As many of you know, recently I received the alarming word that my mother was in critical condition in the intensive care unit of The University of Mississippi Hospital. With the cooperation of others, I was able to go to Mississippi to be with her and to give some assistance in her care. She is more stable now, and she is being transferred to a nursing facility in Louisiana near my two brothers' homes. This marks the onset of the final phase in the life of Dorothy Whitaker.
While I am distracted by her situation, and I am concerned about how well she feels day by day, I have discovered that I cannot consider her present plight except in the context of her whole life. She became 88 years old last March, and she has enjoyed robust health during her long life. She has been a good neighbor and a responsible citizen all of her life. She has loved The United Methodist Church, and she has faithfully supported it by her presence, her prayers, her gifts, and her service. The light of her life has always been her family, especially her grandchildren and other children she has "adopted" as her own. So then, when I consider the final phase of my mother's life, I think of the end as the completion of her life. As I consider that she is now bringing her life to its completion, I am filled with gratitude, not only for what she has done for me, but also for the unique life she has lived.
I have always felt that one of the least mature characteristics of our culture is our living as if life has no ending, but as if it is always a never-ending experience of becoming and growing. There is a massive denial of death in this effort to live as if life never ends. Yet to live with this denial--and who does not do this to some degree some of the time?--is to miss the opportunity to sense the gift of life lived to its end.
When we live in denial of death, we are probably going to be in denial of other endings. It is not unusual for us to fail to accept how institutions which were built by earlier generations are no longer needed in the present. It is also not unusual for those of us who are older to try to hang on to our positions too long rather than to surrender them freely so that younger persons can serve.
Accepting the reality of endings is not surrendering to despair. We who are a people of faith are also a people of hope. Even in the face of death, we receive the gift of hope from the living God. In biblical language, dying is being "gathered to (our) people" (Genesis 25:8), and death is our mortal existence being "swallowed up by life" (2 Corinthians 5:4). Our hope approaches the transcendent boundary where all human imagination and conceptualization utterly fail. Hope is directed toward the unimaginable and the inconceivable, but it is not without its own spiritual substance to sustain those of us who trust in God: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1).
Even as we look toward the mystery of what the living God has prepared for us and all of creation, we can live now with an awareness of the brevity of our frail existence and marvel at the sheer gift of being and the unique story each life becomes by the grace of God.
Endings are not bad even though they make us sad. Without endings, there is never any completion to any creature. Without this completion, there can be no fruit, for "unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (John 12:24).