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Cutting Edges: The Dave Test

By Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Rueben P. Job Associate Professor of Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary

A little more than a year ago, my brother Dave lost a battle with brain cancer that he had been fighting for over seven years. A gifted hand surgeon, the tumor destroyed his medical career and precipitated an unplanned quest to find both the spiritual counsel and friendships that would sustain him along the way.

At one point on that journey I asked him if he was going to church.

“No,” he responded.

“Would you mind telling me why?” I asked.

“If the preacher is using stained-glass language that I can’t pin down and apply to my life, then he is blowing smoke, telling me the whole experience is a blessing in disguise.”

“It’s hard,” he went on to say, “when you’ve been told that you have a brain tumor to hear people tell you that ‘God has a plan,’ that ‘the best is yet to come,’ or that God is giving you ‘a blessing in disguise.’ When you say that to someone who has a tumor that claims the lives of all but three percent of those who have them within a year, the words are worse than useless.”

My brother’s language was pretty raw, but it is also fairly typical of people who find themselves at life’s ragged edges. In turn, those ragged places present some of the tougher and perennial challenges to Christian communities. Helping seminarians to nurture communities of faith that can walk with people in those places has long been a centerpiece of theological education, particularly in classes and internships devoted to the subject of pastoral care.

Effective care at life’s end and the little “m” mortalities that we experience along the way (including job loss, divorce, and illness) cannot be addressed through theory, training, and technique alone. Leaders and communities that can care for others also require deep spiritual formation and that, in turn, requires us to face our own mortality. Questions I ask my students are those I also ask the readers of the book that I wrote in the wake of my brother’s death, which—taken together—I call The Dave Test:

Can I say “Life sucks?”

Can I give up my broken gods? Can I avoid using stained-glass language?

Can I admit that some things will never get better?

Can I give up trading in magic and superstition?

Can I stop blowing smoke? Can I say something that helps? Can I grieve with others?

Can I walk wounded?

Can I be a friend?

Each of the ten questions leads the reader into a process of self-examination, noting the places that we struggle in confronting our own losses and walking with those we love. Each chapter also offers what I hope will be a helpful way forward.

As we think together about these issues in the classroom, it becomes clear to the students that our churches are complicit in our culture’s denial of death. We do not preach enough on the subject because it is a “downer.” We fail to take advantage of the rich resources of the church to foster intergenerational conversations about death and loss that would enrich everyone who participates. When we do talk about such losses we often offer cold comfort that reinforces the isolation of those we attempt to help. Increasingly, we take refuge from the realities of death, preferring memorial services to funerals, and we do it all without embracing a robust theology of the resurrection. The net result is that the members of our community often navigate death and life’s difficult places with very few of the rich resources that our faith has cultivated over the millennia.

Together, we are rediscovering those resources. More to the point, we are also exploring what it means to be the kind of people who can walk with others. Passing The Dave Test is one step in that journey.

The Dave Test is published by Abingdon Press.