The other evening I was grabbing a quick sushi dinner at the local grocery store’s deli when I saw him. An old man sitting alone, eating his roast beef and mashed potato dinner. He wasn’t the only solitary diner that night, but for some reason I couldn’t look away. There was an almost ineffable air of sadness emanating from him. He wasn’t used to eating alone. His hand quivered as he ate, and he stared off into the distance, lost in thought. I watched him for a few minutes, wondering what he was thinking about. Was he remembering meals shared with a wife who was no longer living? Did he look back on home-cooked meals in a warm kitchen, the sound of laughter mingling with the comfort of belonging? Was he still saying good-bye, day after day after day? Does he still mourn? What fills his days? What keeps him hoping when so much of what he loves is gone?
I just finished reading a book called “How it Ends: from You to the Universe.” The main concept (which is pretty self-evident when you think about it) is that everything has an ending. From may-flies to macaws, walruses to whales, hamsters to humans – we all will die. Snails and sequoias alike will one day meet their end. And as much as we may not be aware of it, everything has an expiration date: from the Sun’s impending (in 9-10 billion years or so) transition to white-dwarfdom, to the eventual cooling and heat death of the massive black-holes at the centers of galaxies (1098 years, or a trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion years into the future) – everything comes to an end.
11 years ago I spent four months studying in Jerusalem. One of the highlights of our time there was participating in the drama and pageantry of Holy Week. We dove into every experience, reading along with the events of the last week of Jesus’ life, often in the place they were said to have taken place. Many of us went to a Palm Sunday celebration and waved palm branches on the Mount of Olives. We spent time on Thursday evening praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. And then, a few of us gathered in a basement classroom at JUC and spent some time singing, praying, listening, and washing each other’s feet. This intimate act of service drew us closer, and cemented in my mind the kind of life I wanted to be living – a life marked by acts of extravagant beauty, fierce kindness, and deep grace, even when the world is crumbling around you. After all, this is what Jesus spent the last night of his life doing – sharing a meal with the friends he loved, teaching them, serving them, washing their feet, assuring them of his love and care, that in the end “all shall be well…” A few short hours later, he was taken, arrested, and executed.
I’ve been thinking a lot about endings recently. They’ve been all around me, it seems.
The other day I drove by the cemetery where my mom is buried. We talked about her and her death the other evening with some ladies who knew her, and remembered, and laughed, and then grew quiet.
A few weeks ago I sat in the cancer center of a local hospital and interpreted for a patient who was diagnosed with terminal cancer and only a few months to live. I was the conduit for the flood of information and emotion between the doctor and this family who were informed that their husband and father was going to die soon.
I could have easily been killed in my car accident a few months ago, and in a hundred other situations throughout my life (well, at least 20 or so… that I know of…)
The other day I interpreted for a family that had lost their newborn baby. I sat in the hospital room as the priest baptized the dead body of this tiny infant that never really had a chance to live, as the mother and father wept, and as we mourned a life that was extinguished before it began.
In the past few months, dreams and relationships have changed, ended, and are no longer what they once were. Every one is a little death to be mourned.
The week of the Passion is upon us, as we remember Jesus’ final week of life and ministry here on earth before his death and resurrection. All these things seem to be pointing me towards something that I’d rather not think about. They remind me that even though we live in a culture that denies the reality of death, that values youth, beauty, and vitality – even so, we are all going to die.
All things come to an end.
Our only choice is how we will live our life in light of the fact that one day, it will come to an end. When relationships fall crashing to the ground, will we retreat into a shell to avoid being hurt, or continue to step out in authenticity and vulnerability, risking and giving our self to others? When loss seems to haunt our every step, does our faith in God’s goodness grind to a halt? When questions and doubt overwhelm, where do we turn? And can knowing that all things come to an end actually enable us to live a little more wisely? Love a little more lavishly? Forgive a little more extravagantly? Trust implicitly? Dream a little larger?
What does it look like to live as Jesus did, fully aware of the endings, and the questions?
These are the questions that are bouncing around in my head and my heart as I seek to enter into the mystery of these next few days – trying to, as Rilke would say, “live the questions… Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
What are your questions this Maundy Thursday? What are the things ending in your life that need to be mourned? What are the choices you need to make in light of endings?