I had a birthday last week. My thirty-fourth. When I was in high school I used to think it funny to tell people on their birthday that they were halfway to some age that, at the time, seemed old.
“Happy sixteenth birthday! Your halfway to 32!”
“Happy eighteenth birthday! Your halfway to 36!”
It goes without saying that I was one of the cool kids.
I’m 34 now. Halfway to 68. And that game is stupid.
There is this really odd verse in Ecclesiastes that says, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.” As I, against my will and as evidenced by my inability to get off the ground without grunting, continue to age, birthdays become the house of mourning. No, I’m not overly emotional about birthdays. I don’t dread birthdays and pretend that I’m 23 for the 11th time. But they are becoming bittersweet. They are a reminder of that which will be no more. I’ve lived 34 incredible years, but as incredible as they have been, I will not got them back. I will not relive them. Time marches on and it marches toward a final reality: death.
Mortality is real and inevitable. We don’t talk much about this in our culture. It’s almost as if we are ashamed of death in America. Death is something to ignore, to hide, to push off into the margins. It is something to be shielded from. The older we get, the more our birthdays remind us of our coming destiny.
And so we can embrace that, or we can shield ourselves from it. We can think about our death and what that means, or we can pretend it isn’t coming and go about our days.
I’m choosing to embrace it.
I think the point of that odd verse in Ecclesiastes is that, when we go to the house of mourning, it forces us to think about what really matters. Death is the destiny of everyone. For all our technological advances, we have yet to figure out an app for death. And the living should take that to heart. The house of mourning is better than the house of feasting because death forces us to think about what matters. It confronts us with the question of, “What do I want to be remembered for?”
Funerals do that much better than weddings. That’s what this passage is saying.
Never thinking about death increases the likelihood that we will live life with little purpose or urgency. We end up living moment to moment driven by what’s in front of us. This need, this task, this feeling, this moment controls our lives rather than the the things that are important to us. We are driven by the changing winds of the urgent rather than the steady pursuit of the important.
I am not saying that we shouldn’t be present to each moment of our lives. I want to be present for each moment of my life. But I also want each moment to matter. I want to chose what I do with them, not just let them happen. I only get so many of them, and so I don’t want to find myself wishing I would have done something with my life besides mastering the art of instagram photography ten years from now. Using my phone to capture the moment is not being present to the moment, it is being present to the screen and living life virtually. As much as I love photos, I’m certain that I am not going to be lying on my bed wishing I would have taken more pictures. My guess is that I will have wished I put the phone/camera down and lived more moments.
I want to give myself to something that matters and means something.
Not in the radical sense. There has been a lot of talk about ‘radical’ lately. Radical discipleship, radical worship, radical missional living, radically following Jesus. While I like the spirit behind this, I find the language somewhat unhelpful – and not just because it makes me think of Jesus loving Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Using the word ‘radical’ can be a new rule we put on those following Jesus. “Don’t drink beer, don’t watch rated-R movies, do live radically.” Guilt and shame get put on good people who are doing good things in the name of the gospel, but because it doesn’t seem radical is doesn’t feel like enough. Faithfully serving kids in Sunday school doesn’t feel radical, but it is beautiful and good and right. Serving at a food pantry doesn’t look radical, but it honors and fulfills the call to love the less fortunate. Giving ourselves to something that matters doesn’t mean we have to be radical and start a 501c3 that changes the world. It simply means that we consider what is important and good and right and beautiful and intentionally choose that over what is less than that.
As those who are living, we should take to heart our destiny. Not to anxiously perseverate on it. But to provide us the necessary urgency to choose what’s most important.
Being keenly aware that we have’t wasted time will probably make birthdays much sweeter.