After a sumptuous meal provided by chef Joyce Ann Walker and her team, twenty or so participants gather in the church library. The portrait of the revered Dr. Houghton overlooks the scene with a protective gaze. The Lenten study brings us there. We are reading the book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande. Dr. Gawande is a surgeon with a particular interest in gerontology. For him, as for all good doctors (like the ones in our congregation), the patient is also a person. His book is the near-perfect platform for the season of Lent. That annual period begins with Ash Wednesday, which involves ashes being imposed on faithful foreheads, while the words, “Remember O Woman, O Man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return” are intoned. Observing 40 days of fasting and otherwise preparing to focus on the passion of Jesus Christ, we do well to study what it means to be mortal. In his suffering under Pontius Pilate, his arrest, trial by the religious leaders, and execution at the hands of the Roman imperialists, Christ, the Lord of the universe, entered mortality once and for all. He became one of us, vulnerable as to his flesh, limited to a certain stretch of time, bound to a particular corridor of space. To paraphrase W.H. Auden, in Christ, the infinite became a finite fact. The eternal Son of God became a temporal act. Because that is the case, humanity is reconciled with God and human beings are offered the chance to be reconciled with one another.
Therefore, to study our mortality is to study Christ’s; to examine Jesus’ mortality is to examine our own. This study is being led by Associate Pastor Tara Reck, who also happens to be a palliative care chaplain at the University of Louisville hospital. She is doing an excellent job. She draws out the people to share their experiences with the old of age, their insight into inevitable frailty, their opinions about the medical-industrial complex. Tara makes sure that all who wish to speak are heard. She’s a rock.
The people who make up this circle are extraordinary as well. Just plain wonderful are they. Some of them have been associated with Anchorage Presbyterian Church for like forever. Others have just started their integration into this community of faith. They all have something to say. Each has his or her unique story to tell. It is such a privilege just to sit with them and
partake of their wisdom.
Then there is the room itself. How many gatherings has this library contained over the years? How many Sunday School classes, Wednesday night study groups, Circles of Presbyterian Women of the Church, committee meetings, and the like, have graced this unique space? Then there are the numerous Boy Scout meetings, retreat sessions from neighboring churches, businesses, and Anchorage Public School, and, more recently, the Alanon meetings that are being held here. The room just makes you feel at home. It is comfortably traditional; tastefully informal, and allows for a widely versatile set of seating options. We are indeed fortunate to have this venerable space at our disposal. Yes, it is our library, but it is also our living room.
Finally, let’s read a few thoughts from the book we are reading together:
"Being mortal is about the struggle to cope with the constraints of our biology, with the limits set by genes and cells and flesh and bone. Medical science has given us remarkable power to push against these limits, and the potential value of this power was a central reason I became a doctor. But again and again, I have seen the damage we in medicine do when we fail to acknowledge that such power is finite and always will be. We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive. Those reasons matter not just at the end of life, or when debility comes, but all along the way. Whenever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?"
Gawande, Atul. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company, 2014, page 259.