The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away. (Psalm 90:10)
On Thursday this week (November 9), I mark my three-score-years-and-ten as I celebrate my 70th birthday. My wife has promised to make her greatly lauded banana pudding. It will otherwise be a low-key day.
I have been reflecting on its approach for some time, however. Yesterday I described it as the “expiration of my warranty” as I sat in my doctor’s examining room with two geriatric complaints. I note that with the achievement of the 70 mark, there ensues the “labor and sorrow” of the bonus years. There is a common joke that runs: “If I’d known I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.” I add to that the observation that no matter how much care you take, you will still be “cut off” and “fly away.”
The fathers of the desert taught that we should “keep death before our eyes.” At a recent gathering (for my youngest daughter’s wedding) I made a comment to a group of strangers that referenced my death (I think I was wondering out loud when the next time would be when I would see all four of my children together at the same time). Their reaction surprised me – as they were quickly suggesting that I shouldn’t say such things (much less think about them). I forgot how much the general public fears death.
From 1998-2000 I worked as a hospice chaplain in the mountains of East Tennessee. On average, I saw three deaths per week. Some of the patients I came to know quite well. Death is an intimate thing. The experience pressed upon me the reality of my own mortality. There is the common epitaph on gravestones in old New England:
Remember me as you pass by.
As you are now, so once was I;
As I am now, so you must be,
Therefore prepare to follow me.
A similar sentiment can be found associated with the bones of monks on Mt. Athos.
That our culture is governed by a cult of youth is a mark of its foolishness and a prime example of its denial of reality. Modernity’s championing of technology often provokes the young into imagining that they know more than the generations that went before. Knowing how to program a tv-remote or manipulate the in’s and out’s of computer programs does not constitute wisdom. Often, it constitutes nothing more than a testimony to wasted time.
We’re all going to die.
The outcome of my hospice experience was to give serious thought to what it means to “die well.” It is actually a question that seriously ponders what it is to “live well.” What things do those who are dying value most? What things do they most regret? As a Christian, we can rightly ask, “Am I ready to stand naked before Christ?”
I like a statement attributed to a mouse. In CS Lewis’ The Dawn Treader, the courageous mouse Reepicheep describes his plans. The ship he is on is sailing East (toward Aslan’s Land). He says:
“My own plans are made. While I can, I sail east in the Dawn Treader. When she fails me, I paddle east in my coracle. When she sinks, I shall swim east with my four paws. And when I can swim no longer, if I have not reached Aslan’s country, or shot over the edge of the world into some vast cataract, I shall sink with my nose to the sunrise.”
Mutatis mutandis, it seems to describe the desire of my heart.