Tonight is one of those I-wasn’t-planning-to-write-but-I-have-to.
I just heard from a long-time friend that two of our mutual friends from seminary, a married couple with two college-aged sons, have both died of cancer. Jim died last year and Pati died this past weekend.
I remember thinking, some years ago, that if you lost a parent in your late teens or early twenties, that wasn’t so bad. At least you weren’t still a kid. If you died in your fifites, you had a pretty long life, right? Sure looked that way from our twenties.
Of course, that was before I became a parent. Now all I can think is “We couldn’t leave our kids at this age!”
I don’t have to guess that Jim and Pati had more plans for their lives; I know they did. When we went to seminary together and had silly parties and talked about future ministry and our hopes, none of us said, “Until I reach age fifty and I die.” We talked about “finishing well.” We didn’t mean 54. All of us knew that some people die at age fifty, but none of us thought “some people” meant us.
Hearing about our friends’ deaths makes me think about those “finishing well” ideas we discussed in seminary classes, ideas about stages of ministry and how one’s spiriual influence would develop and expand throughout life. So many spiritual leaders crash and burn, it made sense to think through how to sustain a life of sixty or seventy years in ministry.
But then, you know what happened to those great concepts? Life. Life in its messy, bulldozing, remorseless march. “Ending” started happening out of order. Some of us–and some of our children–died.
Death should clear our minds. We hide from death as a culture and it’s unhealthy. It’s also a bit ludicrous, considering one out of one of us will die.
Tonight, my mind is clear. I’ve been getting bogged down in resentment lately. I need to regain the ability–and the willingness–to forgive.
In the day to day of demands and meals and driving kids around and the queasy adrenaline of another ER run and the cleansing adrenaline of another hike, the clarity of life and death get blurred. When I say death should clear our minds, I mean it should work like our windshield wipers. The crushed bugs on the windshield, the spray from the slushy snow, and the smeared lines that were the cats’ pawprints–and maybe the remains of bird droppings–are what we look through, not what we look at. I do not mean that trips to the ER and meals together are the smears, I mean that all the busyness leaves those smears, leaves little disgruntlements and unresolved conversations and getting caught up in small things as if they are significant. Those aren’t life, they are blurry smudges through which we continue to see life, unless we get so distracted that we start to focus in on them. Imagine driving and you’re paying more attention to the slush on the windshield than what’s outside the windshield.
“I know nothing, except what everyone knows – if there when Grace dances, I should dance.”W.H. Auden
Tonight I’m shocked and saddened and yet again disturbed by how horribly unfair life is. I wasn’t still in touch with Jim and Pati. We were friends at another stage in our lives. But they were kind, grace-giving people doing the work of love and redemption in the world. Why do they both die of cancer? Within less than a year? When they have two (now I’d say) young sons, not small children but not the age anyone should have to say goodbye to both their parents.
But I’m not solving any of that tonight, or ever. Some people have lovely (or at least lovely-looking) faith statements regarding death, and I think I did, too–back when twenty-one was grown up and fifty-something was a long life, back before I knew how it felt to have a baby die or to see good parents dying and leaving their young children behind.
Tonight, death reminds me, with utter clarity, that “ending well” might be this year. Or next.
Tonight, death of friends–and the random draw of cancer…and COVID, and car accidents, and heart attacks–removes the blotches that obstruct my view and distract me.
Grace is here. I’m going to dance. I’m a poor dancer, and I’m going to dance. I’m not giving in to a world of angry noise and rising hostility. No.
Were I to die of cancer this year or next, I will not look back and say, “Well, I sure did let that smoldering resentment catch fire and blaze away.” I need more grace in my heart. I need more kindness to express to my kids, while they still pay any attention to me–while I’m here and they can. I’m coming up on my twenty-ninth anniversary and my wife still loves me. I know that’s a miracle. I’ve loved her for thirty-four of my fifty-three years. That’s what I’m doing with my life. That is my main dance.
I have more words to write. I have more people to hear and to love. I have more hikes to take and ultimate to play.
I don’t know how many. I hope a lot. But the windshield is clear right now and I remember that small things are small and smudges are just smudges. They merit cleaning away, not holding my attention.
I’m not afraid of death but I’m certainly afraid not to live well and to wake up one morning and wonder why I didn’t. I’m not in a rush to go (thank God) and I think Jesus still has some plans, or at least some directional nudges, I have yet to fathom.
The real world is both beautiful and brutal. Real human beings are both wonders of grace and repulsive. Jesus is faithful.
Grace is here and today could be the start or the end. I will dance.