Cancer changes your perception of life. Each day comes to us as a gift from the gracious hand of God — whether it is the last day of a short life or the first day of a long and healthy life. But living into the reality that each day is a gift also involves coming to recognize a stark, biblical truth that is deeply countercultural: God is not our debtor.
The tide rises, the tide falls,
The twilight darkens, the curlew calls;
Along the sea-sands damp and brown
The traveller hastens toward the town,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.
Darkness settles on roofs and walls,
But the sea, the sea in the darkness calls;
The little waves, with their soft, white hands,
Efface the footprints in the sands,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.
The morning breaks; the steeds in their stalls
Stamp and neigh, as the hostler calls;
The day returns, but nevermore
Returns the traveller to the shore,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
James 4:13–16 (ESV)
13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.
Ecclesiastes 1:1–11 (ESV)
1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
2 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
3 What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
4 A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
5 The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
6 The wind blows to the south
and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
7 All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
8 All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
9 What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
11 There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.
Nonetheless, there’s a serious flaw in Emanuel’s thinking. Strength, health, creativity—these are good things, but they are not the only things that give life meaning. From a Christian perspective, for example, the point of life is to express gratitude to and love for the Lord, and this we can do at any age. In the fullness of time, God will call each of us; until then, we have to try our best. There’s no point rushing Him.
SHILOH: A REQUIEM (APRIL, 1862)
By Herman Melville
Skimming lightly, wheeling still,
The swallows fly low
Over the field in clouded days,
The forest-field of Shiloh—
Over the field where April rain
Solaced the parched ones stretched in pain
Through the pause of night
That followed the Sunday fight
Around the church of Shiloh—
The church so lone, the log-built one,
That echoed to many a parting groan
And natural prayer
Of dying foemen mingled there—
Foemen at morn, but friends at eve—
Fame or country least their care:
(What like a bullet can undeceive!)
But now they lie low,
While over them the swallows skim,
And all is hushed at Shiloh.
After the blast of lightning from the east,
The flourish of loud clouds, the Chariot Throne;
After the drums of time have rolled and ceased,
And by the bronze west long retreat is blown,
Shall Life renew these bodies? Of a truth
All death will he annul, all tears assuage?-
Or fill these void veins full again with youth,
And wash, with an immortal water, Age?
When I do ask white Age he saith not so:
‘My head hangs weighed with snow.’
And when I hearken to the Earth, she saith:
‘My fiery heart shrinks, aching. It is death.
Mine ancient scars shall not be glorified,
17 Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.
18 Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off,
19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother.
20 So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house.
21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.”
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live,
26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
I remember first reading Whitman’s hope for the immortal (in high school I think it was), and I still have the same question: What did he think it was? How did he claim to know? Was it just the mid 19th Century (desire for) transcendence? Is it just the irrepressible desire for life and the knowledge that we know that we were not created to bloom and fade life flowers (and yet we do). Is Whitman hoping for his own life, for the life of the father and daughter — or is he merely pointing at an impersonal permanence?
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.
–Peter’s Second Epistle, chapter one, verse 16.
23 since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God;
24 for “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls,
25 but the word of the Lord remains forever.” And this word is the good news that was preached to you.
–Peter’s First Epistle, chapter one, verses 23-25.
ON THE BEACH AT NIGHT
By Walt Whitman
On the beach at night,
Stands a child with her father,
Watching the east, the autumn sky.
Up through the darkness,
While ravening clouds, the burial clouds, in black masses spreading,
Lower sullen and fast athwart and down the sky,
Amid a transparent clear belt of ether yet left in the east,
Ascends large and calm the lord-star Jupiter,
And nigh at hand, only a very little above,
Swim the delicate sisters the Pleiades.
From the beach the child holding the hand of her father,
Those burial-clouds that lower victorious soon to devour all,
Watching, silently weeps.
Weep not, child,
Weep not, my darling,
With these kisses let me remove your tears,
The ravening clouds shall not long be victorious,
They shall not long possess the sky, they devour the stars only in apparition,
Jupiter shall emerge, be patient, watch again another night, the Pleiades shall emerge,
They are immortal, all those stars both silvery and golden shall shine out again,
The great stars and the little ones shall shine out again, they endure,
The vast immortal suns and the long-enduring pensive moons shall again shine.
Then dearest child mournest thou only for Jupiter?
Considerest thou alone the burial of the stars?
