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Chance of a Lifetime

Stricken with a fierce form of cancer, theologian Forrest Church contemplates his likelihood of survival. Then he realizes those aren't the odds he should be reckoning.

He has written or edited 23 books, taught at Dartmouth and penned a weekly column for the Chicago Tribune. Forrest Church, '70, for almost three decades the senior minister at All Souls, a Unitarian Universalist congregation in New York City, is one of the most visible theologians of our time.

Church's roots trace from Stanford, where he was born while his father was a student at the Law School, and from Idaho and Washington, D.C., where his father served four terms in the U.S. Senate. Frank Church died of pancreatic cancer at age 59; his father had died of a heart attack at the same age. Treated for esophageal cancer at age 58, Forrest Church contemplates the odds of following in his ancestors' footsteps—as well as other probabilities, quotidian and cosmic—in this sermon that appears in his latest book, Love and Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow.

Church's cancer has returned since he wrote this sermon, and is now considered terminal. On September 23, he turned 60 years old.

Reprinted from Love & Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow
by Rev. Forrest Church
Copyright © 2008 by Rev. Forrest Church
By permission of Beacon Press,


I am not, nor have I ever been, a betting man. Gambling claims no purchase on my soul. I say this not to boast. There is no virtue in abstaining from something that holds no fascination for you. Teetotalers who hate the taste of alcohol, nonsmokers who are allergic to smoke and nonbettors who get no rush from games of chance do nothing to establish their virtue by not drinking, smoking or gambling.

I demonstrated my lack of appetite for high-stakes gambling early. I was 9 years old when I went with my parents to my one and only horse race—the Kentucky Derby. My father gave me $10—a goodly sum back then—to bet until I lost it. At $2 a race, I would be in the game for at least five of the nine races. He carefully pointed out to me that, unless I made some of it back—if I squandered, say, my stake on long shots that performed as expected—I would have nothing left in my pocket with which to place a bet on the Kentucky Derby itself, slated to take place near the end of the day's card.

I learned the lesson my father taught me a little too well perhaps. To limit my exposure, I would place a show bet on the horse that was favored to win. This far-from-daring strategy taught me one lesson that I have never forgotten. Even the most cautious gambler can lose. Some of the favorites staggered in out of the money, and even when they did perform as advertised each show bet on a low-odds winner earned me a slim dime or two on my $2 investment. No matter. By the time the Kentucky Derby rolled around, I still had $5 in my pocket. Ready to do something daring, I put it all on Silky Sullivan.

Silky Sullivan was a Western phenom. He stopped hearts in every race he entered by spotting his opponents a 30-length lead. Halfway around the track, with the bunched contenders throwing up a great cloud of dust two city blocks ahead of him, Silky Sullivan loped along in solitary splendor, quixotic, romantic, and by every dint of racing logic, doomed. Then, to the amazement of all and delight of anyone who dared to dream, with a burst of awe-inspiring speed he would close in on the pack, catch it at the final turn, blow past one flagging pretender after another, pull up beside the leader and win by a nose.

This was on Western tracks, of course, not in the East. Silky would now be running against the best thoroughbreds in the land, not a bunch of pretty Californians. Even so, my young heart told me, win or lose, this was a horse worth every cent of my precious grubstake. So I placed $5 on the long shot Silky Sullivan, not to win, of course—I wasn't that daring—but to show.

True to form, Silky ambled out of the gate and spotted a quarter furlong to the competition, prancing along nonchalantly until, like magic and flying like the wind, he closed the gap, dancing through the pack toward the flag. He's going to win, I screamed. This prophecy proved premature. Three horses crossed the finish line together. Valiant Silky, as I recall, closed in on the leaders, but just enough to eat their dust.

Silky Sullivan didn't break my heart that day. He made it beat faster. I'll never forget that cocky little horse. I can't tell you who won the 1958 Kentucky Derby. [I looked it up. It was Tim Tam.] But Silky Sullivan won a home in my personal Hall of Fame.

