By Bill Lewellis
[This, or an edited version because it is significantly longer than I usually send, will be published in The Morning Call on Saturday, May 21.]
I admire intelligence, insight, wit and wisdom. I know them when I see them. That may explain why I do not admire those who claim to have deciphered scripture to predict the end of the world.
Despite his 1994 "miscalculation," 89-year-old evangelist Harold Camping of Family Radio has touted for at least three years that the beginning of the end will happen today (May 21). At 6:00 p.m., two percent of the earth's population will be "raptured" to meet Jesus, while the rest of us experience five months of torment before the final end.
If you enjoy non-contextual play with scripture, read a Dan Brown novel. It's at least entertaining.
Never having listened to Family Radio, I don't know whether Camping has ever encouraged listeners to put an end to poverty, war, or the marginalization in many churches of gays and lesbians. Betting man that I am, however, I'd lay odds that he has not.
I don't mean to ridicule people who have given some credence (and money) to Camping. I'm simply saying, "Shame on you, Harold Camping."
On the other hand, I have admired the intelligence, insight, wit and wisdom of Christopher Hitchens. Because he is arguably today's best known atheist, I wonder about wisdom –– but that's not fair.
Upon reading the following, how can one not read on, seeking wisdom?
"Like so many of life’s varieties of experience, the novelty of a diagnosis of malignant cancer has a tendency to wear off. The thing begins to pall, even to become banal. One can become quite used to the specter of the eternal Footman, like some lethal old bore lurking in the hallway at the end of the evening, hoping for the chance to have a word. I don’t so much object to his holding my coat in that marked manner, as if mutely reminding me that it’s time to be on my way. No, it’s the snickering that gets me down."
Hitchens, 61, was diagnosed last summer with Stage Four metastasized esophageal cancer. "The thing about Stage Four," he quipped, "is that there is no such thing as Stage Five."
He recently lost his voice.
"Like health itself, the loss of such a thing can’t be imagined until it occurs ... I wait impatiently for a high dose of protons to be fired into my body at two-thirds the speed of light. What do I hope for? If not a cure, then a remission. And what do I want back? In the most beautiful apposition of two of the simplest words in our language: the freedom of speech."
The oncology bargain is that "in return for at least the chance of a few more useful years, you agree to submit to chemotherapy and then, if you are lucky with that, to radiation or even surgery. So here’s the wager: you stick around for a bit, but in return we are going to need some things from you. These things may include your taste buds, your ability to concentrate, your ability to digest, and the hair on your head."
Hitchens has written three brutally honest columns* on his experience of cancer.
"In whatever kind of a 'race' life may be," he wrote in one, "I have very abruptly become a finalist."
We all became finalists the day we were born. Only when we approach the deadline of mortality, however, might we become intentional about the undiscovered country of death, whatever lies beyond. There is some shortsightedness in most of us about the deadline of mortality. I know indications of mine.
Hitchens knows cancer, aggressive treatments, and the snickering of the eternal Footman.
He does not know religion. Boston College professor Stephen Prothero wrote In a scathing review of Hitchens' 2007 book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, that he had "never encountered a book whose author is so fundamentally unacquainted with its subject."
Prothero wrote later that Hitchens' reflections about “the unfamiliar country” of people undergoing treatment for cancer rank with the best writing he knows on that topic.
I admire compassion and action arising out of compassion, seeking to ameliorate misery. I cannot understand people who tell Hitchens in hard, hard copy or online that God is punishing him, especially with the loss of his voice, for his "blasphemies" against God and religion. I cannot understand people who, because Hitchens is an atheist, want him to agonize in his illness and then go to hell.
Christopher Hitchens might not last long. I know God will be compassionate.
Jesus will be with him the way he was with his disciples on the night before he died. He will have a basin, some water and a towel. He will pour water into the basin. Jesus will look deeply into his eyes and heart. He will see him for the best person he had ever been … and all the suffering he may have experienced. “You’ve had a long journey,” Jesus will say. “You must be tired. dirty and sore. Let me wash your your feet and dry them. The table has been prepared." Jesus will take bread and wine. He will bless the bread and wine and say, “Welcome to the banquet.”
* Published in Vanity Fair: Topic of Cancer (Sept. 2010), Unanswerable Prayers (Oct. 2010) and Miss Manners and the BigC, (Dec. 2010)
[Canon Bill Lewellis, firstname.lastname@example.org, a retired Episcopal priest, served on the Bishop’s staff of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem for 24 years and on the Bishop’s staff of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Allentown for 13 years before that]