Dave stood in the threshold, waving with his right hand and propping the screen door open with his left. I was sitting behind the steering wheel of my Jeep, leaning over to wave through the passenger window. A wordless affection passed between us. My heart ached as I put the car in gear and started the long drive home.
His wife Doris had phoned me with the news of his pancreatic cancer. By the time they had gotten the diagnosis, Dave’s remaining time was reckoned in weeks. I told my wife Joy, and she agreed that I should clear my calendar to go see Dave. Within a couple of days, I had driven across three states to spend some time with my friend.
We passed a day laughing, talking, and gazing silently out the windows of his sunroom at the hay fields surrounding his house. Around noon we shared a simple lunch of homemade corn chowder and freshly baked bread. Eventually he got around to reflecting on his approaching death.
What Dave said that day helped me to see what Jesus was getting at when he told his friends, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” (John 14:1)
Jesus was preparing his friends for his own death. And he was also telling them that love is the key to living wholeheartedly in a world where the ones who love us and the ones we love most will die. In a world where each one of us will die. Paradoxically, we learn about the depth and power of God’s love only when we befriend our own mortality. That’s what Dave did.
As his disease progressed, he began to sense his mortality in his bones. Not as pain but as a sort of visceral wisdom. He saw each breath as an expression of God’s love for him. The beating of his heart murmured, “Love is at work here.”
From one perspective, our mortality is a brute biological fact. We have a chronological sell-by date. Our EEG will eventually go flat. But with reflection we can discover in our finitude an essential spiritual lesson. Our lives are not self-sustaining. To exist, we draw sustenance from a source beyond ourselves.
You may have heard people say that we come into this life alone and that we leave it alone. And between our beginning and our end we’re on our own to make something of ourselves. But Jesus teaches us that this is an illusion.
God’s love is not a long-distance affection. It’s an intimate union. In the risen Jesus, God has braided together the human and the divine. Right down to core of our being. What we are, and who we are, and that we are emerges from our intimate connection with God.
Later in that final evening with his friends, Jesus put it like this:
“Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
Let’s get a little personal. Listen to your own heartbeat for minute. Feel your lungs inhaling and exhaling. And then say to yourself, as honestly as you can, that there is nothing that you can do to guarantee the next heartbeat or breath.
Dave had done something like this. And and he felt the wonder of simply being alive. He experienced his existence in that moment as a gift, the gift of connection to the risen Christ.
He felt in the depths of his soul that each moment of his existence was being provided by the power of God’s love. To exist is to be held, to be tenderly nurtured and sustained, by God’s own love.
Death cannot sever a connection like that. Neither can suffering or sorrow. As St. Paul famously said, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35, 38-39)
Ultimately, death teaches us to be true to ourselves. It teaches us that we are the Beloved, the one held in an infinite and eternal embrace by God. We’re true to ourselves when we love.
Some will tell you that love breaks your heart. And, while love can bring with it sorrow and confusion and frustration, it does not finally break our hearts. That’s because the love we give is the love we have received from God. That love cannot be obliterated.
When the ones we love pass from this plane—and when our own time comes—the power of love means that we never have to say goodbye. We can just say, “I’ll see you down the road.”
What Anne Lamott says about Looking for God in Messy Places: “This is beautiful and brilliant stuff, profound and plain, incredibly human, wise and charming. I trusted and enjoyed every word.” Learn more and grab a copy here.
Jake, Golden writing. Touched by God
Thank you Christopher 🙏🙏
Thank you for this powerful and beautiful reflection and reminder… as my friend Simon’s retelling of the Canticle of St Francis states—Sister death, first and last breath. ♥️
Oh that’s lovely and powerful
So well said, Jake. I’m supplying at a very attractive church tomorrow in Wilsonville, Oregon. The people there are very welcoming. I hope that I do tomorrow’s gospel reading half as well as you have.
I know you were a blessing