Lately I've been thinking quite a bit about life's odds. Four months ago I was diagnosed with what turned out to be a particularly savage form of esophageal cancer. Odds were, my doctor told me, that I had only months to live. Going onto the Internet—this does nothing, I might caution you, to boost the spirits of positive thinkers—confirmed this diagnosis in mind-numbing detail. Entering all my variables, as we knew them then, into the relevant actuarial tables, the odds were 20 to 1 against me.

My father died of cancer at 59. His father died at 59 as well, of a heart attack. I am 58. The chapter I found myself opening offered compelling reason to believe it would likely be the last one in my book. And then I started beating the odds. Against all expectations, the cancer—though the tumor was large—had apparently not metastasized. Overnight, my odds leapt from 20 to 1 to 50-50. A talented surgeon, Dr. Robert Korst, removed my esophagus, replacing it, conveniently, with my stomach. I now have what I call an estomagus. The post-op pathology brought us more good news. The margins were clear, the lymph nodes negative, and the tumor—right on the cusp between stage 1 and stage 2—had barely penetrated the esophageal wall. New odds now: 3 to 1 that I am cured.

If there's a moral to this story—beyond the obvious one that I might usefully have quit drinking and smoking decades before I did, some seven years ago—it doesn't lie on the surface of these shifting odds. They are mere accidents, happy ones, it seems in my case, but accidents nonetheless. If my cancer returns to kill me, it won't be unfair, only unlucky, in the same sense that I was lucky to beat the odds that seemed at first to make survival a chancy bet. Beating the odds, I slowly began to realize, had nothing to do with the stakes of the mortality table. The truth of the matter struck me with tremendous force. I'd beaten the odds already, won the house on a zillions-to-1 wager 58 years before, the moment I was born. Think about it, and then translate this unaccountable triumph to your own precious life. Whether the odds that I will die at 59 stand at 20 to 1, 50-50 or 1 to 3 is incidental, given how astronomically long the odds were against my being alive in the first place to reckon them.

There's a theological point here, one that gets lost in the haze of most salvation history. “What did I do to deserve this?” we ask when things turn against us, forgetting that we did nothing to deserve being placed in the way of trouble and joy in the first place. The odds against each one of us being here this morning are so mind-staggering that they cannot be computed. Had I been paying more reverent attention, even a 5 percent chance that I might live, not to mention outlive my father and grandfather, should have found me dancing on the ceiling.

We're talking miracles here. Not an unlikely miracle, like God parting the Red Sea for Moses to escape the Egyptians or stopping the sun for Joshua to win a battle, but the miracle of water itself, in which living organisms can incubate, and just enough warmth and light from the sun to establish ideal conditions for life to be nurtured and develop here on Earth.

Consider the odds more intimately. Your parents had to couple at precisely the right moment for the one possible sperm to fertilize the one possible egg that would result in your conception. Right then, the odds were still a million to 1 against your being the answer to the question your biological parents were consciously or unconsciously posing. And that's just the beginning of the miracle. The same unlikely happenstance must repeat itself throughout the generations. Going back 10 generations, this miracle must repeat itself 1,000 times—1¼ million times going back only 20 generations. That's right. From the turn of the 12th century until today, we each have, mathematically speaking, approximately 2½ million direct ancestors. This remarkable pyramid turns in upon itself, of course, with individual ancestors participating in multiple lines of generation, until we trace ourselves back to when our ur-ancestors, the founding couple, whom each one of us carries in our bones, began the inexorable process that finally gave birth to us all, kith and kin, blood brothers and sisters of the same mighty mystery.

And that's only the egg and sperm part of the miracle. Remember, each of these ancestors had to live to puberty. For those whose bloodline twines through Europe—and there were like tragedies around the globe—not one of your millions of direct forebears died as children during the great plague, for instance, which mowed down half of Europe with its mighty scythe.

