A dear friend, Gary Cate, died last month after living two years with a terminal cancer. He did not “battle” his disease, as we so often say, he lived with it fully and honestly, just as he had lived before the diagnosis. A long season of dying brings disappointment and pain as well as opportunities and blessings. My friend responded to all of it with wisdom and grace.
One of the blessings of a death with specificity is the opportunity to reflect upon what matters and talk of it with others. As Gary’s pastor at the time of his diagnosis and later, as a friend, we had long conversations. He articulated his theology, expressed gratitude and wonder, planned his funeral and took measure of his life. I took notes.
One of his comments has struck me as significant for the church as well as for an individual life. Looking back over his 67 years, Gary said, “ The measure of a life is the quality of the gifts we give.”
Always sensitive to the immensity of the world’s need, Gary’s assessment of his own contribution was modest though his family, friends, and community know otherwise. He gave generously of his financial means but his best gifts were integrity, encouragement, generosity and faithfulness, among others. Their impact was and continues to be profound.
How might our practice of church change if our measures were more inclined toward our giving and its quality than the budgets or members we accrued? Cheered on by Gary, we had a chance to experience this at our church. Better off than many but still facing the stresses of decades of steady decline, the congregation decided to give away one-third of a bequest amounting to about $100,000. Not only was it a lavish gift, we gave it joyfully to a variety of good works proposed by church members – Gary at the head of the line.
As we gave, our cup overflowed. I am not aware that membership increased as a result of our giving or that budget stresses ceased, but we laughed and rejoiced in the handing over of big checks to worthy causes large and small and we ate a great meal together. If “joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God,” as Teillard de Chardin writes, God was dancing at the party. If there is a better way to be church, I cannot imagine it.