“Here am I, O God, of little power and mean estate, yet lifting up heart and voice to Thee before whom all created things are as dust and vapor. Thou art hidden behind the curtain of sense, incomprehensible in Thy greatness, mysterious in Thine almighty power; yet here I speak with Thee familiarly as child to parent, as friend to friend. If I could not speak to Thee, then I were without hope in the world. For it is little that I have power to do or to ordain. Not of my own will am I here and not of my own will shall I soon pass hence.”
As Meg and I prayed these words this morning, along with John Baillie— Scottish Presbyterian of the mid-20th century whose diary of daily prayers is often our guide —I was stopped by their reality. We shall soon pass hence.
I find it is very, very difficult to imagine that this life is not everything. That all that I know in my day-by-day existence is not all that there is. That what I see and hear, taste and touch, is not all that there is. It is almost impossible to think otherwise.
And yet, I do believe that there is more, that this is not all that there is.
A few days ago I took into my heart the death of one of my longest friends, dying too soon with the curse of cancer. And today I have grieved the loss of an unknown little baby, not yet fully formed, and somehow not healthy enough to even make it through the first months of life. These are only two of the stories of the last week; there are more, each one causing me to cry out, groaning with all of creation for a world that is yet to be, one where there is no more death and dying, one where we will no longer feel the tears of mourning fall down onto our faces.
This weekend I had another experience with the frailty of life, one that keeps running through my heart, weighty as it was. A long-prized teacher whose presence goes far back in my life called me, a question in his heart. He wondered if I would be willing to speak at his funeral, remembering him with a eulogy when he dies. On the one hand, he has no plans to die soon, and feels healthy, but he wants to have things in order when he too “shall soon pass hence.”
A consequential question in every way. I am not a pastor, so I do not marry or bury in that more formal sense. But I have come to see that there is something pastoral in my life as professor; not that I have tried to be, I just am. So if a week ago I was asked to give a wedding homily for a young friend and her husband-to-be, a question that has come to me many times over the years, then within a few days I was asked to give the last words for someone on the other end of life, a man who knows that he will not live forever, and wants the important things in place for his funeral.
I told him, “Of course… unless I’m in Timbuktu, or I die first.” But as we finished the relatively short conversation, his tender, poignant and heavy words kept winding their way through my heart. He asked with hope, and I answered with love.
And so praying this morning, the words of Baillie caught my heart, “Not of my will am I here and not of my own will shall I soon pass hence.” True for every one of us, sons of Adam and daughters of Eve that we are. We are stretched taut between what we know, and what we believe, longing in our very bones for something more, something that goes beyond this fragile world where death and dying are the realities of our hours and our days.
(Sunset on the way to Charlottesville, VA)