there will be great earthquakes, and in various
places famines and plagues; and there will be
dreadful portents and great signs from heaven….
But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.
-Luke 21: 11;18-19
Until I met Br. John-Henry I had no idea that the Episcopal Church has “friars” or what friars do except follow Robin Hood around. Even after Br. John-Henry took me out for coffee and explained I still think they’re like fairytale characters. After all, just like a Fairy Godmother except in a cassock, one rainy, Sunday morning a couple of years ago John Henry just appeared at the 9am service with his husband Dean and “puff!”: a Pastoral Care Committee was formed, Wednesday Morning Prayer services began and Dean started welcoming people on Sunday mornings with the widest smile and kindest face you’d ever want to find waiting for you at a church door.
But it turns out this isn’t a fairy tale and the friar and his husband are real. This fact was slapped down in front of me last November when I was tooling around a store with my visiting mother talking about chocolate cream pies. John-Henry called fresh from Dean’s doctor’s appointment and said “He has metastatic cancer. The prognosis is about three months.”
The Pastoral Care Committee John-Henry had created for others sprang into action for them. I know Jane Jackson still gets up at 4am and prays for Dean every morning and if you don’t believe that you don’t know Jane Jackson. Dean began treatment but you wouldn’t guess anything was wrong because he stays home when he feels sick and looks fantastic the rest of the time. Three months passed, then six, then a year and then yesterday, almost a week to the day I got another call from John-Henry fresh from another doctor’s appointment.
“The doctor says the cancer has spread significantly. Any treatments they can give now will just make Dean sicker and chances that he will live another six months are at about ten percent.”
Are Dean and John-Henry devastated all over again? Of course. Are they scared and overwhelmed? Completely. Are they lost? No. As a matter of fact I don’t think I’ve ever spoken with two people who know so completely where they are.
After decades of having a professional identity as “The Fixer”, Dean is ready to put down his career like you close up an umbrella after rain because work doesn’t define him anymore. What does? His love for his husband, his family and his church. Even after years of planning to retire in Spain, he and John-Henry are not bitter at letting that plan go. Dean told me yesterday that over the last year, on the days when he’s been unable to do much more than sit on the couch, he has grown to love watching the clouds and giving his undivided attention to something most of us don’t pay much mind to: this moment. Right now.
As for John-Henry, for months he’s been using the word “surrender” to describe what God has been asking from him. At first surrendering sounded to me like waving a white flag and coming out of a foxhole and maybe it is, but instead of surrendering to an enemy for him it means surrendering to Love.
During Advent many of the lessons we read at church are filled with a prognosis of truth and terror. The world is out of whack. We’re headed for a cliff, pumping the breaks won’t work and we have so much unfinished business, so many amends to make. These texts confront us with the reality that we’ve only ever had now and the choice to love each other, ourselves, our enemy and the broken world or not. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. What can we do?
Stop running, stay awake and surrender. This is where real life can be found, short or long. This is what being “alive” really is.