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Kindergarten Thanatopsis

“Everybody dies,” Erin pronounced solemnly. I looked into her face, searching for a sign of concern; her eyes betrayed no alarm; her voice was steady. “Charlie is old. She will die soon.”

“Poor Charlie, her hip hurts so much,” I replied glancing down at the “Westie” at my feet. “I guess she will die someday soon.”

“But little kids don’t die very often, unless they get very sick or have an accident,” my five-year-old kindergarten granddaughter commented as if to reassure me and herself.   I could hear in her observation the echoes of the voices her RN mother and her ER physician father. I envisioned the conversation they might have had, since I knew Erin had attended the funeral of her great grandfather within the last year, and I knew, too, that she is an inquisitive child.   Yet I was astounded at what she had said. Nevertheless, I was about to write it off as a random, innocent parroting of adult homilies when she continued.

She leaned her petite head forward and whispered in my ear as if sharing a great secret with me: “You will die sometime, too.”

“Not soon, I hope!” was my surprised reply.

“Charlie will die first, I think,” she concluded.

“Probably.”

Then she jumped down from my lap and ran to dress or undress one of her dolls. I dimly recalled that the Bible said something as I watched her disappear around the corner, “Out of the mouths of babes you ordain perfect praise.” Indeed, I concluded, the most profound sermons are uttered incidentally. God often speaks loudest in the smallest voices. Little angels visit from time to time to give us little intimations of God. I remembered then words that formed themselves into a prayer in my mind, “Lord, help me to number my days aright that I might apply my heart to wisdom. Amen.” I resolved again at that moment to rejoice in the presence of my beloved children and grandchildren as much as I had opportunity.

But Wait! There’s more

But the sermon had not concluded. A few minutes later, Erin came again to sit upon my lap. Charlie, not wanting to be left out, hobbled back into the bedroom and hid beside the rocking chair, her nose peeking out from under the bed skirt. I thought distractedly how pets are often an object lesson in life both to children and their parents. Then I thought to change the subject.

“I hope to retire someday and then I could spend more time with you. What do you think of that?”

Erin nodded, “Yeah! That would be great! And then you can hold my babies, too . . . and someday I’ll be a grandmother and have granddaughters like me that I will hold on my lap like you do, Papa . . . . But you probably wouldn’t be here then. You will be dead.”

I tried to hide my astonishment at her matter-of-fact apprehension of one of the great truths of life and of the human condition.

“That will okay. It will be your turn,” I said as I wondered at what other profundities lay behind her dancing eyes, but I was afraid, perhaps more than a little, to ask her what else she was thinking for fear of provoking hard questions from her and unsettling ones for me, questions for which I have no certain or ready answer. So I changed the subject again.

“What do you think? Do dogs retire? What do dogs do when they quit the dog’s life?”

She leaned over the arm of the chair to consider Charlie whose greatest joy as a pup had been to chase a rubber ball, but now only lay about the house or wandered the yard in a daze when let out.

“When dogs retire, they die,” was her considered response.

“Well, I hope that is not what happens to people,” I said. I meant it too. I think Erin thought that was a good idea as well.

Sad Good-byes

Later as we said “good-bye” and departed for Texas at the end of our weekend visit, I reflected on how very much our leaving was a picture of a “passing.” As Jesus told his disciples, “I am going to a far country where you may not follow.” His friends were not happy to hear this news. Nor are we glad to see a loved one leave us, even for a little while.

The pain of separation is very real but really only for us who must stay behind. Those who go on ahead either pay us no mind because we are already with them there in the future, if the promises are to be believed, or they pay us no mind because death is a forever sleep. In any case, it is we who are left behind to remember that know the pain. Yet it is in remembering that we find comfort and touch again the heart of those we have loved.

My mother’s funeral coincided sixteen years ago—now going on seventeen years—with the very day that I first learned of Erin’s elder brother’s existence. Audrey would have adorned Erin (as she would have treasured all of her great grandchildren) if she had had the chance to know them. But in this kindergartener especially she would surely have delighted, for my mother would have seen herself manifested, and she would have been right.

When I looked at Erin I saw all of us plainly on display in innocence and sprightliness. I recalled the assertion, “Grandchildren are God’s proposition that the human race should continue.” I meditated only a moment and hoped it not presumptuous to second His motion, my “Amen” almost audible.

When my time on earth is spent and I must depart, I pray that it will be a gracious exit, and that those who remain will remember me with loving thoughts and appreciation. If so, then I will live again in them and in their memory. And it is our hope and His promise that we will soon see each other again, very soon. For all people die sometime. I know this. Erin told me so.

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One of my students e-mailed the last day of class asking several questions; three were mundane ones like “Will the final be comprehensive” etc.  The last question, however, stopped me in my tracks.  I read it a second time.  “What is the meaning of life?” it said.

