The hardest part of dying is the haunted hunch that I’m leaving loose ends, that I don’t have enough time to complete things, important things. If completion is life’s goal, I am limping off the track miles before the finish line.
I won’t grow old and cranky with Jaci. I won’t get to tease her as I lounge at the breakfast table that she’s not old enough to retire and I won’t get to kiss her on the steps of the Acropolis and I won’t get to take care of her when she’s ill and we won’t get to muse together about how longevity and wisdom somehow supplant even passion in time’s alchemy. Loose ends.
Nor will I get to see my kids’ weddings. I won’t share embarrassing childhood stories about them at their rehearsal dinners and I won’t wait in the lobby as they deliver their children and I won’t get to remember their baptisms as I baptize their kids and I won’t marvel at their talents in service to God’s world. I won’t get to talk them through the transformations of the decades. Loose ends.
And I won’t know my grandchildren. I won’t get to teach them wet willies and I will never laugh when they pee in the backyard and I won’t smile mischievously and hand them back to their parents because I have grown tired of taking care of them. I will never read them bedtime stories or go to their soccer games or conspire to confront their parents about what they’re doing wrong while appearing not to do so. I’m just enough self-possessed to think, too, that my grandchildren will be somewhat different for missing out on time with me. Loose ends.
My counselor says that naming lost dreams helps us grieve them, and he’s right, though I am uncertain that this grief can be overcome. My life will conclude amidst loose ends. I will die incomplete.
I feel like the Jeff Goldblum character in The Big Chill. He’s a disappointed writer, lamenting to his now middle-aged college friends that he’s writing puff pieces for People Magazine. “I’m tired of writing articles that people read on the toilet.”
One of his friends retorts, “You can read Dostoevsky on the toilet.”
“Yes,” Goldblum responds sardonically, “but you can’t finish it.”
There’s something about completion, a satisfaction which comes only with tying up loose ends and bringing a story to its proper conclusion. Dying young makes this impossible, and this makes me really very sad.
Lent begins today. When Christmas came to seem scant, Lent became my favorite time of the year. I was startled by this transition at first, in much the same surprise as when I discovered that I preferred officiating funerals to officiating weddings. The realization began with the merest of intuitions, a vague sense that Lent is deep and beautiful and true. It has grown into a full-throated praise that God is the Lord of life and of death and that we belong to God in both.
Still, connecting the sobriety of Lent with the alleluias of resurrection takes some time. When I was a parish minister I was always tongue-tied when a teenager came forward for the imposition of the ashes. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.” Saying this to a fourteen year old is something like quoting the theory of relativity to a third grader. With the rare exception, they just aren’t ready to hear it.
As we age, though, if we’re lucky enough to get liver spots and weak bladders, we get closer to understanding what a heap of ashes these bodies really are, and since we had nothing to do with willing ourselves into existence at the beginning of life we must face the fact that we may not will ourselves into new existence after death. If our story finds completion, or if it ends abruptly and too soon, still, it is part of a larger story whose author is grander than we are.
The goal, then, is thanking the Author. And the best way to do so is to live our stories with all of our hearts, minds, and souls.
Here is the Lenten logic, then; there’s nothing like taking a knee and rubbing ashes on your forehead to make you feel vulnerable. And there’s nothing like feeling vulnerable to remind us upon whom we may depend. And there’s nothing like depending on God to give us the courage to be obedient. Vulnerability leads to courage leads to obedience, and there, just then, we meet Jesus.
Just think about Jesus. Talk about vulnerability! What courage! How obedient!
Now think about Jesus’ last words, at least as John’s Gospel has it; “It is finished.”
There is a subtle distinction, it seems to me, between being finished and being complete. To finish something is to bring it to an end. To complete something is to tie up all the loose ends. After Jesus’ life is finished, Christ’s life continues: resurrection, ascension, glory, and finally, someday, completion. But not yet. Being finished doesn’t necessarily mean being complete.
Lent invites our contemplation of this truth and the incorporation of our story into it. If Jesus can finish in incompletion, well, I suppose I can, too. Penitence, then, is the embrace of our personal incompleteness. Confession is our willingness both to see and to say this truth. Heaven is God’s tying up the loose ends.
I’m still sad, of course, thinking about what I’m going to miss, thinking about those who might miss me. But they’re going to be okay. God will see to it.
As for me, the only thing bigger than my grief is my trust in God, and God isn’t finished with me yet.
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