It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart. Ecclesiastes 7, verse 2.
Buckle up, friend. It could be a somber ride for the next few days. Then again, maybe not.
The country music song of the year for 2004 was “Live Like You Were Dying” by Tim McGraw. Time for a true confession: I don’t care for many of Mr. McGraw’s songs. He’s talented enough, but most of his music just rubs me the wrong way. I like the “Indian Outlaw” remake, and one called “I Like It, I Love It”, and another called “Something Like That. Then there’s one called “Angry All the Time” that he recorded with his wife, Faith Hill. But other than those and the one I just listed, I don’t listen to much of his music. In fact, when he comes on the radio, I usually turn the dial.
The ‘Live Like You Were Dying’ song is exceptional though, and it segues perfectly off Ecclesiastes 7, verse 2. The song tells the story of talking with a man who found out he was terminally ill. Instead of curling up in a ball, he changed his life and LIVED. He went sky diving, he went Rocky Mountain climbing, he rode 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fu Manchu. More than that, he loved deeper and he spoke sweeter, and he gave forgiveness he’d been denying. The last line of the refrain says “he said some day I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying.” I’m betting you can hear the song in your head now.
My father died in 1997. He worked 35 years for Uncle Sam, retired in 1995 and spent six month renovating the home where he and Mom would retire. He had just a few short months to enjoy that home and enjoy retirement when he found out that he had terminal cancer. The initial diagnosis wasn’t a death sentence, however it was grim and for a number of reasons the cancer just wouldn’t go away. Now, Dad didn’t go sky diving, mountain climbing or any of that. In fact, over the course of his illness, he gradually lost the ability to do almost everything he enjoyed. Reading, music, singing, even cooking and a good meal: all of them fell by the wayside as the cancer and cancer treatments took his senses. Dad had never been a particularly macho guy, and when I was growing up, if Dad got a cold he usually babied himself. When we found out he had cancer, I honestly expected him to be a softy.
He died the most courageous man I’ve ever met. I say that because he faced death by living, by keeping focused on doing whatever he could to mend and get better. He didn’t complain, he didn’t fret about his circumstances, and he didn’t get lost in ‘woe is me.’ He was unafraid of new and painful treatments, and he was unafraid of facing the consequences each time the doctors gave him worse prognoses. Dad put all his affairs in order and talked frankly about his disease, finances, coping and the like. He mended fences with family and friends with whom he’d been cool, and he spent time with his kids and grandkids. Mom and Dad still took several long trips, mainly to see family but also just to return to normalcy. Why, just a few weeks before he stopped all treatments, he was in Colorado at my house, working hard with me to repaint the house. What’s more, he did all this while growing realistically in faith. He was forthright when he spoke of what he believed, and for the first time in many years I saw that as much more than just Sunday morning appearances. Dad didn’t want to die, but he also didn’t shirk from it or cower in fear of it. As much as he could, my father learned to live like he was dying because, in fact, he was.
That’s the point of what could be an otherwise maudlin verse. We should live fully and be prepared for death at any moment. None of us knows when we are going to die. It’s a sad tragedy when any of us passes on, and there are no saccharin platitudes that we should offer to comfort someone’s loss. There’s just no easy way to lessen the shock or take away the hurt. Still, since my father died, I’ve learned to study Scripture more and it’s given me a new perspective on death. It’s not something to be feared because, even while it’s the ultimate consequence for our sins, it’s also something that God redesigned to usher us into the next phase of life. In fact, I’ve come to think of each person’s death as a personal moment of mission accomplishment. When you die, whatever purpose God put you here to fulfill has been fulfilled. Even when someone dies young or unexpectedly, I take comfort in knowing that while you or I might not understand why it happened, God does. God understands it, is in control of it, and in fact that person has completed their life. Their purpose is complete. They didn’t just die. They finished. If you think about death that way, it isn’t so frightening.
Awhile back, I quoted Chief Dan George from one of my favorite movies, “Little Big Man.” In that movie, the chief repeatedly says, “today is a good day to die.” I couldn’t agree more. Today is a good day to die when I have lived every day reverently, fully, and boldly. Today would be a good day to die because I know where I’m going and I’ve done my best to be a good father, husband and man. I’m ready to die whenever it happens. I learned that from my Dad. He learned it by closing out his life in faith.
I suspect Tim McGraw might agree.
Today is a good day to die when you realize that, one day, when your life is complete, you will die. Live today fully. Love deeper, speak sweeter, give forgiveness you’ve been denying. That’s not just country music: it’s a Godly theme as old as these ancient proverbs.