Each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
I Corinthians 3:13-15
Just as each of us will walk a different and unique path through life—different talents, opportunities, circumstances—life for each of us will also end in a unique way. Some of us will die young and some will die old. Some will die suddenly and some will endure a long period of illness. Some will die sooner because of their own choices or the mistakes of others.
In my opinion, there are four causes of death. The first is our own mistakes. If we make poor choices in terms of food, exercise, and behavior, bad consequences may follow. And while there are some obvious bad choices, like smoking, drugs or excessive drinking, there are plenty of people who are working their way to “death by donut,” excessive eating. Bad choices like driving too fast or engaging in other risky activities can also bring about premature death. I wonder sometimes as I get older how long God intends for me to live, and I wonder am I thwarting what God intends by bad diet. What if I die at a young age from poor diet and God says “I intended for you to live to be 80 and you only made it to 60.”
The second cause of death is the mistakes of others. If someone is driving too fast and hits my car and I die, the fault can be placed at the hands of a bad driver. There will be further comment on this in an upcoming reflection.
The third cause of death is disasters of nature. We live in a broken nature where there are occasionally strong storms (hurricanes), plates of the earth that move (earthquakes/tsunamis), rain that falls too quickly in one area (flood), lightning strikes (fire), strong winds (tornadoes), and other disasters of nature. Just about every place on earth has experienced a disaster of nature.
The fourth cause of death is what is sometimes called “the human condition,” which in my definition, is that we are equal sharers of an imperfect nature. Imagine for a moment, if you will, that four perfect people are sharing perfect conversation in a perfect room filled with perfect air. Then someone comes into the room and introduces a large amount of aerosol into the room. The four people didn’t do anything wrong. However, each is exposed to the aerosol and has a different consequence. One starts coughing, another starts sneezing, another gets watery eyes, and the fourth gets a headache. They are all exposed to the same thing, they equally share the now imperfect air, but there is a different and unique consequence for each.
We equally share imperfect water and breathe imperfect air—though in some places of the world, the water and air are more imperfect than in other places. We share imperfect gene pools that cause one person to have a lifelong learning disability, while another person who was in perfect health for their early life has early onset dementia. Some people have high cholesterol no matter how healthy their diet is. Others suffer from different physical or psychological maladies. Some of the things we suffer from, especially mentally, are a product of our environment. And some are just innate. Sometimes a cause of death is explainable, and other times it is not.
In my family, both of my parents passed away at age 78—they were 8 years apart in age and their death was 8 years apart—both from cancer. Thus, there is probably a good chance I will get cancer and probably won’t live to be 100. Armed with this knowledge and experience, I am more diligent about cancer screenings (but am continuously battling weight issues) so maybe I will have a few more years than they did, unless something happens in a personal bad decision, the bad decision of someone else, or a disaster of nature.
As I get older, I think about death a little bit more, not in a fatalistic way, but in a realistic way. In the Orthodox wedding service, we pray for a couple to see their children’s children. (Psalm 128:6) That means we hope to live to see our children have their own children. If someone gets married at age 30, has children by age 35, those children get married when they are 30 and have children when they are 35, that means that the original parent will see grandchildren at 70. This means that what we prayed for at the wedding will have come to pass. We don’t pray that a couple see their “children’s children’s children,” though some are fortunate enough to see great-grandchildren. I hope to see my son married, settled, hopefully with children, and self-sufficient. When he was a child, we were his directors. When he is an adult we will be his consultants and hopefully his friends. I hope to live past being a director. However, if he has children when he is 30, I’ll be 64, and that petition from the wedding will have come true.
I am somewhat afraid of death. Hopefully, I am living a life of faith and repentance which will put me in good stead at the awesome judgment seat of Christ. What I am most afraid of is dying, specifically the dying process. How will that last chapter be written? I’ve seen people die in their sleep, and I think this is a blessing. If I could choose my way, I would choose that. I’ve seen people suffer from disease for many years, endure a lot of pain and suffering along the way and death came almost as a relief. I’ve seen other people who have dementia and who have forgotten who they are and who they love—this is another agonizing way to die. I’ve seen people who didn’t shed tears when a loved one finally died, because they were shedding so many as they were dying over a long period of time.
Death will come in a different way for each of us. Which is why it is important to remember the petition that is the genesis of this entire unit: “And let us ask for a Christian end to our life, peaceful without shame and suffering, and for a good defense before the awesome judgment seat of Christ.” (The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, 2015 Translation of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America). Because the end for each person is so unique, we pray this petition as a general petition for everyone, for whatever circumstance by which it happens.
Every successful life, and even every life that isn’t very successful, has its challenges and rough roads. The road to the end of life will be more challenging for some than for others. This is why we have to keep our eyes on the prize, salvation, even when the road there is challenging and painful. We can only run our own race and encourage others to run theirs. And this is true whether we are in college, or raising children or walking the last mile.
Be gracious to me, O God, for men trample upon me; all day long foemen oppress me; my enemies trample upon me all day long, for many fight against me proudly. When I am afraid, I put my trust in Thee. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust without a fear. What can flesh do to me? All day long they seek to injure my cause; all their thoughts are against me for evil. They band themselves together, they lurk, they watch my steps. As they have waited for my life, so recompense them for their crime; in wrath cast down the peoples, O God! Thou hast kept count of my tossings; put Thou my tears in Thy bottle! Are they not in Thy book? Then my enemies will be turned back in the day when I call. This I know, that God is for me. In God, whose word I praise, in the Lord whose word I praise, in God I trust without a fear. What can man do to me? My vows to Thee I must perform, O God; I will render thank offerings to Thee. For Thou hast delivered my soul from death, yea, my feet from falling, that I may walk before God in the light of life. Psalm 56
The last mile will be different for everyone.