Death reminds us to live life in the present

Consider the irony of the colorful fall leaves that are beginning to grace our Island. What fills us with wonder are actually dead leaves. Imagine that. There is actually beauty and amazement in death!

This past year, my life has been punctuated by death. Last November, my father died. A month later, my barber’s wife passed away. Three months after that, my mom’s only surviving sibling succumbed to Alzheimer’s. In addition, I have lost several friends in Rotary to death this year.

This past Saturday, I attended the memorial service for Reverend Bill Clements of Redeemer Lutheran Church. As a member of MICA (the Mercer Island Clergy Association), Bill enriched the lives of countless faith leaders in our community in remarkable ways. Because Bill was my age, his untimely death has been particularly sobering.

Thirty years as a minister has forced me to realize that death shows up unannounced quite often. We have no guarantee that we will wake up tomorrow. Whenever I am leading a liturgy for mourners gathered to pay their last respects, I remind them: “Every memorial service we attend is one closer to our own.”

No matter how successful we become at buying, selling, trading and owning, our ultimate net worth is eventually reduced to a final figure. Death reveals that bottom line. Curiously, it is not a financial figure. It is a solitary figure that is incapable of movement, breathing or speaking. It is a human figure who has lost its ability to make peace with God or anyone else.

No matter how many hours we may spend at the gym a week, we cannot escape the fact that our days are numbered. Like the slogan I once saw on a bumper sticker: “Physically fit people just die healthier.” There is no getting around it. The grim reaper eventually stops in front of our house, the hospital or the health club.

All the same, it has become my conviction that death loses its ability to derail us emotionally to the degree that we anticipate it and embrace it as an inevitable part of life. When we recognize our mortality and that of those whom we care about, we have the choice to make the most of the time we (or they) have left.

Similarly, we have the choice to tell those whom we love that we do. We have the choice to change behaviors or revise priorities that limit our ability to fully live “in the present.” We have the choice to incorporate faith into life’s equation so that the meaning of death is not limited to our understanding alone. In other words, how we embrace the inevitability of death is up to us. The buck stops here!

Three weeks ago, my wife and I were walking on Island Crest Way. As we passed Redeemer Lutheran Church, I looked up toward the sign on which Bill Clements routinely placed poignant and clever messages. To my amazement, there was a young buck with a small rack of antlers crowning his head. Knowing Pastor Bill was nearing the end of his earthly journey, the fact that the buck had stopped here invited reflection. Could it be the deer at the sign was in fact a sign?

As I thought of my friend and his faithful ministry, I celebrated the fact that life is filled with the unexpected. There is the unexpected nature of failure and joblessness and suffering and death as well as the unexpected nature of God’s grace that allows us to deal with the unexpected setbacks and apparent defeats.

Yes, I believe God is attempting to speak to us through the predictability of fall colors and the unpredictability of a solitary deer standing near a sign. The question is: Are we listening?

Greg Asimakoupoulos is the pastor of the Mercer Island Covenant Church and regularly contributes to the Reporter.

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