Something there is,
(With my lips soothing thee, adding I whisper,
I give thee the first suggestion, the problem and indirection,)
Something there is more immortal even than the stars,
(Many the burials, many the days and nights, passing away,)
Something that shall endure longer even than lustrous Jupiter
Longer than sun or any revolving satellite,
Or the radiant sisters the Pleiades.
The Gods are Men
A Sermon on Psalm 82:6-7
6 I said, “You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; 7 nevertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince.”
The sermon is a warning to magistrates that even though they enjoy great power in this world, they will die. It is a meditation on death coming to all. The sermon is found in volume 4 of the collected works of George Swinnock. The numbers indicate the page from the volume. Quotes are given without comment.
Oh how little a parcel of earth will hold us when we are dead, who ambitiously seek after the whole world whilst we are living! 105
A painted window keepeth out the light; a painted fire will not burn; a painted sword will not cut; and if ever the fire of Scripture, Jeremiah 23:29, warm the heart, Luke 24:32; or this sword of the Spirit wound the conscience, Ephesians 4:17, to conviction and conversion, it must be drawn out of the gaudy scabbard of man’s wisdom. 111
Death is to every man a fall, from everything but God and godliness. Ye that are magistrates fall more stairs, yea, more storeys, than others. The higher your standing while ye live, the lower your falling when ye die. Death to some is a fall from earth to hell; to all, from the society of men to the company of worms….113
Nothing will follow when you die but your works. Rev. 14:13.
The mortal scythe of death is master of the royal sceptre, moweth down as the lilies of the crown as the grass of the field. Isaiah 40:6-7.
As the thread followeth the needle, so death followeth sin. 115
Sin in the body is like leprosy in the house, which will not out till it be pulled own; but when the body of the saint shall be dissolved, that body of death shall be wholly destroyed. 115
The house of man’s body is walled and roofed with earth, and founded upon no better than dust. 116.
First, if magistrates are mortal, observe hence death’s prevalency and power above all the privileges and prerogatives of nature… Take notice from hence that nothing in this world can privilege a man against the arrest of death. 117
Their endeavor is to live in the favor of great men, and not to die in the fear of the great God. 119.
Alas! how irrational is this! You may as soon satiate or content the body with wind as the soul with wealth. 120
Ambitious, like the jay, they are pruning and priding themselves on the top of some high tree, when suddenly a shot from a fowler tumbleth it down dead to the earth. 121.
Consider that on this moment dependeth eternity. God hangeth heavy weights on weak wires. 122.
I commend six particulars to your most serious thoughts:
1. Discharge your trust faithfully. The way to have great confidence when ye die, is to keep a good conscience whilst ye live. 124.
There are four things requisite in a magistrate that he would discharge his trust faithfully.
1A. First, courage and magnanimity. Every magistrate should be a man of metal, not daunted with dangers, nor frightened with frowns. 125
1B. Secondly, uprightness and integrity. A magistrate as he should not be frightened with fear, so not swayed by favor. 125.
Laws were never made to be nets, only to catch the little fish and let the great ones break through. 126.
1C. Third, bounty and liberality….It was a witty speech of a pious person, He is the best magistrate that is good for nothing. 126.
1D.The fourth thing requisite in a magistrate is ability.
2. Secondly, If you would fit yourself for death, live among men exemplarily. 127.
Take a turn or two daily in Golgotha; walk among the tombs; ponder frequently your own frailty; it may much quicken you to walk exemplarily. 127.
Sin, indeed, cometh in at first by propagation, but is much increased by imitation. 128
Theodosius the emperor being asked how a prince might promote good abroad, answered, by ordering all well at home. If ye cannot rule your family well, ye are unfit to rule cities and counties. 128.
3. Thirdly, as your frailty calleth upon you to be faithful in your place, holy in your practices; so likewise, in the third place, to walk humbly with God….But here isa pin in the test to prick this bladder, and take down its swelling. Did you but spiritually consider the brittleness of your bodies, it would abate the swelling of your spirits. I should think the evil disposition of your souls, and the frail condition of your bodies, should keep you low while ye live. Alas! notwithstanding all your power, places and preferments, what are yet but clods of clay — a little refined earth, moving slime, enlivened dust, breathing ashes? 129.
4. Fourthly, must ye die, and would ye prepare for it, then be active for God whilst ye live; the serious thoughts of death in your hearts will put life into your hands…..The task of Christianity is great; the time ye have is little, the time ye have lost is much. 130.
