The Spiritual Landscape
Final Words or Parting Shot?
Those relationships may not lie within your family. Growing up together and sharing the same name creates a context for friendship, but it doesn't guarantee it. There is something as random about family connections as there is about all the other relationships that shape our lives. Blood is not thicker than water and there is a difference between a family of chance and a family of choice.
Celebrate your family of choice. Let go of the need to make the family of chance work.
Two: Look for hopeful ways of thinking about the future.
For Christians, at any rate, the end is not the end. One of the things that has narrowed and impoverished Christian spirituality is the notion that life is a heaven or hell, saved or damned, tableau through which individuals walk and with which everything comes to an end.
God's work embraces us as individuals, to be sure. But the outworking of God's will is a far larger undertaking and it is not all about us. Our lives gain meaning by taking their place in the life and work of God, not because God takes a place in our small lives.
That's a hopeful thing. It doesn't diminish us. And, properly understood, we don't disappear into it. Find a way to register that you leave this dimension of our lives together, deeply embraced by the people of God who are not just part of something happening now, but which has a future as well.
Three: Memorialize the values that shaped your life.
If you can imagine saying at the end of your life, these are the values that still matter, you may find the spiritual values worth living for now. Far too many of us live our lives incrementally, driven by values and concerns that do not merit the investment that we make in them. That's not surprising. We all worship something and we all live by a code shaped by the things we worship. And there are times in life when we fail to reflect deeply on the things that have found their way to the center of our lives.
Last wills and testaments give us an opportunity to give something of ourselves to the things we value most. And deciding what those are now can be instructive. The Christian life, properly understood, is not a performance with a carrot or a stick at the far end of the experience. This life and the life to come are two parts of the same experience and they ought to be lived that way.
Four: Find a way to hold open the possibility of healing and forgiveness.
My students ask me from time to time if I believe in Purgatory. I do. Oh, not as a "place" per se and certainly not in the grim medieval categories that emphasize purgation to the point that all traces of love and hope are erased.
But I do believe that we all have homework left to do. And I do believe that if God works this hard to find us in this life, God won't give up on us in the next one. For that reason alone, we shouldn't give up on one another.
That's the problem with Maxwell E. Snavely's last will and testament. The people cited in his will are frozen in time, without a hope of healing and forgiveness. Some people certainly appear to belong in that category, but in God's way of seeing things, I think most of us are capable of more.
That is not to suggest that some of us will find ourselves at funerals where we have done all we can do in this lifetime to remain open and vulnerable to another human being. Nor is to say that when we die, there are not troubled relationships we will leave behind. There are times when there is little that we can do, other than to trust someone to God's grace and wisdom.
In the case of troubled, broken, dangerous, or toxic relationships, there are times when the only thing we can do is to say, "This was hurtful and you knew it, but I love you anyway. And may God keep you and give you peace."
Those final words may not be as satisfying as a parting shot, but they are words that prepare the way for healing.
Frederick W. Schmidt is the author of The Dave Test: A Raw Look at Real Life in Hard Times (Abingdon Press: 2013) and several other books, including A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). He holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He and his wife, Natalie live in Chicago, Illinois. He can also be reached at: http://frederickwschmidt.com/