This past Thursday, I was reminded of the truth that life is fragile and brief. The husband of an acquaintance of mine was killed in a car accident while returning from vacation. My acquaintance, who was driving in a bad rainstorm, remains hospitalized in critical condition, not even knowing that her spouse is dead, killed on impact when their SUV left the road and hit a tree. Their children, other family, friends, church members, all are stunned and grieved.
If you’re a praying person, would you please pray for them, for the Lord’s comfort and mercy?
How easy it is to forget, when things are going well, that our circumstances can change in an instance: A heart attack, a drunk driver, a lightning strike, a head injury–life-ending for someone, and life-changing for everyone else.
Of course we all know that we will die eventually…just not yet. But as the Psalmist said,
“No one can live forever; all will die.
No one can escape the power of the grave.”
–Psalm 89:48 (NLT)
But God Almighty never forgets who we are, what we are. After all, He made us:
“The Lord is like a father to his children,
tender and compassionate to those who fear him.
For he knows how weak we are;
he remembers we are only dust.
Our days on earth are like grass;
like wildflowers, we bloom and die.
The wind blows, and we are gone—
as though we had never been here.
But the love of the Lord remains forever
with those who fear him.”
–Psalm 103:13-17 (NLT)
I don’t think I appreciated just how ephemeral each life is until my own mother died, and I realized all the things I’d never be able to ask her:
- the childhood stories I’d heard but never had a chance to write down–details lost for good;
- the unlabelled friends and family, in those fading black and white photos, nameless now forever;
- the history of a delicate gold cross, labelled “Mom’s”, which I’d never seen until after my mom was gone–a permanent mystery.
[I’m reminded of a novel by one of my favorite authors, Connie Willis. In Passage, there is a depiction of death in which all the tiny specific details of the character’s life fall away from her and sink slowly into the ocean’s oblivion like so much flotsam and jetsam. We know that these bits of her life are irretrievably forgotten by those who are left alive. It is an achingly painful, beautifully written, moment of truth.]
And yet I’m not sure it’s possible to stay sane and to try to hold onto every moment, to see every detail as valuable. I always weep at the third act of Thornton Wilder’s classic play, Our Town, when poor dead Emily cries, after reliving part of her 12th birthday:
“Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?”
But I don’t really think that we can realize it–or even that we should. To be truly present to each passing moment–not ever fixated on the past or anxious over the future–is often a good thing. But if we internalized each moment the way Emily does, I fear it would become idolatry.
There is a reason that the author of Ecclesiastes wrote,
“It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.” (7:2 ESV)
When I am confronted with death, I have two choices: I can turn my eyes away and sing a happy song, as if to deny that death could ever touch me; OR I can take a hard look at my own life. What is my hope? Where is my trust? Why do I live the way I do?
As a Christ-follower, I know that my hope is in heaven, my trust is in God’s promise of resurrection, and my life is to be spent in pursuing the work that He has prepared for me to do: fulfilling His purposes for His kingdom. Since I believe that my whole life is the Lord’s, everything I do can honor and serve God, whether it’s overtly, obviously “ministry” work or not. And I can say with the apostle Paul,
“For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better.”
–Philippians 1:21, NLT
The man whose life was lost in that car accident was, by all accounts, one who could say that, too. And so I don’t think he would mind my taking the opportunity of his (from our perspective) untimely death to ponder and write about life and death and eternity.
The Book of Common Prayer contains a phrase that it would be well for us to meditate on today:
“In the midst of life, we are in death.”