“The span of our life is seventy years,
Perhaps in strength even eighty;
Yet the sum of them is but labor and sorrow,
For they pass away quickly and we are gone (Ps. 90:12)
“O God, whose days are without end, and whose mercies cannot be numbered: Make us, we pray, deeply aware of the shortness and uncertainty of human life…BCP, p.504).”
Life is short. We are reminded of this when someone dies before their time. My wife and I have a good friend named Roger who died a week ago at age 61. He retired two years ago and was just getting into the groove of his new life when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. After a year of heroic fighting and various surgeries and therapies, the end came quickly. His death hit us hard, not only because he was a good friend, but because he was just two years older than we are.
Death has a way of reorienting us. One of my first reactions to his death was to think about what I want to do before I die. Such a reaction is not necessarily a bad thing. But if it leads us to live our lives in fear, frenetically trying to do everything on our bucket list before it is too late, I think we will be sorely disappointed. Who wants to live driven by fear? However, if it leads us to be intentional about how we live rather than drifting along with the prevailing winds, then we are on the right road. For example, if we are afraid to leave a job we don’t like, confronting “the shortness and uncertainty of human life” may move us to action. Oscar Wilde once said, “I don’t want to earn a living, I want to live.” At the end of the day we may indeed have to stay in our less than satisfying job, but there is no excuse for not exploring alternatives.
Awareness of the shortness and uncertainty of life draws our attention to our relationships. It is so easy to put off the next visit to our parents, siblings, or a best friend because there will always be next year. Who knows? We may be aware that we are not spending enough time with our families, but keep telling ourselves that we will eventually re-order our priorities. The fact of the matter is that there are no guarantees that we will always have more time to make those changes.
Finally, awareness of our mortality turns our attention to God: “Lord, you have been our refuge from one generation to another (90:1).” The antidote to living in fear of death is knowing that God is with us. This is one of the reasons it is important to go to funerals and visit people at the time of death, and not shield ourselves from death. Avoiding the reality of death only increases our anxiety. Awareness of the shortness and uncertainty of our lives opens us to placing our trust in the enduring reliability of God. As St. Paul put it: we discover that nothing, not even death, can ever separate from the love of God in Christ Jesus (cf. Rom 8: 38—39).
Life is short. Let us live fully the days God gives us and place our trust in a power stronger than death.