Life (noun) 1.the course of existence or sum of experiences and actions that constitute a person's existence --Random House Dictionary
The location for my old friend Jim’s memorial service was bittersweet: a stone gothic chapel, all dappling multi-colored stain glass and dark smooth wood, set on the southern New Hampshire campus of a private high school. When Jim and I first met thirty-five summers ago at church camp, we were at the age of the smiling and earnest young people whom I walked by, as I hurried into the church on a that chilly March Saturday. Remember what life was like then, at 15 or 16? It stretched out before us, like a long seemingly infinite road. Life felt as if it would go on forever. That’s the myth which marks and sustains youth. Then we cannot imagine an end to life, nor should we. The young do not yet “realize” life, at least not its finitude, its fleetingness.
But life does come to an end for all human beings. We are mortal, fragile. That’s the sobering truth we grow up and into as we move into middle age and later life. Now into my 50th year, Jim’s death at 52 hit me hard for many reasons. He was a good man as a father and husband and doctor, and left this world much too soon. His death from cancer was unfair, as so many are. But most powerfully his death raised for me that most of human of imaginings. “That could be me.” I thought. This is what death does for humans, the ones left behind. Yes: death shocks, it steals, it saddens, it cruelly rearranges life, yet death can also jolt us into a moment of spiritual clarity. Wake us up to the truth that we all have an expiration date, a day and moment sometime “then”, when we will cease to be, at least on this side of existence.
The gift of death, if such an idea can be fathomed, is that it sharply reminds us of the gift of life. The miracle of our hearts beating on for another day. The sun warming our skin for another day. Loved ones loving us for another day. Our Creator calling us to live and love this precious life for another day.
Death finally challenges us as mortals to live this God-given life well, very well. So how’s that going for you this one day? In light of death, how is your one life? What is your life’s quality, its depth, its meaning, its purpose? When you leave this world, what will be your legacy? What positive difference are you making this day in the life of others?
In Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town”, set in a small New England town at the turn of the twentieth century, the main character is Emily, a young woman, recently married, who dies suddenly. Act II opens with Emily in the town graveyard and she begs the stage manager/narrator to allow her to go back down to earth for just one day. She goes and witnesses the day of her twelfth birthday and then returns, asking one poignant question. “O earth you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute?”
To “realize life”, “every, every minute”. This is the lesson my faith tries to remind me of each and every day. Sure, most days I get all caught in the faux dramas of day to day life. I get stuck in “poor me”. Raise complaining to an art form. Find myself in the weeds of life, self-focused, anxious, whiney. Sound familiar?
But some sweet and precious days, like the day I said goodbye to Jim, I actually listen to God and wake up to life again. This then is the lesson of death. To try and live so fully that when we die, we will have no regrets. To try and love so deeply that when we die, we will have given all of our love away. To try and give of ourselves to others so fully that when we die, we can depart in the knowledge that our one life made a positive difference. To try and live for something bigger and more important than ourselves, that when we exit the stage called life, folks will have been changed for the better merely by having known us.
At Jim’s service, after all the tears and the laughter, the celebration of his one life, family friends sent us out of the chapel with a beautiful song called “For Good” from the musical “Wicked”. “I've heard it said that people come into our lives for a reason, bringing something we must learn, and we are lead to those who help us most to grow, if we let them, and we help them in return. Well I don’t know if I believe that's true, but I know I'm who I am today, because I knew you.”
Death remind us all of just how amazing and wonderful life can be. If only we will live it to the fullest. Thanks Jim, for reminding me of this truth. I’m better for having known you. The world is too. Just one life, that’s all God gives us. The question is: do we realize this gift?