Ragged endings and hope-shaped lives

When I was a teenager I loved reading biographies.  (I still do in fact, but I have much less time to devote to it.)

One of the things that fascinated me was the way in which people died.  It was probably a precocious neurosis, but in looking back on it, I think my preoccupation with the way people’s lives ended was also rooted in something for which we all long: for our lives to make sense, to mean something, to end logically, to finish in a way shaped by the same life-long dreams and convictions motivated us.  So, when I got to the end of those biographies, I hoped to find some defining final words or noble action.

The truth, of course, is that most of our lives have a ragged ending.  I’ve been reminded of that a great deal this month:

  • A dear friend and colleague stood up for what he believed to be the shape of the Kingdom and, having resigned his parish on principle, discovered that he had colon cancer and died only a few months later.
  • A former advisee and student graduated three or four years ago, served a single stint as a hospital chaplain, and died of breast cancer.
  • One of the students enrolled in our direction program had barely finished half of the process when she died of a massive heart attack.
  • And, then, this week two colleagues from my days at the Cathedral died —- one from yet another protracted battle with cancer — the other, alone in his home on the way to serve as a lifeguard at St. Alban’s Boys School.

The stories are only illustrative — the stuff of my own meditation.  But the larger truth remains.  Life ends this way more often than not.  We slip away in the fog of medication.  We lose ground to a grinding battle of attrition with disease.  The illness itself robs us of our faculties.  Or an accident claims our lives suddenly and without warning.

In reflecting on it, however, I’ve concluded that it is not how life ends that matters, but how we live it.  The Christian life is not a morality play, with bookend beginnings and endings.  It is a life shaped by resurrection hope that is ours in Christ and it is only in giving ourselves to that life-shaping hope that our stories deepen in their meaning.

So, on this day I give thanks for the lives of those friends whose stories ended unevenly and far too soon, but who witnessed to the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection:

  • For John
  • For Marissa
  • For Steve
  • For Erica

May light perpetual shine upon them and may God watch over and between us.  Amen.

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Rueben 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 is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, as well as several books: 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), Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009), and The Dave Test (Abingdon, 2013). He and his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), live in Highland Park, Illinois, with their Gordon Setter, Hilda of Whitby. They have four children and four grandchildren: Henry, Addie, Heidi, and Sophie.


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