This entry was completed on January 1, 2010.
This morning I got word that my uncle has advanced lung cancer. It was tough news to receive on the morning of New Year’s day. Very tough. My mother’s youngest brother.
My connections with Uncle Earl over the years have been too thin, yet I’ve always admired him and cared for him. He’s a gifted, sensitive, and self-effacing man whose wry humor always keeps things in balance. What I heard this morning is that the disease has advanced so far that no chemotherapy or aggressive radiation treatments will be used. I’m not beyond having hope, but so far we haven’t heard anything from the medical community that offers human hope.
The news gives a certain perspective to life. It reminds me once again that life is “a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14). When I was much younger and doing my first Bible read-through this verse in James caught my attention. I’ve now had nearly 45 years of reminders since noticing it: of having national and international figures die as part of the daily news; of losing relatives, friends, and acquaintances. I still miss my father who has been gone for over 20 years. Life is brief and uncertain: a mist.
Even in reflecting on the pain that goes with such losses this entry is not meant to be a lament. There are different ways to view death. Two weeks ago I attended the funeral of a man who touched my life years before at a key moment. Willard Aldrich was then president of the college where I held a short-term staff position. He invited me to shape my anticipated seminary studies with a view to become a college educator. I took his advice. When he died he was 100 years old and his memorial service was a celebration of how his life had touched many, many others.
When my uncle passes from this life—whether sooner or later—he, too, will have touched many lives. Sometimes in very small ways—my enjoyment today of listening to the banjo was birthed in Earl’s lively plucking and strumming—and his two daughters, my lovely cousins Blythe and Lynne, have become significant contributors to two major Seattle-area companies, Starbucks and Boeing. Gifts beget gifts.
So it is that today a double reflection has emerged: of having a new year ahead of us, with all its potential opportunities; and the reminder from Willard, and the news about Earl, that life is only a mist. One reflection is about the near term of today, tomorrow, and this coming year. The other is about the longer term reality of life and death.
Let me start with the longer term future. One of my deepest certainties of faith is that death is not an end but a beginning. As I shared in my last entry, “On Christmas Day”, one of the great motif’s of the Bible is that God the Father determined in the beginning to create a bride for his Son. And all of us who “kiss the Son”—I’m thinking here of Psalm 2—will have the joy of being included in the event foreshadowed in Psalm 45: of the Son being given his bride. This picture of the Son’s marriage with his collective bride—all of us who know and love him—culminates at the end of the book of Revelation with the wedding feast of the Lamb.
The point of this “big” view—extending beyond our present existence—is that this life only raises a curtain on something much, much greater than whatever it is that this life offers. And the Bible regularly reminds readers that this world, despite its moments of joy and promise, has been broken by our deeply rooted alienation from the Creator. It gives us enough promise to make us long for a better place and time, but it never gets us there. Heaven is not a current address for any of us.
And yet we are called citizens of heaven as soon as we embrace the Son who grants us his Father’s eternal life. Our response to him loosens our embrace of other ambitions—all the promises of the pseudo-heavens this world offers us. As the old folk chorus puts it, “This world in not my home, I’m just a passing through . . .” Life is a mist.
The second reflection is shaped by this bigger picture. Today is the first day of the new year. No one knows exactly how the year will unfold but most of us are optimistic about it: we hope to enjoy family and friendships, to make plans for work, studies, travels, and so on. By tradition a new year offers new opportunities: something of a blank slate to begin writing anew. We need that, don’t we! It’s the mercy of a fresh start.
What we must not miss, though, is that in most cases the bigger picture will show a single trajectory of travel from year to year. Our basic ambitions don’t change just because we take down an old annual calendar and put up a new one. Instead our lives are ruled by our greatest desires—or by our “will” as it’s often labeled in our Western Stoicism. Yet it’s actually our hearts that define our directions in life. So even having the clean slate of a new year offers no real mercy unless our hearts are well-directed for the new year. And only a new heart offers promise of a better direction in the new year.
So let me return now to the letter written by James, and the “mist” discussion I noted above. That text comes soon after an earlier discussion of two types of wisdom: one from “above” and a wisdom that is “not” from above! Listen, then, to James:
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:13-15)
That little addition, “if the Lord wills”, is all that differs between making plans one way or in another way. One is an exercise of human independence from God; the other is an exercise of engaging God’s providence: the certainty that he loves us and is ready to work in all our circumstances for his ultimate and very good purposes. Everything in this life is meant to get us ready for that coming wedding feast.
Embracing the wisdom that comes from above or, on the other hand, a wisdom from the world, will define each of our new years. God wants us to look ahead and when we do, to be among those who see Christ waiting for us.
So, even with whatever jolting news we may find awaiting us in this year, let me wish all of you a “happy New Year” in the embrace of the Son! Only there will we find the peace God wants us to enjoy.
And—with all of what I’ve just written as context—please, pray with me for my Uncle Earl and his family. I love them and still hope for his recovery.