There's a new book out on the Mayflower. It's a good book, telling a lively, unlikely tale. Five of my direct ancestors happened to be on that tiny boat, which brought the first band of doughty Pilgrims to our shores in 1620. Early in the book, I was brought up short when one of the five—remember, I wouldn't be here this morning without the unwitting assistance of all of them—24-year-old John Howland, an unmarried servant, fell off the Mayflower into the ocean halfway across the Atlantic. Miraculously he caught the rope his fellow Pilgrims threw overboard in their attempt to save him, and he lived. Had John Howland drowned, you might be hearing a better sermon this morning, but I, assuredly, would not be preaching it.

During their first winter in America, some 50 of the 102 original Pilgrims died. Among those who succumbed were my ancestors John and Elizabeth Tilley, but not their 13-year-old daughter, also named Elizabeth, or her 10-year-old friend Elizabeth Warren. Elizabeth Tilley went on to marry John Howland, establishing my mother's American line; Elizabeth Warren married Richard Church, establishing my father's. These accidents of survival, if nothing compared to the almost infinite odds against our winning billions of crapshoots in the sperm-and-egg stakes, are at least somewhat easier to grasp and existentially more meaningful to ponder.

By the way—and this is truly awesome, so awesome that it makes every salvation story in the world's great scriptures seem trivial in comparison—not only did all our human ancestors survive puberty to mate at the one and only instant that the requisite egg and sperm might connect to keep our tiny odds for arrival alive, but their prehuman ancestors did the same. Then we have to go back further to our premammalian ancestors; and back from there all the way to the ur-paramecium; and then, beyond that, to the pinball of planets and stars, playing out their agon into diurnal courses, spinning back through time to the big bang itself. Mathematically, our death is a simple inevitability, whereas our life hinges on an almost infinite sequence of perfect accidents. First a visible and then an invisible thread connects every one of us in an unbroken line genetically and kinetically to the instant of creation. Think about it. The universe was pregnant with us when it was born.

So what did we do to deserve this, whatever this might happen to be at any given moment in our life's unfolding saga? Please! The odds against our being here to ask that impertinent question beggar reckoning. Which is where the second element, accompanying awe in the fundamental religious equation, kicks into play: humility. Here is my favorite etymology: human, humane, humanitarian, humility, humble, humus. Dust to dust. And in between, erupting into consciousness—into pain and hope and trust and fear and grief and love—the miracle of life.

If you find yourself this morning out of the race, so far behind the pack that you can hardly see its dust—if the odds weigh against you, the odds against happiness returning to fill your days with joy, the seemingly overwhelming odds that you will never recover from whatever is bearing or beating you down—take a moment to ponder life's cosmic odds and how you've already beaten them. You, I, each one of us have miraculously run our courses from the instant of creation to the advent of life on Earth and on through billions of generations to reckon the privilege of looking out upon this magnificent morn.

And then, while you're blinking in the sun, pause one moment further and remember Silky Sullivan. A valiant stretch run may not make you a winner, but I can promise you this: it will make your heart and the hearts of those who love you beat faster.

Believe me, there's nothing like a kick toward the flag to get the old blood pumping and the crowd off their bums cheering. Besides, without even trying, you've already won the only race that really matters. Unconsciously, yet omnipresent, you ran the gauntlet of stars and genomes to assume your full, nothing less than miraculous, place in the creation. Being alive to love and hurt, to fail and recover, to prove your grit and show compassion, that is life's true secret. Life's abiding opportunity, bequeathed against all odds to each and every one of us, is much the same: it is to live, and also to die, for the multitude of brothers and sisters who beat the odds with us, who labored with our ancestors' hands and wept tears (of grief and joy) from our ancestors' eyes, connecting us as kin to God and each other, blessed together, always together, with the privilege of running from gate to flag in life's glorious race.

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