After a long and wasting sickness, a man lay dying in his bed. He hadn’t been the best of husbands. He’d been an inattentive spouse, and his relationship with his wife often had been rocky, but as he lay dying the man suddenly smelled the aroma of his favorite chocolate chip cookies wafting up the stairs. Smiling faintly, he gathered his strength, lifted himself from bed, and slowly made his way out of the bedroom. With great effort he climbed downstairs, gripping the railing with both hands.
With labored breath, the man leaned against the door frame and gazed into the kitchen. He thought he might already be in heaven, for there before him on the kitchen table were dozens upon dozens of his favorite chocolate chip cookies. Was this heaven, or was this an act of heroic love from a devoted wife, determined to coax her husband back to health and life?
Mustering one final effort, the man threw himself toward the table and reached weakly for a cookie. Suddenly, his hand was smacked with a spatula by his wife who said, “Stay out of those—they’re for the funeral!”
I’m going to tell you a story. At the outset, I’ll say that I am fine. I don’t want you to think there’s some sort of awful punchline at the end. I am fine. But two months ago I experienced, in a day, three spells of intense lightheadedness, in which I thought I would pass out. Within a couple of days after that, I developed a persistent, throbbing headache behind my right ear, accompanied by what was, by then, a continual haze of lightheadedness. It felt as if I had a concussion. As the days wore on, I had trouble concentrating. I’d forget a word here and there, or I’d lose my train of thought. I was mildly worried, so I visited my doctor. He was more than mildly worried. After examining me, my doctor said without hesitation that I needed an MRI to rule out a brain tumor. Only after he had left the exam room did it occur to me that it was a bit ominous he never even broached the subject of what our next steps would be if the MRI were clear.
That was a Monday. The MRI was on Wednesday, and I learned the results—that it was, indeed, clear—on Thursday afternoon. My headache and concussed experience lasted another ten days, most likely related to the nerve of the inner ear, but for those four days, between the first visit to the doctor and the results of the MRI, I walked through the world assuming that I might well have a brain tumor.
Conceptual artist Candy Chang says that “thinking about death clarifies your life.”[i] I am here to tell you, she is right. I would not want to relive the anxiety and worry of those four days any time soon, but, as I shared with the Friday morning men’s bible study the day after I received the MRI results, I hope I never lose sight of the clarity those four days provided. It was razor-sharp and piercing. It was also spiritually potent. I’m someone who is paid to think about God all the time, and I do. But rarely, if ever, have I so closely considered my own relationship to the God who creates me in love and to the blessed world in which that God placed me. In those four days, there was no question about what matters and what doesn’t. My perception of the outside world was concussed and confused, but my inner compass and center of meaning were crystal clear.
It is in similar circumstances that Paul, we are told,[ii] writes his Second Letter to Timothy. Paul is in prison, slated for execution. He is tired, and he is lonely, and he knows that he is about to die. And thinking on that death clarifies Paul’s life. He ends the letter today with a poignant and moving personal benediction: “I have fought the good fight,” he says, “I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.”
St. Paul in prison, awaiting death
For Paul, that fight, that race, that faith has been sharing with whoever will listen the revelation he has experienced in Jesus, which midway through his life stopped him in his tracks (literally)[iii] and changed everything. Earlier in the letter he crystalizes that revelation: “Hold fast,” Paul says, “to the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard that good treasure that has been entrusted to you.” All the rest is commentary.
On normal days, this counsel from a dying apostle is easy to compartmentalize. When the debit and credit ledgers of business beckon, or when personal grudges or personal desires frame our vision, or when the heat of a bizarre national political campaign brings out the worst in us, it is easy to say to ourselves that sharing the love of Jesus is a thing for Sundays. It is also easy to excuse that compartmentalization by leaning, like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable today, on the false self of our relative uprightness compared to all those awful people we assume (or hope) must be worse than we are.
On normal days, it’s easy to set Paul’s counsel as, at best, an aspiration. But there are no aspirations when you’re sitting in prison, awaiting execution. There are no aspirations in the days awaiting potentially dire medical test results. There is only reflection upon the life one has lived, on whether that life has been authentic, and on hope for our lasting influence and impact after one dies. Thinking about death clarifies life.
The artist Candy Chang, who offers this insight, says that such contemplation is not intended to be morose. Candy Chang says that the clarity provided by contemplating death intends to instill a deep gratitude for life.
In 2012, Candy Chang wedded this insight to her vocation as a conceptual artist. In her New Orleans neighborhood, she painted the front face of a dilapidated and abandoned house with chalkboard paint, and she wrote across it the phrase, “Before I die, I want to…” Candy left chalk at the site, and she walked away.
The next day, the wall was full of writing. Dozens of passing people had stopped in their tracks—like St. Paul on the Damascus Road when he met Jesus—and paused to contemplate death. They wrote:
“Before I die, I want to…sing for millions.”
“Before I die, I want to…plant a tree.”
“Before I die, I want to…hold her one more time.”
“Before I die, I want to…be someone’s cavalry.”
People wrote about their regrets, their loves, their deepest yearnings. They wrote about what was most authentic and important, and they shed all pretense to what was not. Their sentiments were true. They were unselfish. They focused like a laser on what more could be given, where love could be shared, and where grace could be found.
That New Orleans wall became like a latter-day temple wall in Jerusalem, where the Pharisee and the tax collector went to pray. But no one approached Candy Chang’s art with the Pharisee’s air of self-righteousness, or with clouded rationalization and excuse. No one did, because contemplating death clarifies life. All comers approached like the tax collector, in humility, in tears, and leaning on grace. They reflected upon the lives they’d lived, and they hoped for those who would endure, and they were grateful.
Whether our time horizon is decades or days, there is piercing clarity in asking, “Before you finish the race, what do you want to do before you die?” St. Paul says, “Hold fast to the faith and love found in Jesus.” Guard that treasure, and share it in everything you say and do.
[ii] Most biblical scholars agree that Paul did not actually write 2 Timothy, but that it was, rather, written retrospectively by the Pauline community some year’s after Paul’s death.
[iii] Acts 9:1-4