Because we believe it is our due, we are confident that even the darkest clouds have silver linings. When someone dies in old age, we rejoice that he had a long and full life. When someone is taken suddenly, we are comforted to know that he did not suffer long. When someone dies young but not so suddenly, we are glad he had the opportunity to say goodbye, to get his affairs in order. We find reasons to give thanks not only in death but in dying.
That is, when we are merely terminal but not yet terminated, we have this blessing: we can live each day as if it were our last. Sometimes the doctors seem to give us enough of a glimpse of the future — you have weeks, you have months — that we think it changes everything.
The truth is, of course, we are all terminal. A few years ago, I felt it prudent to herd my many children down to the basement as trees began to bow and debris began to race across our meadow. I explained as we marched down the stairs that it was possible a tornado was headed our way. My then five-year-old Maili earnestly asked, “Are we going to die, Daddy?” Forgive my theological precision, but I told her: “Of course we’re going to die, darling. But I don’t think it will be today.”
The future, or rather our knowledge of it, isn’t binary. That is, we are neither omniscient about what is to come nor utterly ignorant. Some things we know; some things we don’t. Most things we know only vaguely.
We know that we are going to die, but we don’t know when. We know that others we love are going to die, but we don’t know when. Neither do we usually know how. What we do know, however, is exactly what we need to know. What we ought to know is this: knowing more details about our future should not radically change our present.
“What would you do if you knew you had only a year, a month, a week, a day, an hour to live?” may make for an interesting parlor game, but the answer ought to be “The same thing I have been doing, hoping that I have decades left to live.”
On the one hand, we ought not to be living casual lives, walking through lackadaisical days on the brash assumption that we have plenty of time in front of us.
On the other hand, though, we don’t want to toss aside the wisdom of a calm, faithful, steady life on the grounds that it could all end tomorrow. If I were to die tomorrow, I only hope that I will have been faithful today.
Our calling, in short, is not grounded ultimately in our peculiar circumstances. We don’t have one set of obligations when we are healthy and looking forward to many more years and a different set when we are beset with illness and already feel the icy breath of death on the backs of our necks.
My own circumstances as I type this column are not easy. My dear wife is suffering from leukemia. By the time this article reaches your hands, we will find ourselves in one of three circumstances. The least likely is that we will still be in this great battle. One option is that her stem-cell transplant will have cured her. The third option is that she will be completely cured in her soul but that her body will be resting in the grave.
Whatever the future holds, my calling now is to love my wife faithfully. I did, after all, vow to love and to cherish her in plenty and in want, in sickness and in health. The whole point of the liturgy is to affirm that circumstances will not sever the commitment.
The same is true of each of us as we together constitute the bride of Christ. He calls us to love, honor, and obey Him in every and all circumstances. His pledged love to us is not that we would avoid suffering and death but that He would remain faithful. We, in turn, are called to be faithful to Him, to seek first and always, in plenty and in want, in sickness and in health, His kingdom and His righteousness.
Because we know this—that He is faithful—and we are called to be the same, we are able to do what we are called to do: to trust in Him. He is the perfect husband, and all that He sovereignly brings into our lives He brings for our good and His glory. He gifts us, as His bride, not with diamonds and pearls but with that which is far more valuable—the very fruit of the Spirit.
His promise is that He is making us more like Him, and we could wish for nothing greater. Because we know where we are going—that we will be like Him, that He will and does hold us, laugh with us, and dance with us—we can be at peace in all things. We can profess with deepest joy: “The Lord giveth. The Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”