Now Featured at the Patheos Book Club
The Dave Test
A Raw Look at Real Faith in Hard Times
By Frederick W. Schmidt

Book Excerpt: Introduction

"GOD, HELP ME, WHERE DO YOU START?"

That was the plea an old friend from high school posted on Facebook a few weeks after his sister's death. She was fortyeight years old.

Where do we start? How do we care for ourselves and for one another when life . . . well, when life just sucks?

  1. When jobs or life-giving relationships end?
  2. When a physician says that we have weeks or months to live?
  3. When a child dies?
  4. When an illness or a handicap forces us to live around its demands and limitations?

Those questions have dogged me for years and for a lot of reasons. Some of them are personal. Some of them are professional. I am an Episcopal priest. People expect clergy like me to know what to say in awful situations. But we don't always know. Sometimes we don't have a clue what to say.

Recently that quest for what to say in bad situations acquired new urgency. Seven years ago I learned that my brother, Dave, has cancer. He has not just any kind of cancer but life-ending cancer—the kind that guts your life, leaves you with nothing, and then kills you.

Dave is also a Christian. So initially he looked to the church for answers to the "God-help-me-where-do-you-start" question. That isn't surprising. He is a Baptist, and going to church runs deep in Baptist bones.

But Dave doesn't go to church anymore. The church really doesn't speak to his life.

He explains it this way:

If If the preacher isn't using stained-glass language that I can't pin down and apply to my life, then instead he is blowing sunshine up my ass, telling me the whole experience is a blessing in disguise.

I'm a fifty-something hand surgeon. I operated on 120 patients a month until I discovered that I have brain cancer. I have a glioblastoma grade four tumor. All but 3 percent of the people who have this type of tumor are dead within a year.

What in hell am I going to do with my life that is going to be more of a blessing to other people than what I was doing?

It's hard, he points out, 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 3 percent of those who have them within a year, the words are worse than useless.

It's no surprise, then, that the two friends he has who speak most readily and directly to him about the spiritual demands of life are no-nonsense, plainspoken recovering alcoholics. They lack the churchy, theological vocabulary of a priest or pastor. They haven't studied the Scriptures in any formal sense of the word, and they don't go to church.

What they have done is sharpen what they believe, testing the shape of their spiritual convictions against the hard realities of life. They care for one another, face the truth, tell the truth, and look for truth that they can hold on to.