Gretchen Fragen

I think that the inquirer must have been speaking facetiously, but it was and is a valid question.  Indeed, it is a fundamental question, probably one of the most important questions one can ask.  Such questions are called, after Goethe’s heroine of Faust, “Gretchen Fragen.”

I had promised my students that I would try to answer their questions, no matter how strange or off the topic of the course.  Thus, I had intended to speak to this question in the last lecture of the semester, but events conspired to prevent me. (Honestly, a flat tire threw me late to class, the computer crashed, the opening discussion dragged out longer than I had anticipated.  I only had ninety seconds to speak at the end of class; too short.)  So I had no other recourse than to share my thoughts in writing and direct my students here.  Probably it is just as well.

Non-Answers

There are a few non-answers I have considered:

a)      The answer to the meaning of life, let alone the universe is NOT : “42,” notwithstanding the ironic and satirical Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  Such a response suggests to me a pessimistic nihilism (as if there could be an optimistic form of nihilism) that affirms that all that we experience is pointless and meaningless. My soul cries out for some meaning and I feel that I have found it.

b)      The meaning of the life is NOT found in the life itself, either.  The meaning of a sign is not the paint, the paper, or the illumination; rather, its meaning is to be read there but lies beyond it.  In the same way, Science is one way of reading the “Book of Nature” that points beyond itself to transcendental realities. Radical materialism and scientific reductionism I have found bankrupt of spiritual truth.  There must be more, I sense.

c)      Nor does the meaning of life lie in pleasure or comfort.  Hedonism is a seductive trap that ultimately will ensnare.  “More, more, more” the empty soul cries.  There are pleasures to be had to be sure, but at what cost of one’s self?  The Wise Preacher (Ecclesiastes) informs us that pleasure is “Emptiness, emptiness, all emptiness.”  Indeed, wrapped up in myself, I make a very small and pathetic package.

d)     Morality—the basis of most religious piety—is NOT a foundation of a meaningful of life, either, in my view.  In my experience I have found that on my very best day I am morally incompetent and spiritually bankrupt in my own strength.  Despite my best intentions I am not righteous in thought or action for very long.  I sense that I cannot be good enough to live a most meaningful life, nor can I earn, by my piety, sufficient credit to offset my unrighteousness.  It is a futile enterprise.

My Greatest Discovery

I have had a long and satisfying career as a teacher and as a scholar.  As a scientist I have made many discoveries. (A sign over my desk might read, “Neat people do not make the exciting discoveries that I do.”)  For a few of these discoveries I was the first human ever to know or understand the fact.  It is a heady feeling, akin to discovering an island or exploring an uninhabited landscape.

Yet as exciting as my research has been, my greatest discovery I made as a child of ten.  I discovered that the Maker of the universe knew me and still cared about me.  In fact, He loved me even as I rebelled against Him, even though I had declared war on Him, as I shook my puny, little fist at Him, shouting “My Way!”

The good news is that I finally gave up the fight and He—and this is wonderful news—adopted me as one of His children, pardoning my war crimes against Him and against humanity.  In exchange for my failure and moral incompetence, He graciously gave me forgiveness and real peace and meaning in life.

But Is it real?

It was if I had been born all over again from above.  This transformation of my young heart came through accepting my adoption into the Way of Jesus called the Christ.  Over the years since that fateful day when I gave up the fight, waved the white flag, I have examined and reexamined this faith of a child and I have found it profound even if I did not and do not understand it fully.

I have discovered in the Jesus-Way, a path that does not rely upon my goodness or my intentions or even on the strength my faith, but instead depends on the character of the Creator and the work completed by Rab Jeshua in the first century of this current era in the backwaters of the Levant.  This ancient way, I discovered, is historically informed, philosophically and scientifically viable and imminently livable. Stated simply, in the life of the Christ-follower I have found profound meaning.

The Chief End of Man?

I have discovered existential and empirically the truth of the first question and answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “Q: What is the chief end of man?  A: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”  All I seek and learn and do, now, has meaning as it glorifies God.  As J.S. Bach famously wrote on his manuscripts “J.J” Jesu Juva (Jesus, help!) and “S.D.G.” soli Deo Gloria (to the glory of God alone),  I resolve to do this not to gain God’s favor but as a grateful child.

So if you are a seeker after meaning as am I, let us talk about it sometime—in person or via e-mail.  You can read more of my story at http://www.meettheprof.com.   But in regard to the ultimate questions, I submit that the most relevant answers are those you work out for yourself.  I wish you well and will cheer you on as you do so.

You have my benediction in the words of the oft-spoken (Greek) greeting of the Apostle Paul:

Grace to you and Peace from God our Father through Jesus Christ our Lord.

KAPIC YMIN KAI EPHNH . . .

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