Writer Alice Walker of The Color Purple once wrote an essay called “Longing to Die of Old Age.” She speaks of going with her mother a few doors down the street to visit a dying, elderly neighbor woman.
“People like my mother were visiting her constantly, bringing food, picking up laundry, or simply stopping by….to chat. Her house, her linens, her skin all glowed with cleanliness. She lay propped against the pillows so that by merely turning her head she could watch the postman approaching, friends and relatives arriving, and most of all, the small children playing….often in her yard, the sound of their play a lively music…..
“Sitting in her dimly lit, spotless room, listening to the lengthy but warm-with-shared-memories silences between my mother and Mrs. Davis was extraordinarily pleasant. Her white hair gleamed against her kissable black skin, and her bed was covered with one of the most intricately patterned quilts I’d ever seen….
“I thought her dying one of the most reassuring events I’d ever witnessed. She was calm, she seemed ready, her affairs were in order. She was respected and loved. In short, Mrs. Davis was having an excellent death. A week later, when she actually died, I felt this all the more because she had left, in me, the indelible knowledge that such a death is possible….
“For myself, for all of us, I want a death like Mrs. Davis’s. One in which we will ripen and ripen further, as richly as fruit, and then fall slowly into the caring arms of our friends and other people we know.” -Alice Walker, Living the Word (Google eBook)
I suppose many, if not most of us, would like that kind of death: to come to the end of life, our affairs in order, at peace, respected and loved by others.
Four years ago, my own father died that way. After a couple months in the hospital with heart disease, he went to his home for hospice care. Our family gathered there and we had about five wonderful days celebrating his life and saying our goodbyes. Dad was able to enjoy all of it. He died at age 95 on Easter morning at sunrise.
Priest and writer Henri Nouwen used to speak about “dying well.” He talked about the need to prepare ourselves for the reality of our own death as part of “living our lives well” (Our Greatest Gift, 1994).
Many, if not most of us, might like to die peacefully at a ripe old age. But we all know that death doesn’t always happen that way. Death has many faces. It is often premature, tragic, unjust. Life is cut short by accident, disease, violence, and suicide. Death may come slowly and agonizingly in later years from cancer or other diseases. We will not all die peacefully of old age.
But whatever the timing, causes, or circumstances of our death, is it still possible to “die well?” Biblical faith offers a resounding “Yes” to that question. It does so in an interesting way. Biblical faith says that by reflecting on our death, we can learn how to live better, so that we not only live well but die well.
That’s what the writer of Psalm 90 is talking about in those words, “Teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom.” The writer is saying, “Teach us to be aware of how short life is, to value each day as a gift, and to live knowing that one day we will die.” Martin Luther translated that line, “Teach us to remember that we must die, so that we may become wise in our living.” Remembering our days are numbered, that life does not go on forever, is a key to wisdom, to living well.
Earlier Psalm 90 speaks of how transitory human life is. Who are we? The psalmist reminds us that we are dust (v. 3), and we shall eventually return to dust, as the book of Genesis says (Genesis 3:19). We are reminded of that each time we stand at a graveside. The psalmist also says our lives are “like a dream” (v. 5). While we are sleeping, dreams are so vivid and real, but they are quickly gone when we awaken. We are also “like grass that flourishes in the morning, but in the evening it fades and withers” (vv. 5-6).
Life is short and transient. We are mortal. Our years soon come to an end and we are gone. But the psalmist says all this by way of hope and encouragement: “God, teach us how to receive and to live the time we have as a gift from you. Teach us to live day by day entrusting our lives to you.” That is the secret of living well and acquiring a heart of wisdom, so that we no longer fear death.
But notice, the psalmist says “Teach us…” In other words, “Give us, grant us, create within us, the readiness and the ability to remember that each day is a gift, so that we can live wisely.” This is a prayer asking God for something we cannot easily do on our own. It is natural to fear the future, the unknown, and death. The prayer is for God to teach us to be aware of the precious gift of each day, so that we will be aware of God’s presence and purposes at work in our lives.
The secret to living well is accepting that one day we will die. And the secret to dying well is knowing that each day of living is a gift.
Yes, we are dust and to dust we shall return. Yes, our lives seem like a dream that passes quickly, or like grass that flourishes and then withers. Yes, death will come to each of us. But our lives are defined, not by those realities, but by the One who is our dwelling place, our true home. Being at home in God is a gift, never something we do or achieve. As we come to know and to believe that each day of our lives is a gift from God, who is our home, we are given a “heart of wisdom.”
Living in that assurance, we can “live well” and we can “die well.” In light of God’s promises, Alice Walker’s words take on new meaning for us as people of faith:
“I thought [Mrs. Davis’s] dying one of the most reassuring events I’d ever witnessed. She was calm, she seemed ready, her affairs were in order. She was respected and loved….When she actually died, I felt this all the more because she had left, in me, the indelible knowledge that such a death is possible….For myself, for all of us, I want a death like Mrs. Davis’s.”
God is present in every moment of our lives. Each moment offers meaning, purpose, and opportunity because God is present. Whether we live or we die, we are at home in God.
The Reverend William MacLean is an associate pastor at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church. He is hosting Faith Alive, a radio ministry of Mount Olivet, this July, where you can listen to an expanded version of this blog post.