“What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” (James 4:14)
“As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.” (Psalm 103:15-16)
In every day’s edition of this newspaper we can find obituaries. When the names and dates on a particular day don’t involve us personally, it’s easy to take that verity for granted: Yes, those people were born; they lived; they died.
We may speculate about how such a young person died, or marvel that someone else lived more than a century.
The more sensitive among us may breathe a word of prayer for those unknown families whose worlds have been upset by the passings, but we soon flip to the comics page, the box scores or the grocery ads.
Let one of those names be that of a close friend or beloved relative, though, and reality stares back at us in stark black ink.
This time it is our own world that is changed forever, our own order of things that is disordered. Somehow, though, most of us learn eventually to deal with such a loss and to live in the “new normal” dictated by the absence.
What is most difficult to accept is that someday it will be our own name that stares out at our loved ones from an obituary.
Perhaps accident or disease will snuff us out at what seems a tragically early age. In this day of medical advances, more and more of us will die with dementia, having not recognized ourselves or the world around us for years.
Perhaps we’ll take our last breath when we are, like Isaac, David, Jehoida and Job, “full of days,” or even like Moses, who was still strong and sharp-eyed in his old age. We don’t get to choose the time or the circumstances of our death; we can only be prepared for it.
Judeo-Christian scripture asserts repeatedly that human life is finite – and short. It’s compared to sun-scorched plants, a vapor that quickly evaporates, a breeze that passes by and is gone.
In Psalm 90, the poet writes, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”
Perhaps he felt we should live this life in anticipation of the next – to leave a worthy legacy, to be a faithful witness, to set an example that recognizes time as subordinate to eternity, that recognizes our wishes as subordinate to God’s purposes.
If we have such a heart of wisdom, we can see death in its true perspective: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’” (Rev. 21:3-4)
An obituary can’t say all that. Our lives have to say it instead.