In our informal Methodist church at the beach yesterday, the head minister told us at the start of the service that the oldest member of our ministerial staff had just suffered a major stroke and was now with hospice for what would most likely be his final hours. This man, The Reverend P. D. Midget, though in his nineties, had always seemed to have a timeless youth and vigor about him. Today, I realized that I had always assumed he'd be with us for a lot longer, despite his advanced age. He was a great harmonica player, and could do a fine job as well on the mandolin or banjo. He had recently had a smaller stroke, and in rehab had written and performed an upbeat song about it all that amazed everyone at the hospital. A graduate of Duke Divinity School, long ago, he was a keen reader and thinker, and could reenact episodes from the lives of historical figures in a dramatic way that was unexpectedly moving. He was an unusually kind and loving man, and always had a quick smile and a word of encouragement for anyone who crossed his path. I really enjoyed every conversation I had ever had with him, and now wish there had been a lot more of them.
In giving the announcement concerning this unexpected turn of events, our minister mentioned that he had already overseen the funerals of eight people in the past eleven days. And for a church of our size, that's pretty unusual. This two facts together were a powerful reminder of the fleeting nature of our time in this world, which is something that we usually keep out of mind. But it can be greatly useful to remember. As Woody Allen's character, in one of his movies long ago, said to a friend: "Don't you realize what a thread we're all hanging by?"
Consider an interesting passage from Ernest Hemingway's book, The Sun Also Rises.
Just eleven pages into it, you'll come across this brief conversation that starts with Robert Cohn, Princeton graduate and amateur boxer, speaking to his old friend Jake, the narrator, in a bar - where it seems, interestingly, that philosophizing about life often takes place:
"Listen, Jake," he leaned forward on the bar. "Don't you ever get the feeling that all your life is going by and you're not taking advantage of it? Do you realize you've lived nearly half the time you have to live already?"
"Yes, every once in a while."
"Do you know that in about thirty-five years more we'll be dead?"
"What the hell, Robert,' I said, "What the hell?"
"It's one thing I don't worry about," I said.
"You ought to."
As we all know, but mostly, like Jake, tend not to think about very much, life is a limited-time offer. This is an interesting point of reflection for all of us who are already in mid-life or beyond. But it's an important fact for any of us, however young or old. Are we making the most of our time on earth? Are we using our talents in the best ways, and taking advantage of the opportunities that come to us each day? Are we enjoying the adventure? Are we touching the lives of others in positive ways? Or are we letting ourselves be held back and worn down by our own inner reactions to things that are sometimes outside our control?
There's a lesson we can glean from Woody Allen, and Hemingway's characters, and my old friend. Burn bright while you're here. It won't be forever. Remember this, and make your best difference while you can.