5. Fifthly, must ye die and would ye prepare for death? Labor to find some inward work of grace wrought in your hearts. 132. …Pharisaical holiness will never evidence your right to eternal happiness….You that are magistrates may probably be free from scandalous enormities. 133.
6. Lastly, If ye must die, to prepare yourselves for death, make sure of an interest in Christ, in the death of The Lord Jesus. …All mercies that believers enjoy, come streaming to them in the blood Christ; though there be much attributed to his intercession, yet that, like the king’s stamp on silver, addeth no real value to it, only maketh it current. Fn. 1: Calvin observed on 1 John 2:1, that Christ’s intercession is nothing else but a perpetual application of his death. 134.
I shall, in the next place, annex some motives, …
1. Consider how vain and unprofitable all others things will be to you when ye fall.
1A Ye fall from the highest pinnacle of honor and reputation….Titles of honor glister, like glow-worms, in the dark night of this life; but in the day of death they all vanish and disappear. 136
1B Ye fall form your greatest treasures and possessions. 136
1C Ye fall from all your friends and relations; when ye die, they that were near and dear to you will leave you. …Believe me sirs, your honors, treasures, and relations will shake hands with you at death, like leaves in autumn, fall from you; like Absalom’s mule, fail you even in your great extremity. 137-8.
2. By this means you names may be highly honored; true glory is entailed on piety. The heathen would go through the temple of virtue to the temple of honor. 138
3. Hereby your deaths will be truly peaceable. An ungodly man can never die with true peace, though he may die in much security. 139.
If ye would not die well, then be sure ye live well; let holiness be your way, and happiness shall be your end. 141.
4. This will make your estates and conditions eternally comfortable. 141 In a word, let true righteousness towards men, and real holiness towards God, be your work while ye live. 143
A Treatise on Faith, Communion, Faith, Good Works, Hope, John 1, John 14, life, Obedience, Philippians 3, Treatises on the life walk and triumph of faith, Union with Christ, Westminster Confession of Faith, William Romaine
It is easy to forget that all the Christian life must and can be only in Christ — in union and comunion with him. We forget this because we easily fall to the idea that our life is a doing of some-thing or other as a bare act, which, if performed, satisfies God. Such thoughts dishonor our Lord and suffocate our faith.
Sin suffuses through the entire human life, because sin — in one aspect — is the absence of the life of God. The human being without God is twisted, unnatural, sullen, without true hope or love. Redemption is to be in Christ.
Consider Paul’s words here; note the language to “be found in him”:
7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.
8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ
9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith-
10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,
11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Phil. 3:7-11. Or in Colossians 3, our life is with Christ in God: “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). Our Paul writes elsewhere: our life is now the life of Christ in us: I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Galatians 2:20.
The Christian life can never be a life without Christ, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4).
Sin is death necessarily. The death does not lie in the bare action — it lies in the Godlessness of sin. The Sahara desert has many attributes – especially that it contains no water. One dies of thirst in the desert, not because one does not move hand to mouth, open in the mouth and swallow. One dies because there is no water. Without water, the action is lifeless; it is a charade, a parody of drinking. Without God, even our best acts can never be more than parodies of life.
Yes it is worse to not do “good works” — and yet such good works will fall short of the beauty they were meant to convey:
VII. Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands, and of good use both to themselves and others; yet, because they proceed not from a heart purified by faith; nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word; nor to a right end, the glory of God; they are therefore sinful and can not please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God. And yet their neglect of them is more sinful, and displeasing unto God.
Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 16.
In short, our life must be in and through Christ. Our life must be in love and fellowship of union and communion — and that union and communion can be only be conveyed and received by means of a lively faith. As Romaine writes
“If we go on at all, it is by communion with him. We can receive only out of his fulness, grace for grace, to make us willing and able to go forward. Our fellowship with him is in every part and in every moment of our walk, and this is as necessary as our fellowship with the air and elements of this world is to every thing that concerns our natural walk. Our wisdom to guide our steps, our progress in the way, our courage and strength, our warfare and victory, every grace and every blessing is received by faith, and is the effect of our communion with Jehovah Jesus. We trust in his word, we rely on his arm, we wait on his faithfulness, and so go forward; for he makes good what he had promised to give us in our walk, which confirms the peace of God, establishes our hearts in his love, increases our faith, and thereby makes our daily walk more comfortable to us, and more glorious to him.”
William Romaine “Treatises on the life, walk, and triumph of faith.”