My friend John got a call one evening from the dementia unit. His father had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for several years. John’s father had dressed himself, packed his suitcase, and was now waiting in a visitor’s lounge. The staff had tried to coax him back into his room. Each time he insisted, “They’re coming to take me home.”
When John got there, he sat and talked calmly with his dad for a while. Eventually they walked together back to his room. After the older man fell asleep, John unpacked his dad’s few belongings, thanked the staff, and drove home.
The next evening, John got another call. The dementia unit again. This time, a nurse gave him the news that his father had died.
When John had finished telling me about his father’s death, he said, “I guess deep down he knew. He sensed that he was dying. They were coming to take him home. And he wanted to be ready.”
Paradoxically, being ready for death is the key to living a full, rewarding, and joyful life. I don’t mean that we’re most alive when we’re bracing for our imminent demise. Instead, I’m talking about a habitual spiritual posture that comes with recognizing and embracing this life’s finitude.
Our earthly life comes to an end. Our hearts will someday beat their last. And we won’t be able to take any of our accumulated treasures with us. For some people this leads to the conclusion that you should eat, drink, and be merry while you can. But Jesus offers a different message.
Life is not about accumulating things and chasing pleasure. It’s not about getting applause, exercising power, or enjoying status. Life is about love. And love is about giving your life away.
Mind you, Jesus enjoyed dinner parties and watching sunsets and laughing with friends just as much as the next guy. Actually, more than the next guy. That’s because Jesus understood how to appreciate fleeting things as fleeting things instead of staking his life on them.
Everyone we care about, everything that gives us pleasure, is a gift given to us for a season. One day, we will have to let them go. We will return these people and these things to the one who gave them to us in the first place. Crucially, we will give our very own lives back to the one who gave it to us.
All of life is practice for giving our lives back to God. That is the only kind of life that transcends death, and it requires that we let go.
Honestly, letting go is not especially easy for most of us. On the contrary, it’s probably our chief spiritual challenge. We’re more likely to consume and to accumulate, to cling and to control. That’s why, just before his Passion, Jesus spent time telling his followers that God is writing an ending for all of our stories.
Jesus said that God will make all things right, heal all wounds, dry every tear, and mend every shattered heart. But you see, it’s God’s ending. Not the ending we’ve imagined or insisted upon or ran ourselves ragged trying to achieve.
And so Jesus adds:
If the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. (Matthew 24:43-44)
In other words, follow the loving example that Jesus set, even if it seems impractical and makes you look crazy. Just give it your best shot and leave the results up to God. For example:
- Forgive even before you get an apology.
- Give the poor the shirt off your back.
- Feed hungry people. Shelter the homeless. Visit prisoners.
- Fight the impulse to punch back.
- Love the one who hates your guts.
- Worship. Pray. Study the Scriptures.
Being ready is trying to live a Jesus-shaped life. It’s not about worrying that you could die at any moment and face the wrath of your Maker. Neither is it being so pious and morally upright that nobody dares to be vulnerable with you.
Being ready is doing our fumbling best to love God and to love our neighbor in the small things of our daily life and trusting that God will make something good and holy and beautiful through it.
This essay is adapted from my book Looking for God in Messy Places. Click here to grab a copy or ask your local bookseller.