Death can be unthinkable.
Some time ago, I was seated behind a young friend of mine in small evening worship service. Her mother had recently received a late-stage diagnosis of a serious illness. I was heart-worn already that day, and my usual shields set up against imagining tragedy slipped. Her youthful frame radiated energy, but in my mind’s eye I saw her heart inside her, wrung out with grief.
Just seventeen. Yesterday, this child was the youngest member of a fit, whole, successful family—today, she’s loosing her mother. Waiting to lose her. She’s preparing to watch her father live alone. And there’s nothing else to do but keep going with daily life. “Dear God.” I whispered, “Spare Carolyn.” And I cried.
From that plastic folding chair, all my ambitions felt like paper. Everything I had left yet to prove with my life felt like a gray imagination. Good Lord, I might never achieve any of it. Not because of my own inadequacy—that scenario I imagined frequently—but because of something entirely out of my control. My mortality. There was a familiar childhood feel to the thought. Childhood is a time when you frequently feel out of control of outcomes. I’d forgotten how little I feel that way now.
Death is not a popular topic to talk about.
Most references to one’s own death seem to be met with sort of a loving, “hush now!” from friends. This gentle taboo is quite the departure from past eras in the Christian tradition. By early Medieval times, we’d even developed a catchy phrase to remind us to meditate on the fleeting nature of life.
Memento Mori. Remember you must die.
Standing in that worship service I remembered I must die. Daily, I focus on my own formation and the development of my character in order to become like Christ and please him. I plan for future ministry to invite more souls into the kingdom of God. But the fact is, I may never have the opportunity to progress past today. If that development and achievement is what I am hoping to impress God with, it looks like my plan is pretty bad.
God does not require greatness from us, he desires faithfulness. Remember what we call the Great Commandment:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Matthew 22:37–39, ESV
Faithfulness may indeed mean setting up your life to work out those long-term goals and callings. And it will always mean loving God and enjoying him. It will always mean hospitality to your neighbor, sacrifice for your children, generosity toward the poor, and humility in your work.
When I go to sleep tonight, I want to remember that however hard I worked today toward a future success, or how much more there is yet to do, God’s love toward me is not “in progress.” Even if I never work another speck on that project, Jesus wants me. I would like to, of course, be confident and peaceful in the fact that I put first things first and lived out that great commandment, but, to whatever level I’ve failed, the faithfulness of Jesus has succeeded.
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind… love your neighbor as yourself.”
You can do that today. And that’s good news, because today may be all you’ve got.
Image Credit: Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, Boston, MA., Alison Freeman