Waiting to Die, or Living to Death?

January 24, 2014

Several years ago, on the occasion of her 80th birthday, a parishioner intimated that she was the longest living member of her family at that age. Her vision of her life had not extended past that point, as every single one of her forebears had died early and suddenly or, in one case after a long illness at age 72. Since she did not know what to do with life after 80, and had no inclination to reinvent herself, it appeared to me that she was simply marking time and waiting to die. At the time, she was in perfect health and I confessed to thinking This is going to be painful for other people to watch, because she is squandering a terrific opportunity here for a meaningful and productive season of life.

A comment made often to pastors visiting their elderly members is this: “I don’t know why I am still around.” Those ministering in Christ’s name to a vision-less person—or, to be open-minded about this, a content person, a fulfilled person, or a discouraged person— are called to guide them through life unto death. I see a ministry opportunity focused not so much on the issue with dying as on the issue of living.

Regardless of our age or health status, what we do with the time we have left in this body on this earth is the primary arena of our discipleship. We live in a “now, but not yet” situation: we know as Jesus-followers that we possess eternal life but we are not quite there yet. As long as we possess a perishable body, an early version of human hardware, we cannot function fully within the realm of heaven, running eternal software. Or can we?

Is it not at the core of our faith to reside in the world of the eternal even as we maintain residency in this tent (Paul’s term, 2 Corinthians 5:1-4)? Are we not called to run this race with the vision of the inheritance awaiting us, as the writer of Hebrews so persuasively exhorted us (Hebrews 12)? Did not Jesus persevere through his trial and crucifixion with a vision of joy set before him? What got Jesus over the hurdle of a horrible death was a vision, and that vision enabled him to endure great pain and suffering in the meantime and to fully live the moment until there were no moments left.

Around Christmas time, my thoughts drifted in the direction of how to plan for the rest of my life. The thought struck me, since I am in the dark about my prognosis, that I could have a couple of years left, or I could live to be in my 90s. Would I make different choices now if I knew I had only ____ years to live? Would my priorities shift if I were assured that I had thirty years instead? The question has been teasing me since, but here’s what I have come up with so far.

It just seems wise to make certain preparations for death, and then to live fully each day as if on a thirty-year investment. Concretely, this means that I am giving some thought to “final arrangements,” gathering some ideas for a memorial service, and gearing up to write an obituary (having ranted to my husband about the clichés and overused phrases I read in obits every day). Now would be the time to fill out a Five Wishes document, which spells out to family members and medical providers one’s preferences for end-of-life care, and an Advanced Directive specifically related to medical intervention under certain circumstances. This is the least I can do to make my wishes known and do some of the legwork that will ease passage for my loved ones later.

But then, that’s the end of that subject.

How do I want to live in the meantime? What does it look like to live on a thirty-year investment? I am a planner by temperament and work-style. I currently have at least five major projects envisioned, outlined or mapped, but incomplete on my desk. I operate in a swirl of unfinished business, like Pigpen in Peanuts walking around in a cyclone of dust. What is emerging for me is a desire to order my life in such a way as to start getting some of these projects done. I’ve certainly got thirty years of possibilities ahead of me, and I want to live those experiences, projects, and explorations to the full. And I’d like to finish them if God would allow me time to do so.

This approach is not running away from reality; quite the contrary, I think, it is running toward life and embracing it fully. I most certainly want to live, not as an escape from dying but as preparation for it! Some of my readers may have faced this more squarely and intimately than I am yet able to experience, but living fully until death seems to be the way to die. I can think of no better illustration of this than Roberto Benigni’s character in Life Is Beautiful.

Guido, his wife Dora, and their son Joshua are Jewish citizens sent to a German concentration camp in 1939. Guido, a clown by nature and yet a wise character, interprets what is happening as a game. Joshua has the opportunity to play for points, and if he wins he gets a military tank. By setting up the rules of the game and reinterpreting events as they occur, Guido shields his son from the horrors of what is happening and manages to help his son survive the entire ordeal. Guido, however, makes a critical mistake and is found out. Despite the approaching American liberation of the camp, Guido is led to his execution, but not before glimpsing his son one last time and keeping up the role of game-player for him, right up until the end.

