Cause of Death

Ecclesiastes 5:16-17

Phil is dying. That’s the short form of the story. We’d heard that this man, whom we’ve known for about 10 years, had experienced some serious health problems, but as of yesterday we know a great deal more detail, and that detail adds up to a grim reality: short of a miracle, Phil will be gone within a year or two.

The diagnosis involves complicated and unfamiliar words, the sort of words that an oncologist would know, but it boils down to brain cancer: inoperable brain cancer. As I said before, Phil is dying. But then so am I, and so was Solomon when he wrote these words:

This too is a sickening tragedy: exactly as he comes, so he will go. What does the one gain who struggles for the wind? What is more, he eats in darkness all his days, with much frustration, sickness, and anger.

Ecclesiastes 5:16-17

Medical Certainty

Doctors of all sorts have undoubtedly poked and probed at Phil. They’ve stared thoughtfully at CT scan results and stroked their chins while considering lab results. They’ve listened to his chest and squinted into a microscope at biopsy matter. They all agree. He’s going to die.

But then again, so am I. The question is when we’re going to die. Certainly someone without inoperable brain cancer can be expected to live longer than somebody without that issue, but death is down the road. At 56 years old, I can be pretty certain that this vacation of life is more than half over. And even if I did live to be 112, having looked at some of the truly old people in my life, I’m not sure that would be a good thing.

We are going to die, and there’s not a single thing we can do to keep that from happening, despite the pronouncements of various medical visionaries. My consciousness will not be transferred into another body or grafted onto some sort of cyborg.

All I can do is make the best of the time I have here, yet if that involves doing things for others, my kids for example, then I’m just passing the buck down the line. Nothing that I work for in this life can survive me or, at best, a couple of generations. So what’s the point?

Getting in Tune

Phil shared the point on Facebook yesterday. Humans were not created to die, but we all share the same cause of death: our sin. We can trace it back to Genesis 3, but I can just as easily trace it to a hateful thought I had this morning.

Toward the end of John 21, Jesus tells Peter that he would be led somewhere he did not want to go. Indeed, Peter’s life would be shortened by his martyrdom. But by giving away his life in order to make disciples who would make disciples, Peter gained something that would outlive him. By giving away his life to share Christ with his family and then with anyone who would listen, Phil is leaving a legacy that is not just “struggling with the wind.”

So now the question for you and me, as we stare down the road to the inevitable death that is awaiting us, is not our ability to avoid that cause of death but our ability to transcend it. Only by giving our lives can we gain something of lasting value.

Do we need to wait until death is knocking at the door to take that seriously?

Steward of the Barn–Ecclesiastes 2:18-21

I think Jim might drive by our house, pictured above, from time to time. I don’t know that he does. I haven’t seem him, but it seems reasonable that he might. About 15 years ago, Jim bought a decrepit but structurally sound former dairy barn and turned it into a wonderful home.

He refinished the original floors on the main level, preserving the rough, stained nature of a place where work had been done for decades. He installed staircases to the loft and to the basement. Where only smallish windows had allowed the sun in, he put in large ones that fill the open hayloft with light.

Jim also installed a greenhouse on the south side of the barn, equipping it with fans and thermostats. When it gets too cold in the greenhouse, a fan pulls warmer air in from the basement. When it gets too hot, a fan pulls that air out. He didn’t settle for ordinary heating and cooling but opted for a geothermal heat pump system. So far, our utility bills have been quite reasonable. One other bit of overbuild was in the electrical system. Jim put in far more capacity than we will ever need or use, but should we ever want to run a commercial kitchen, a server farm, and several welders simultaneously, it’s nice to know that the amperage is available.

Our work today is necessary, but it is not permanent.

Why did Jim leave this marvelous place? It wasn’t because he or his wife didn’t like it anymore. You could tell talking to them that they still maintain a love for the barn–which is why I envision him driving by on occasion. Apparently, he found that the work and expense of maintenance were just more than he could continue. Still, he recalls how he turned vision into reality, so he (maybe) drives by. That’s what takes me to Solomon today:

I hated all my work that I labored at under the sun because I must leave it to the one who comes after me.  And who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will take over all my work that I labored at skillfully under the sun. This too is futile. So I began to give myself over to despair concerning all my work that I had labored at under the sun. When there is a person whose work was done with wisdom, knowledge, and skill, and he must give his portion to a person who has not worked for it, this too is futile and a great wrong.

All of my work, efforts that seem so significant, so permanent, so necessary, will one day be passed over to someone else. Will that person care for things the way that I do? Or will they allow what I’ve labored to create to be swept into the dustbin of history?

If Jim’s happiness depends on his work here outliving him, then he may or my not be pleased with how things turn out. If my happiness depends on whether my students continue to follow the lessons I so carefully placed in front of them, then I’m almost certain to be disappointed.

Our work today is necessary, but it is not permanent. Like so much in Ecclesiastes, it is a vapor, futile.

More than Beard Envy

The man in the photo is Alexander Snider, my great-great grandfather. Born in North Carolina on 23 March 1826–I must remember to get a card in the mail!–he moved with his father, Philip Snider, to the hinterlands of southwestern Missouri in 1844, marrying Mary Ruth Wommack three years later. A history of Greene County, Missouri says that the Sniders arrived

when the county was sparsely settled, neighbors were far apart, game and wild honey abounded. He built a small cabin upon the farm where he now lives.

In fact, that sparseness of settlement was sufficient that other than Mary Ruth’s family, no one else lived within a mile of the Sniders for quite some time.

I admire Alexander, where some of my ancestors I simply tolerate. He wasn’t an exceptionally distinguished fellow, although his brief obituary describes him as “one of our oldest and most respected citizens.”

Alexander SniderIt’s not just the beard that I admire about this man, although you have to give him credit for a magnificent stand of whiskers. Instead, I admire him for some more significant character traits.

At the age of thirty-six in 1862, Alexander and his musket showed up for military service as he joined the Enrolled Missouri Militia where he served for more than six months as a corporal. Six months of militia duty is not extraordinary, but it demonstrates that this man, past his peak and with six children to support already, came when he was called. There’s no evidence that Company F. of the 74th E.M.M. ever saw any real duty, but we do know that he stood when summoned.

Similarly, he attended Mt. Comfort Cumberland Presbyterian Church in the years after the war until his death. Not only did he go to a church that was an inconvenient distance from his home, but he served that church as an elder, mentioned several times as taking on various lay duties for the congregation. In the church’s records, Alexander’s line does not give a date at which he “Ceased to Act” or moved elsewhere. Instead, a one-word note describes his separation from that body: “Dead.”

Alexander Snider would have presumably spent a good amount of time following a team and plow across his farm. By the time he shuttled off this mortal coil in 1900, mechanization of farming remained something in the future.

That history mentioned above describes him as “one of the leading men of Jackson township” while the obituary concludes by naming him “an old landmark in this part of the country.” Alexander Snider was not a man bound to appear in Who’s Who. But he was a landmark, a dependable figure who provided stability in the community.

We could all do worse than to be known as a landmark, a sort of living Ebenezer. In 1 Samuel 7:12, after leading the Israelites to a victory over the Philistines, Samuel raised a memorial stone:

Afterward, Samuel took a stone and set it upright between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, explaining, “The Lord has helped us to this point.”

Alexander Snider’s life, it seems, stood as such a marker, encouraging others and showing them the way. By and large, those who came after him seem to have followed that track. If I envy anything, it is that legacy. But the beard is nice, too.