I write this. Last night, I heard a powerful sermon by my friend, Glen Miles, in which he said something that reminded me of Louis. He said that though the Disciples are a “tiny” denomination we shouldn’t let that fact cause us anxiety, since God always seems to show up among the tiny—the last, the least, the lost, the little, and the dead.
Glenn said that if our denomination is truly dying, we ought to be happy. Resurrection always requires a corpse.
And I thought of Louis. I know it’s possible to find life in the midst of death. I’ve seen it.
I understand why we always say that death is never the last word, because death always seems to be where God is.
I hear the anxiety. I’ve seen the hand-wringing. Disciples are Olympic-caliber fussbudgets.
“We’d better do something quick! If we don’t, we’re going to die. And if we aren’t already on the road to death, then talking about GA-1327 and the ‘gay thing’ will kill us.”
But, how can a people who gather every week around a table that reminds us of the ultimate nature of our commitment, that institutionalizes our embrace of powerlessness, be afraid of death?
How can we Disciples of Christ, who were founded upon the revolutionary claim that our highest desire is “that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large,” have our sphincters clench up at the thought that we might cease to exist?
“Yeah, but are we going to be around in ten years?”
In The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, my forthcoming book, I try to answer precisely that question:
I don’t even think that’s the right way to think about it. If all we’ve got is ten years, then let’s use the time to do things that are so radical, so amazingly unthinkable that after ten years we’ll all be either so energized that we want to sign up for another tour, or so exhausted that we’ll all keel over and won’t have to worry about it anymore anyway.
Here’s the thing: “We’re followers of Jesus; death is what we do best.”
It strikes me, and I think Louis would back me up on this, that it’s time we start living like it.