My intent is to live, to live fully and joyfully. Yes, I am going to die. So are you. When? Don’t know, and I don’t need to know. What I need to know, I have in my possession already: a vision of life that is infused with joy, filled with the Spirit, empowered by God’s grace, baited by good questions, and met with insatiable curiosity. I am just going to keep living this life, until God says, “Stop.” Meanwhile, if I ask you, “Why am I still around?” I expect that you will have an answer for me, and it won’t be some insipid platitude, because starting now, you are working on the answer to that very question for yourself. So get to it! Do not wait to die, but live to death, embracing fully both living and dying as stepping stones to eternal life.



9 Responses to “Waiting to Die, or Living to Death?”

  1. Stephen Eyre Says:

    Looking life and death in the eye without the slightest flinch–this blog today rings with exceptional courage and integrity. About the clearest and most forthright advice on life I have ever read, anywhere! You encourage me to prepare for and participate in eternal realties . . . Thank you

  2. Roberta Hestenes Says:

    Best blog yet in this series! Love you, Mary. Roberta

  3. emd5542 Says:

    As I continue to proceed into 70s and witness up close assisted living friends who are in their 90s, even 100, it seems clear that as the aged, infirm, memory impaired and severely disabled continue to wake up to a new day, continued life is a God thing. Perhaps there needs to be reconciliation within a family or between friends or even attitude changes. It would gladden my heart, for example, should my 98 year old aunt repent of her racial bigotry. Miracles are possible, this we know. God is always at work.

    One word jumped off the page of your perfect close to this blog series: Your use of “memorial service”. I’m surprised you’re not thinking Funeral as in Witness to the Resurrection. Joe’s service and mine–already on file–will include scripture, hymns, prayer, sermon and no invitations to eulogies. Ashes will be present with interment to follow at a special place on our Glebe.
    That may not be your preference as many will have much to say on that occasion. Frankly, I’d rather enjoy those blessings on this side of eternity.

    Thank you for this series. Looking forward to next steps.

    • revmary Says:

      Ha-ha, Eleanor, without putting a fine point on it, I have used “memorial service” to mean a service of witness to the resurrection and had forgotten that for some it is a precise term focusing more on celebrating the deceased than our Risen Savior. Do not fear…Jesus will be lifted up!

      • emd5542 Says:

        Happy to receive your “Ha-ha”, Mary. If I can keep myself in check you and I will one day be fully in tune. 🙂 I can miss the forest by focusing on an individual tree. Thanks for responding and I’m looking forward to reports as to your getting your body ready for the Big Event of March 3 and celebrations to follow. Live on, dear lady, and keep us along for the journey. Joyfully, Eleanor

  4. Jodie Says:

    I had a dream that came to me as a riddle, to resolve my midlife crisis. I was in Spain when I had the dream, so the dream came to me in Spanish! The dream was this: The sales clerk at a clock store told me that the best coo coo clock is the one whose weight hits the floor at the precise time indicated on the face of the clock.

    I woke up and mulled this over a bit, wondering what could he possibly have meant by this, and then it hit me. If the clock gained time, or lost time, then the moment the weight hits the floor (i.e. when it literally winds down and stops), the time indicated on the face of the clock will be wrong. It will not be stopping at the time shown, because the time shown is incorrect.

    The best clock is the one that keeps perfect time up until the clock runs down. And so, God willing, I intend to keep doing the best I know how, right up to the very last.


    • revmary Says:

      I LOVE your dream, Jodie. What an apt illustration, to not run out of life before you run out of clock! Thank you for sharing it.

  5. Ah, Mary, so glad to hear you sounding so vigorous and planning for many years to come!

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