Our time together began as a pleasant time for our son, Geoff, to join his grandmother and parents for a sumptuous Christmas luncheon at a fashionable restaurant in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio. Our time concluded with a poignant and graphic reminder of the fragile and temporary nature of our very lives.
Our four-top table was situated only a few feet from a round table hosting four couples who all appeared to be in their seventies. The waiter delivered a round of drinks. I commented on his ability to carry eight large drinks in tall glasses on one small round tray balanced on the spread fingers of one hand — and to deftly re-balance the tray as each drink was placed on the table. Friendly conversation and fellowship continued among the four couples.
Suddenly, one of the men was on the floor. Without any warning, he had toppled from his chair and lay helpless and limp. Friends rushed to his side struggling to discover what had just happened. His wife stood suspended between tears and silent horror. A call went out, “Is there a doctor? A nurse?” There seemed to be none. A man who seemed to know CPR began chest compressions and was soon aided by a woman. Restaurant staff called 911. A defibrillator was retrieved from an adjacent store. “I can’t find a pulse,” I heard one say, “He isn’t breathing.” “Clear,” a woman by the man’s side on the floor called out. An electric shock. Nothing! “Clear!” Another shock. More shocks, more CPR. The minutes ticked away, three, five, ten. Time didn’t seem to stand still. It seemed to race knowing how little window there was for rescue. After what seemed like forever, the EMTs arrived to give more CPR and appropriate injections in hopes that blood flow would sustain the brain until the heart would restart.
After about twenty-five minutes this man (a husband, friend, and likely father and grandfather) was wheeled by the medical team to the waiting ambulance — still administering every procedure they could. I don’t know what the outcome was, but there was not the slightest evidence that survival was likely.
The Sacred, Fragile Gift of Life
There are realities and truths that lie at the edge of our consciousness every moment of our lives. We don’t like to confront them even though we know they are present. Lunch at Palomino’s drew one of them into the light once again: Life on this earth, as beautiful and sacred as it is, is temporary, transitory and fragile. Scripture attests to this reality again and again. “
Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. 2 Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. 3 You turn us back to dust, and say, “Turn back, you mortals.” 4 For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night. Psalm 90:1-4
6 A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. Isaiah 40:6-7
We are dust, grass. Here today, gone tomorrow. Paul reminds us that we have this treasure of human life and the opportunity to serve God in clay jars, beautiful but so very fragile and transitory (2 Corinthians 4:7)
We know this truth, yet we never cease to be stunned, silenced and saddened when what we know is always possible appears “for real.” I do not suppose that this man dressed for his luncheon with friends and imagined that his life would end sometime between noon and 1:00 p.m. We had no thought that during a quiet Christmas luncheon our family would witness death so near. Our family took a moment at our table to pray for the man, his wife, and his friends. In those moments we realized that we were witnesses of one of the most intimate events in a person’s life; a sacred moment when life here on earth ends and the soul slips into eternity. Our lives are sacred, fragile and temporary. I have been reflecting ways about our transient lives and death as I have thought about this experience.
Is Death Friend or Foe?
So often we describe death as our friend. Perhaps it is — in the limited sense that earthly suffering comes to an end. Yet, the Scripture makes clear that at its core death is not our friend; death is our enemy, the last enemy to be conquered by Jesus Christ. In his majestic exposition of resurrection, Paul writes, “25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Corinthians 15:25-26) The scene played out before us at Palomino’s provided one more graphic demonstration of the result of the human fall in the Garden of Eden and the sin that has plagued humanity since. Physical death, as sobering as it is, represents only one aspect of what death really is. Death is more than the end of a physical life. It is the end of earthly relationships. Then there is the spiritual death that forms the root of all that death is. Without the redemption, restoration, and re-birth offered in the death and resurrection of Jesus, death is separation even from the one who created us. Christians believe death is a defeated foe overcome by God’s grace, mercy and love through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus — but a foe nonetheless.
An Invitation to Wisdom
Death and the recognition of our transitory reality also provides an invitation to the wisdom and reverential awe that guides us along the path of all true happiness, spiritual meaning and purpose. The Psalmist writes,
10 The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. 11 Who considers the power of your anger? Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you. 12 So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart. Psalm 90:10-12
These words are not a threat, but an invitation to understand and live our lives in a larger perspective, an eternal and God-centered perspective. Through these words, the Holy Spirit draws us to focus on eternal things rather than being captured by those things which have little value beyond the moment. After lunch at Palomino’s my wife, Linda, and I went to do some Christmas shopping. It wasn’t long until Linda commented, “Shopping just doesn’t seem that important right now. Being with family is.”
Keeping Ourselves in Perspective
Even as death invades and disrupts our lives we soon discover that life goes on. It is a sobering reality which encourages us to keep ourselves in perspective. As the drama of life’s end was playing out before us just around the corner and only a few tables away lunch orders were being served. Conversation was lively and engaging. People were living. At one point our waiter delivered the final part of our order. He was apologetic for it taking a bit longer — how could anyone blame him. He also seemed a bit embarrassed to continue taking and delivering orders, but commented, “I have to keep doing my job.”
When death comes life goes on for everyone else. When our death comes, life will go on for others. Certainly, when the death involves someone close to us our schedules and experience are altered; grief re-shapes the ensuing days; and we feel the acute sting of personal loss. Yet, most will go on about their lives and pursuits.
If death itself does not bring us to a sense of humility, perhaps the recognition that life goes on without us will. As strengthening and valued our relationships and work in this world are, only the Triune God is indispensable. In God we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). Jesus is the one in whom all things are sustained and hold together (Colossians 1:17). Only through the Holy Spirit can our hearts find their way out of the morass of sin and death to live in the abundance of God’s salvation (I Corinthians 2:11; 12:3; Romans 8:14)
God, Incarnation and Christmas Lunch
The events during lunch at Palomino’s seems at first glance to cast a black pall of sadness of a joyous season. To be sure, that pall will rest most heavily on his wife, family and friends. I was sobered and again remembering that I am clay. Yet, lunch at Palomino’s is also a reminder to look to the light that has come to us in Christmas and to a joy in Christ that withstands even tragedy and death.
Christmas is the incarnation of Jesus Christ. God, who knows me and the unknown man in Palomino’s, loves us both. In spite of my sin God loves me and stepped down among the chips and shards of my clay-pot life to make himself known. “… he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave and being born in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:6-7) Then God went further: “And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:7-8) Out of all this God raised Jesus and brought resurrection and redemption to us. In Christ God, reconciled the world to himself and raise up hope in despair and offers eternal life in the midst of death. That’s why we call Jesus Lord! Before him every knee shall one day bow just as shepherds and magi knelt before the Christ Child on the night when the light of Christ first pierced the darkness of the world.