Loss and Meaning

I am writing these words on October 9th.  It was three years ago on this day that my mother passed away.  She lived to be 86.  She had a life that was ten years longer than her own mother, which was always a puzzlement to mom.  I heard her say on several occasions, “I don’t know why I get to live longer than my mother did.  She was a much better person than I have ever been.”  That wasn’t completely true.  My grandmother was indeed a wonderful person, but so was my mother, just in different ways.  But I am not writing so much to tell you about my mother and grandmother, but to think about the matter of loss and how it affects us.

I grew up in a piece of suburbia outside of Indianapolis known as Eagledale.  There were seven of us who occupied that split level home on Patton Drive, my parents, my three siblings, my grandmother and me. My grandmother is gone, as are both my parents, and two of my siblings, my brothers Earl and David who died at the ages of 40 and 54 respectively.  Out of the seven who lived in that home, only my sister, Kathy, and I are left.   The losses I have experienced in my own life, along with my work as a congregational pastor who has been present with many families in their own time of loss, has helped me to appreciate the gift that life is.  The reality of the finality of our days has taught me to value each day that we have.

In that wonderful little book, “Tuesdays with Morrie,” author Mitch Albom recorded his conversations with Morrie Schwatrz.  Schwartz was a former professor and mentor that Albom reconnected with when he heard that he was dying.  Albom shared this exchange:

Everyone knows they are going to die”, he said again, “but nobody believes it.  If we did, we would do things differently.”  “So we kid ourselves about death,” I said.  “Yes, But there’s a better approach.  To know you are going to die and be prepared for it at any time.  That’s better.  That way you can be more involved in your life while you are out living. . . . The truth is Mitch,” he said, “once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.”

I understand these words.  The personal losses I have dealt with, along with those that I have been present for with church members, has reminded me in a very real way that my own days will have their limit. That just as one day I drew my first breath upon this earth, so shall their come a day that I will take my last one. In between that first and last breath is where we live our lives.  Knowing this should be reason enough for us to live our lives as fully and faithfully as possible. 

For me, the awareness of my own mortality has helped me to laugh more freely, to love more deeply, to care more openly, and to serve more passionately.  Knowing that my days are limited, I have decided that I am going to do my best to not let my days be filled with things like petty differences or holding onto grudges or chasing after a bunch of stuff that all the advertisers tell me I need.  Since I know that I have only so much time, I have decided that there are a lot of things I don’t have time for.  I don’t have time for prejudice and hatred, I only have time to work for reconciliation and peace.  I don’t have time to acquire as much stuff as I can, I have time to work for a world where everyone has enough food to eat and a place that they can call home.  I don’t have time to hold on to anger or to wish someone ill, instead I have time for forgiveness and hoping for and working toward the well-being of others.  This is what the losses I have experienced have taught me . . . how to live.

It is for this very reason, that from time to time, in the church, we need to talk about death.  Not just when someone dies, for it so hard to listen then, but at other times.  From the pulpit and in the classroom, we need to talk with folks about this matter.  In an article for The Disciple published several years back, Dr. Craddock wrote:

The more important a subject the more I want my church to deal with it, openly, honestly, faithfully. Death is such a subject, and I wish my church would talk with me about it. . . .

I want the church to move past my preference that the subject be indefinitely postponed, and initiate the conversation. Be as realistic and comforting as scripture.  Wrap death in song and prayer and let me sit among believers and deal with it.  Do not let my tears silence you and my poor attempts at humor deceive you: you are getting through to me.  

By dealing with the issue of our mortality, we help people grieve the losses they have experienced, but we do more than that.  We actually empower people to live as fully as possible in the present moment by helping them to remember that in our limited days there are some things, such as love, forgiveness, kindness and service to others, that are imminently more important than anything else.

I miss my Mom today, as I do most every day.  My life comes from my mother and my father and the love they shared.  I understand my life also to be a gift from God, who in infinite wisdom, has said there will be a beginning and ending to this life upon earth.  In between that beginning and ending is life.  May we live each day the best that we can.