I am officially in the season of my life when my friends are reminding me of our shared mortality. No matter how hard we try to not be like our elders have been at our age, whenever we folks now in our 70’s get together in person or on zoom, sharing of health concerns tends to dominate or at least infect our conversations. I have for years had a dread of the time when one of my close friends dies, wondering when that may happen; and being grateful that I have been fortunate to reach 76 years without that experience. But now I know it is not a question of if that will occur, but when.
A year ago we lost a good friend who my wife had known for 40 plus years. I had only shared that friendship with her for 8 or 9 years. This year a good friend we’ve both known for 20 years is dying of lung cancer, and also two very good friends of mine whom I have known for over 50 years are facing possible life-threatening issues. Given all that the familiar warning of John Donne to not “ask for whom the bell tolls” takes on a whole new existential meaning.
I was researching another topic the other day and came across some curious biblical passages that address but add no clarity to the familiar quandary we all wrestle with—how long can I expect to live. On that topic Genesis 6:3 has God saying, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.” That could be both good news and bad. But only a chapter later we are told “Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of waters came on the earth.” (Genesis 7:6) And to further muddy the waters (no pun intended) Psalm 90:10 says, “The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.”
If we want certainty about how long we can expect to live those verses certainly don’t help. They were written by different authors in very different contexts; but here’s what they are saying to me. No one really knows how long they will walk on this earth. We can let that uncertainty drive us crazy, or we can make peace with it and live in the only time we really ever have – Today. Some days it is easier to do that than others of course, but finding that peace that passes all human understanding always depends on how well we can surrender our doubts and fears to the very source of our life.
Surrender is hard for us competitive type humans. It sounds like defeat or loss, and most of us really hate losing. But this kind of surrender is just the opposite. It is victory at the deepest level to find relief from things we cannot conquer on our own but need to offer up to a higher power. Prayer can take a multitude of forms, but it is the best way we have to connect with that higher power and simply trust in the goodness and mercy only God can give.
As I was writing this, the words to an old hymn I have not sung for many years, but the lyrics to “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” by Joseph Scriven are still in my memory bank, and they really sum up this whole matter and many other mysteries of life very well. Those lyrics in part say,
“O what peace we often forfeit,
O what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry
Everything to God in prayer!”