During last Sunday’s Academy Awards presentation, Viola Davis won an Oscar for her role in Fences. During her emotional acceptance speech, Ms. Davis declared how glad she is to be an artist because it’s “the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.”
I can think of all kinds of professions that celebrate what it means to live a life. And, not only that, I can think of professions other than art that not only celebrate what it means to live a life, but help to give life purpose, value and meaning. There are a lot of professions that do this important work, but I’m especially thinking about doctors, nurses, aid and rescue workers, social workers, caseworkers, etc. And, I’m thinking as well about what I do: ministry.
The other day, I spent a good part of a morning next to a hospital bed that had been set up in the living room of one of my parishioners, Elsie, who was approaching the end of her life. I sat next to that bed, with the Elsie’s daughter on the other side.
We talked about Elsie’s life and her family. We talked about the service that will take place after Elsie dies. We talked about all of the good things, as well as the sad things, that happened to Elsie over her eighty years of life. It hasn’t been a perfect life, but it’s been a good one—full of family, friends, neighbors, church and faith.
We held hands and we prayed. And we laughed too.
One might refer to the scene as attending to a deathbed. Yet, it was like the many other such experiences I’ve had over my career, my profession, as a minister: it had a lot to with life, the meaning of life, and the celebration of life. During most of the times when I’ve gathered with someone approaching the end of her/his life, our conversation often focuses on the accumulation of a lot of small moments, hardly noticed at the time, but all coming together, marks of a life fully lived, or, sometimes, not so much. When I sat with Elsie and her daughter, we talked about what mattered most to Elsie. We talked about gratitude and the ties of love. We also talked about loss and grief. Elsie’s husband of many, many years died last summer. And, she’s the last of her nine siblings.
I’m sure Viola Davis could do a fine acting job of the scene that I experienced the other day. I don’t begrudge her the power of her profession. For acting is an important art, often helping us to consider the lives that we live, sometimes bringing to life something previously unknown, unrecognized, or unappreciated, sometimes mirroring back to us the sort of life that we ourselves live.
Acting is not the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life. Not by a long shot.
There are all sorts of people out there celebrating what it means to live a life, in the ordinary course of a normal day and in real places and relationships. Lots of us celebrate what it means to live a life without a director, without the opportunity for second takes, without a script that tells us how the story goes. We just do it. And most of us won’t ever get a round of applause or a golden statue. Perhaps that’s a good thing, for then we won’t be tempted to think that what we do is more important than what loads of other people do.