Closer, Ever Closer
April 11, 2017
A friend, a brother in Christ, a fellow seeker, a supporter and encourager, a fellow debater in the best sense, a strong and fruitful mind, a soft heart of love and compassion, a delighter in the wonders and mysteries of our God – has now departed this life. His painful struggle with cancer has come to an end as has his last breath on earth. His very last experience of earth’s gracious atmosphere was a few short days ago.
He was only 9 months younger than me. I have known him and worshipped with him, his wife and five children for 30+ years. We prayed the solemn and hopeful prayers of the Orthodox funeral service yesterday, gave him the “final kiss,” and watched his casket being closed, the last time on earth we would ever see his face or hug his body.
Only a short week ago I was able to hold his hand – his still warm, blood infused hand for five minutes after his dear life-partner Susan told him I was there. He wasn’t able to open his eyes or speak, but he knew his old friend was standing by his bed. Thank God for that moment.
And now I find myself pondering once again this final threshold of each human being: our passing from an earthly journey into eternity.
I remember first starting to think much more specifically about my death around 8 or 9 years ago. I read Peter Kreeft’s book Love is Stronger Than Death – twice. Powerful, hopeful, yes, but only a book. My own tentative existence, my own body’s growing frailty, my slowly waning energy combined with my gradually increasing stiffness, now daily reminders. Death of my body and all that is familiar to me is coming to an end. The autumn of my life is moving much faster each year into my winter.
Of course, every person “knows” this inevitability. People die every day, every hour, every minute. Just within the last year or so, three men, younger than me with whom I worked very closely in past ministry, have been struggling with serious medical conditions. It would sadden but not surprise me if at any time I would get a call or an email saying they too had passed.
But as far as I know, I’m not at death’s doorstep yet. I still play singles tennis 2 or 3 times a week. I have no chronic aches or pains. I am very and thankfully alive every day. I see, hear, smell, taste, and touch life every single day, especially with my precious wife, my beautiful daughters and their families, my grandchildren and all my magnificent friends and associates. All of that coming to a definite and irreversible END is not something I can even imagine. For others like my brother Brian, yes, but for me? Not at all.
But his recent passing makes my final passing much more real, much more definite, much closer to my consciousness.
And in spite of all I have read and thought and hoped about that end, I have no experience–based knowledge or hope to enlighten me. I just have a giant abyss lying in the road ahead, an opaque “next chapter” I cannot escape. As soon as any part of me tries to imagine what that will actually be like, I come up short, woefully unable to put my mind around even a tiny drop of life beyond that door.
And I AM NOT USED TO THAT FEELING. It is deeply unsettling, and I’m not even sure why this is so. It’s not really a fear although that has a way of whispering around the edges of my mind. It’s not a rock-solid hopeful certainty, but neither is it a dreadful hopelessness. I truly can’t say exactly what happens in my inner life when I ponder my death, my time of passing.
Perhaps it is ultimately only one thing I experience in these moments: a complete vulnerability and powerlessness of my entire being, the realization of my utter and complete dependency on One Reality Who is the Creator and Sustainer of me, God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
I guess I do know one thing for sure: the moment of my passing is the point. That’s the whole shebang. That’s IT, and nothing nothing nothing else in my wonderful existence to this point ultimately matters … it’s just (what a pathetic and insufficient word in this instance) it’s just and completely God and Randy, Face to face, forever in His Kingdom.
Wonderful, terrifying, and everything in-between. Of course there are not, nor cannot be any words or thoughts to describe this moment. The Divine Darkness our fathers in the Faith talk about is real, meaning that the uncreated Divine Light of God is so much brighter than a thousand suns that we created beings can “see” nothing very clearly this side of eternity. O Wondrous and Loving Mystery, Great Physician of our souls and bodies, glory to You.
Dearest Lord of all creation, my deepest hope and belief for myself and for every other human person is that You are truly and forever “The only true friend of mankind.”
In honor of Reader Brian John McDonald, 1948-2017