Resurrection Hope in the Age of Modern Medicine

Resurrection Hope in the Age of Modern Medicine

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” I’m not sure what to what to think of this Christmas jingle on the radio. But I do know that Advent and Christmas are double-sided – both joyous and humbling. It’s not about celebrating that all is well in the world and our lives right now. It is celebrating that “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:11). Why do we celebrate a Savior, the Messiah, the Lord? Because we are sinners in a disordered world. We need a Savior. We need a Messiah anointed with God’s Spirit. We need a Lord in the midst of our lordless, disordered times. We await, we rejoice. We lament, we hope. “Come, Lord Jesus!”

In the last three years since my own cancer diagnosis, the sharpness of these gospel themes – of both rejoicing and lament, has come into focus. My initial theological reflections were recorded in Rejoicing in Lament. Now, I’m happy to announce that I’ve received a grant from the Louisville Institute to continue exploration and research in a particular direction: what it means for congregations to cultivate resurrection hope in a medicalized age.

Certainly, I’ve become much more aware of my own mortality since my diagnosis, since statistically my expected lifespan has been chopped by decades. But the main impetus for this inquiry comes from the relationships with others that I’ve developed in the cancer community, as well as pastors, chaplains, and hospice worker facing this issue.

Here’s a paragraph which states the questions more directly, adapted from the grant materials:


What does it mean for congregations in the West today to hope in the bodily resurrection, given the way in which both medical and cultural forces push reflection upon death to the sidelines? In consultations with recent seminary graduates in congregational ministry, many expressed urgent questions about ministering to those who are dying. They find themselves walking with parishioners—as well as parishioners’ families—who are dying and are left to make complex medical and other end of life decisions. These pastors find themselves working in a moment of significant cultural transition: while dying has traditionally been a process taking place at home among family and in close engagement with communities of faith, today in the West dying usually occurs in medical institutions. For example, pastors are asked to pray for patients who are not expected to live for another week. Yet the family often wants prayer for “miracles” (and “medical miracles”) rather than guidance about a Christian process of preparing for death. Moreover, studies have shown that Christians in particular are especially likely to utilize the most extreme measures to extend their life. Rather than sharing words of confession and reconciliation, words of wisdom and blessing with family and faith community, many Christians today in the West choose extreme treatments which isolate them from family and faith community in their final days. In some circumstances, concern for the sacredness of life can be translated into choices which actually marginalize the Christian narrative of mortal creatures finding their resurrection hope in Jesus Christ alone.


Thus, with the funding of this grant, I will gather a small group of congregational ministers from around the nation for three colloquies in 2016-17 to explore: how do we rediscover resurrection hope in this context? Each pastoral participant will do some writing, which I plan to highlight on this blog. And I will do writing on this theme as well. I expect that my own writing will show up in articles, and perhaps eventually a book on the topic.

I’m excited about the new opportunities for learning from this grant. But I’m most excited by the hope of God’s promise, which endures, even when our lives and dying and deaths can seem senseless. For the present reality of suffering is not the final word.

“Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Col. 3:2-4)