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Being mortal … and more

In the mark of ashes, we take stock of our lives in the light of God’s holiness.


Retired Pastor, Michigan Conference

My friend said, “It’s a depressing book. It says we are all going to get old and we are all going to die.”

She was speaking about Atul Gawande’s best-selling book “Being Mortal”. I had resisted buying it because I felt like I had read enough “death and dying” books during the years of my ministry to last the rest of my lifetime, but then my book group selected it so I ordered a used copy. My friend was right, of course. Gawande goes into detail about medical care for the aged, nursing homes and hospice with the first message being the obvious one–we are all mortal. We are all going to die. Many of us will get old and go through the gradual loss of physical strength and mental faculties. The truth is none of us are going to get out of this life alive.

But there is more. Gawande says, “When life’s fragility is primed, peoples’ goals and motives in their every day lives shift completely. It’s perspective, not age, that matters most.” (page 99) As he shares the story of his own father’s decline and death, he writes, “Only then did I begin to recognize how understanding the finitude of  one’s time could be a gift.” (page 209)

I reflected on this last week as I received word of a 65 year-old friend’s diagnosis–PSP, Progressive Supranuclear Palsy. In my forty-plus years of pastoral ministry I had never heard of this one so I did what everyone does, I Googled it. I discovered it is a degenerative, progressive disease with no cure. My friend is already experiencing the effects of blurred vision, lack of balance and difficulty with mobility. All of a sudden I was confronted with the simple truth we all try to ignore–we are all mortal. The difference between my friend and me is that even though in my head I know I am going to die, he KNOWS he is going to die. Perspective makes all the difference. Understanding our finitude helps us to see our time as a gift.

This week Christians around the world will bear the mark of ashes, given with the traditional words, “Remember thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return”. The sign of ashes is a reminder of our finitude. In the mark of ashes, we take stock of our lives in the light of God’s holiness and view our mortality in the depth of God’s immortality.

But there is still more. Unfortunately, Gawande approaches being mortal with no faith, no deep abiding convictions about the spiritual side of life. As a Christian, I would ask, “Is there not an eternal dimension to our living, something that outlasts our earthly life? And isn’t there a God who journeys with us through our days and our endings into whatever lies on the other side? Is there something more than simply “being mortal”?

And of course, Jesus would say, “Yes, there is more!” On the other side of Ash Wednesday and Lent comes Easter and on the other side of this mortal life comes Resurrection.

There is so much more. And that, my dear mortal friends, is the perspective which makes all the difference.