Because We're All Dying: Thoughts On Living In The Present

My grandfather is dying. Not in the immediate sense. He doesn’t have a tumor or a months-to-live diagnosis. He’s dying in the eventual and inevitable sense, like we all are really, but more palpably. The doctor says he’ll probably die of a stroke. He has them every so often now.

I saw Papa just a few weeks ago. He can’t sit up anymore. He can’t leave the house. But he still knows who I am, and he can still tell stories.

I sat with him one day with my daughter London. I asked her to tell Papa her favorite Bible story. She said something about Jesus, got distracted and fell off the bed.

Then I asked Papa to tell me his, and he said, “I like Samson. But that’s not a story for little girls.”

He explained, “Samson wanted to be a better man than he’d been.” He seemed focused on that moment in Samson’s story after he’d been blinded and imprisoned, when he was for the first time in his life weak. Papa said, “Samson asked God for the strength he’d once had, and God gave it to him.”

I left that day thinking about how hard it is to die. How everyone talks about you in the past or future tenses. They tell stories of the life you lived before. And they whisper about the approaching tomorrow, making Hospice plans, asking delicate questions about your funeral “wishes.”

When the people around you are (with the best of intentions and hearts full of love) waiting for you to die, it’s hard to remember you’re alive.

When my friend Belinda was dying of brain cancer she said, “If God wanted me dead He’d have taken me by now. Evidently he has work for me to do.”

My Papa is trying to live. He and I prayed that God would put his hands on pillars, that he would have all the strength he needed to glorify God today.

-

Papa lives 17 hours away from me; the drive home was long. Between Dallas and Austin I ran into standstill traffic and took a detour of my own invention, wandering through cotton fields and cow pastures just as the sun began to set. The afternoon sun spilled light like gold, washing my drive with color. 

At first, I couldn’t take my eyes off the view. I praised God. I sang songs. I pointed to every change in the landscape, yelling to my daughters in the back seat, “Look! Look! Look!”

But then I got distracted and stopped paying attention. I started thinking about where I needed to be, how much laundry I had to do, what tasks needed tackling this coming week.

And then I looked back at the sunset and wondered why I ever stopped looking.

A perfect sunset is a thing not to be missed.

So I watched. I considered the long shadows cast by barns and water towers. I enjoyed the wildflowers, on fire with light. I ooh-ed and aah-ed.

But then I got distracted again.

This cycle went on for three hours. It was the longest, most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen. I spent all three hours trying my best to ignore my phone, postpone planning, keep my hands off the radio and stay present.

Dying people aren’t the only people who struggle to stay in the moment.

-

I was talking with some friends the other day about how hard it is to live in the present.

My older friends said they spend too much time reminiscing, wishing things could be like they once were or regretting what they can’t change now.

My younger friends said they spend too much time looking ahead, planning for a future that might not even come.

Jesus said, “Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Right?

But that doesn’t stop me from jumping ahead or reaching back, dwelling on the days and moments just out of reach, ignoring the life in my lap, the sunset unfolding right before my eyes.

We all want to play with our kids and grandkids, to listen to music with our eyes closed, to take walks, to do good work without distraction, to give without worrying about tomorrow’s account balance.

But instead we go over the check book ledger three times and we spend hours re-hashing in our heads conversations we had two weeks ago. We scroll through our old Instagram pictures while new photo-worthy moments pass us by.

-

Justin and I were studying James chapter four recently, particularly this part:

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.

Clearly, James is concerned about people making plans without God, banking on a future of their own making.

But what I thought was interesting was the way James discounts the future. Like my friend Jim Gardner once said, “The future doesn’t exist.”

James says, You don’t know anything about tomorrow. And then he finishes the thought by saying, basically, do the good you know you ought to do TODAY.

Today, you have buckets of opportunities to do good, to gaze upon beauty, to live fully.

Do. Gaze. Live.

And don’t waste one moment bothering with the opportunities you missed in the past or worrying about whether or not you’ll have opportunities tomorrow.

If we can do it, if we can manage to stay present in every day, we will see God everywhere as we step with confidence into the works he’s prepared for us.

That night, as I watched the sun set, I saw God in a whole-earth transformation.  I saw the ground soaked in color and then watched the clouds sop it up like a sponge until the earth turned grey and the sky flooded with raspberry, lilac and poppy red.

I thought of my grandfather, a setting sun, and of the way he soaked me in color even in dying. And I imagined I was a pillar, touched by a man strengthened by God to live fully, contagiously, in the present.