Forrest Church Sermon: Unfinished Business

Introduction to the Unfinished Business Sermon

And the last text with which I end this article about the figure of Forrest Church is a Sermon titled “Unfinished Business” originally published in his website in March 2007. In this text Rev. Church reflects on the intersection of life, death, and the meaning of religion. He defines religion as the human response to being alive while knowing we must die, emphasizing our search for meaning and the desire to live lives worth dying for.

Church shares his personal experience with a cancer diagnosis, which brought him face-to-face with his mortality. This experience made him value life more deeply and accept death as an inevitable part of it. He recounts the initial shock and calm acceptance that followed his diagnosis, noting that understanding and accepting death is key to fully embracing life.

He discusses the process of coming to terms with his diagnosis, including telling close friends and family, and preparing what he believed might be his last sermon. This period of introspection led Church to a profound realization: he was free to die because he had no “unfinished business”—he had made peace with himself, others, and God.

Church explores the concept of “unfinished business,” emphasizing the importance of resolving conflicts and making peace with loved ones to avoid regrets at life’s end. He illustrates this through his family’s reactions to his illness, especially the need for his children to find closure and deepen their connection with him.

The sermon moves towards a broader spiritual perspective, where Church speaks of salvation in terms of health, wholeness, and holiness. He identifies three dimensions of salvation: integrity (peace with oneself), reconciliation (peace with others), and redemption (peace with life, death, and the divine).

Church concludes by encouraging his audience to address their own unfinished business, emphasizing that preparing for death is a vital part of living. He advocates for actions that foster love, peace, and reconciliation, arguing that these deeds create a lasting legacy beyond one’s physical life.

The sermon ends with a blessing, reaffirming Church’s love for his congregation and his belief in the transformative power of love and faith. 

Paul Williams,

February 2024.

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Sermon: Unfinished Business

Mach 4, 2007

My definition of religion is simple and inclusive: Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and knowing we must die. We humans are not the animal with tools or the animal with advanced language. We are the religious animal. Knowing we must die, we question what life means. Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? And, most important of all—in part because we can answer it directly, in deeds of love and works of praise—How can I live in such a way that my life will prove worth dying for? 

Some of you know from personal experience that a scrape with death makes our hearts beat, not only faster but also more insistently. Aware of life’s limit and fragility, we truly mean it when we say, “This is the day we are given. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Much of the time, almost inevitably, we drift through our days. Life lives us, the sand unwatched as it runs through our glass. Death threats are wake up calls. No longer able to take life for granted, we can seize the day and receive it as a gift. We unwrap the present and offer up a prayer of heartfelt thanks. 

This doesn’t always happen, of course. Elizabeth Kubler Ross, before she got lost in the mystic haze, did important studies of how people respond to their own death announcements. Shock. Disbelief. Anger. Bargaining. And then—finally, yet only perhaps—acceptance. The lesson here is simple, yet profound. We cannot embrace our life fully, until we find a way to accept our death.  

This morning, and for the last time I think, at least for now, I wish to share with you a few insights I gleaned from my own passage through the valley of the shadow this fall, when I was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. As I said two weeks ago in my sermon on “Beating the Odds,” first indications were that I had only months to live. For two weeks, until more promising test results began to trickle in, I was on death row, dead man walking. During this two-week period, I learned something important, not just about myself but about freedom—something that has deepened my appreciation for life and also for death.

My death announcement came by phone from my family physician at 12:30 P.M. on October sixth. I had just returned home from a barium esophogram. The doctor began, “There’s no way to sugarcoat this, Forrest. You have what appears to be inoperable esophageal cancer.” “How long do I have,” I asked. “Months,” he said.

Carolyn was on the other phone. In 15 minutes, a car was slated to pick her up for the airport. She was on her way to India to launch a major business project that she’d been working on for months. My first challenge was not my health. It was somehow talking my willful wife into carrying on with her life. Even months, I reckoned quickly, is all the time in the world if you take it seriously and fill it with love. It was far harder for her to get on that plane than for me to insist she do so. We had plenty of time, I told her. Besides, I thought to myself, my life might be ending, but hers had to continue.

After she was safely on the plane, I sat down and began to explore my feelings. Shock? Not at all. I didn’t take great care of my body when I was younger, and had a sneaking suspicion that the bill might be ready to come due. Anger? No. “Bargaining.” Not really. My doctor had been quite clear. It’s not a pretty death, he told me, but there are palliatives. He said something about a shunt they could put in my throat to keep it from closing. I felt fine, by the way. So I had to imagine the pain. The specter of dying took over my mind for awhile, but it too receded to make way for the work at hand: 1) who to tell; and 2) writing my sermon for that coming Sunday.

Until I had more information, I decided to tell only Galen, Cheryl, and my three closest friends, one of whom lives in the city. Robert Oxnam dropped what he was doing and arrived at my doorstep within the hour. Throughout my trials, he was a constant companion and abiding comfort.

Then I wrote the sermon I delivered to you on October 8—”What I Believe.” At the time, I thought it might be my final sermon, since I had promised Carolyn to go on sick leave immediately so we might give our full attentions to circling the wagons. I only cried when I caught Robert’s eye—since he was the one person in the congregation that morning who knew what I was going through—and during my benediction: “And now in our going may God bless and keep us. May the light of God shine upon us and out from within us and bring us peace. For this is the day we are given. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

When I returned home that Sunday afternoon to call Carolyn in India, it had become clear that I was prepared, or at least felt prepared, to go gentle into that good night. Upon hearing what I believed then to be a death sentence, I had cut almost immediately to acceptance. Accepting things we cannot change frees the spirit to attend to matters within our control. Rather than flailing, I felt a deep calm. My theology hadn’t failed me. I was ready for the journey. My acceptance was strong, almost an embrace. And it sustained me through my illness, first through the valley of the shadow and then, when the campaign toward recovery began, through my surgery as well, when faced with possibility that I might die on the table.

Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t happy about dying. I had things left to do in my life and regretted the interruption of all my splendid plans. A book lay unfinished, in which I had invested great interest and hope. Not to mention my loved ones and the plans we too had for a future together. In short, I had scads of ongoing business that it now appeared I would be unable to complete. My acceptance, however, abided in a deeper place. I was free to die, I realized, because, although I had much ongoing business, I had no unfinished business. I had made peace with myself, with my fellows, and with God.

Never before had I made the connection between unfinished business and a dread of death. Yet, how often in my pastoral counseling had the subject arisen, usually when talking to survivors who had not been able to make peace with a loved one, often a parent, before he or she died. In such cases, their unfinished business stood almost no chance now of completion. They would remain estranged until the end of their own days.

I have also counseled dying congregants whose death sentence seemed to mark the bitter end of a long, unsuccessful struggle to make peace with themselves, their family, or God. The opportunity had passed, or so it seemed. At times like that, “If only” are the two saddest words in the English language. “If only I had done this or not done that.” “If only I had wrenched myself free from some soul destroying habit or had had the courage to change in some other life-restoring way when I still could. My task on such occasions was to remind them that their story was not over, not yet, that there still was time. And indeed, I’ve witnessed amazing last minute reconciliations and conversions, truly courageous and successful two minute drills at life’s close that almost miraculously turned the defeat of death into a victory. But, in each of these cases, when acceptance came, it came hard. And often it didn’t come. There was not world enough or time.

While my wife was in India, with Galen’s help and that of my friends, I mulled such things over in my mind. I tested the sturdiness of my acceptance and found it strong. Without really knowing it, I had, you see, taken care of business, in my case by stopping drinking some seven years ago and then following the spiritual disciplines attendant to faithful recovery. I had conducted a forthright moral inventory, made amends where it was possible and appropriate, recovered my good conscience, made peace with myself, with others, and with God. If I hadn’t, when this apparent death sentence came, I know that I would have been crippled by regret. Never have I been so grateful to have attended to my unfinished business when I still could, while there was yet time.

I had more to learn, however. Smugness, which I was teetering on, is not, I quickly was reminded, a lofty spiritual perch, however pleased I may have been with myself. You see, my wife came home from India, stubbornly unprepared to bathe with me in the calm waters of acceptance. She quite appropriately reminded me, by her very presence and concern, that my death wasn’t my own, to do with what I pleased. In short, I may have stumbled upon one of life’s secrets, but it was not time to rest yet. I still had more vital work to accomplish..

Her principal concern, quite appropriately, was for the children. They too, she reminded me, had their own unfinished business to attend to, business with me. Nathan, our youngest, took a leave from school, expressly because he wanted me to know the man he aspired to be, not just the boy he had been. Each of our four children, in his or her own way, needed to make closure with me on their own terms. They needed to say things they had not said. Show me things about themselves I had missed. Make a deeper connection with me that would sustain them after I was gone.

Little of this was about me. It was about them. Yet, clearly I had more changing to do, in order to be fully present to their needs. Mere acceptance, you see, was too easy, too selfish. The network of relationships, which binds us, and sometimes entangles us, with each other, has its own moral demands that we cannot meet on our own, only together. So I was confronted with a new brace of unfinished business to take care of.. Much—not all I’m sure but much—of that business we, together, were able to attend to. It was difficult, bracing, humbling, yes and sobering, but finally healing, a healing that touched from soul to soul.

What I’m talking about this morning, by the way, is salvation. The Latin root, salve, means health. The Teutonic cognates, health, hale, whole, and holy, all share the same root. Being an agnostic about the afterlife, I look for salvation here—not to be saved from life, but to be saved by life, in life, for life.

Such salvation has three dimensions: Integrity, or individual wholeness, comes when we make peace with ourselves; reconciliation, or shared wholeness, comes when we make peace with our neighbors, especially with our loved ones; redemption, in the largest sense, comes when we make peace with life and death, with being itself, with God.

Whenever our time comes, all our lives end in the middle of the story. There is ongoing business left unfinished. We leave the stage before discovering how the story will turn out. In the meantime, however, to help ensure a good exit, one thing is fully within our power. We can take care of unfinished business. We can make peace with ourselves, reconcile, where possible, with our loved ones, and free ourselves to say yes to the cosmos, to embrace our lives and deaths, to make peace with God. 

To be free to accept death is to be free period. The courage we need comes before, when we face our own demons or reach out across a great divide to touch hands. It’s lifework not death work, but it pays great dividends down the line. So, if you need to, put down that drink. Or pick up that phone. You know what your unfinished business is. Don’t wait until it’s too late to begin taking care of it. Death may come as a thief in the night, but it cannot steal from you the love you have given away, the strength you have shown in facing life’s hardships, or the courage you have proved in quelling your inner demons. In taking care of your own unfinished business, and in helping your loved ones take care of theirs, you can liberate yourself and them from suffering that, if you wait too long, may one day become intractable, written in indelible ink, darkening the pages of your book of life. 

Above all, by taking care of business you will improve the story you are in. Today’s works of love and acts of conscience weave themselves into a plot that will continue long after you are gone, yet be changed for the better by your deeds when you were here. Life may not be immortal, but love is immortal. Its every gesture signs the air with honor. Its witness carries past the grave from heart to heart.

Amen. I love you. And may God bless us all. 

Forrest Church

I would like to invite you to read the interesting second sermon titled “Beating The Odds” originally posted on the Forrest Church website in February 2007.

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