One Month to Live

Psalm 39 says, “Lord, let me konw my end, the number of my days, that I may learn how frail I am. You have given my days a very short span; my life is as nothing before you. All mortals are but a breath.”

At one level, we know the intellectual truth of this – that we are temporary visitors on this planet, to use my friend Joe’s phrase, and that our visit could end at any time. However, we don’t tend to live that way. We talk about things we’ll do in retirement or where we plan to go on vacation next year, etc., assuming that we have years in which we will continue to live.

What would it be like to live with a greater awareness of our impermanence? Or to put it the way the pastor of my friend Joel’s church put it in a series of sermons he has been presenting: What would you do differently if you knew you had only a month to live?

Joel shared with me and others a recent sermon by the pastor that is part of his current series of lessons on this topic. One of stories the pastor related involves Joel’s 11 year-old son, Benjamin, who has a serious peanut and tree nut allergy. The smallest amount of any nut product in anything Benjamin eats requires an immediate shot from the EpiPen he has to carry everywhere he goes. The shot buys him enough time for his parents to get him to a hospital.

The pastor related a conversation Joel and his family had over the question raised by the pastor. Joel’s wife talked about decisions she and Joel had made about their lives and the extent to which they would or would not make any different decisions if they knew they only had one month to live. She then asked Benjamin what impact he thought if would have on him if he knew he only had one month to live. The 11 year-old boy looked at his mother and said calmly, “Mom, I have a peanut allergy. I never know if I’m going to be alive tomorrow, let alone 30 days from now.”

From the time he has been old enough to understand the severity of his allergy, Benjamin has lived with the knowledge of life’s impermanence, with the concrete reality that life can end at any moment. And he lives that life with tremendous courage and strength. He lives as best and as fully as he can, never knowing how long he has.

What would we do if we had that awareness?

You can listen to the entire sermon, which relates Benjamin’s story here. (Click on the October 10 message.)


Sukkot: A Reminder of Impermanence

The Jewish feast of Sukkot begins at sundown this evening. Sukkot is a reminder of the impermanent nature of all things. During this seven-day festival, Jews eat their meals in temporarily erected huts. This reminds them of their life in the desert – with no permanent place to live, no place to call home from one day to the next.

One rabbi had this to say about the festival of Sukkot: “At its heart, Sukkot is a time to recognize our impermanence, to celebrate together, and to reach into our own souls to find new meaning and new riches…. [All of the joy and celebration takes] place in the flimsiest, most vulnerable of structures, ..and you can see just how susceptible a Sukkah is to the weather…[O]ur holiday calls us to surround ourselves in impermanence—to allow ourselves to be vulnerable—and then to celebrate to our heart’s content.”

If we are spiritual people, then whatever our religion is, we are conscious that we are defined by more than our human existence. Indeed this current human existence of ours is a blip in the totality of life eternal. As my friend Joe observes, we are temporary visitors to this planet. We, of course, don’t tend to behave that way – our every day reality is that this is our life; it is, after all, (except for those who claim to have actually memories of past lives) the only life we know. But it is a short and temporary blip nonetheless.

The idea of impermanence captures this reality that all things in this world are transitory. And that implies a view about the relationship of the individual to the world, one that is captured in the idea of renunciation, a term that is easily misunderstood. We hear the word and we cringe, thinking it means we are not allowed to have things, or at least that we are not supposed to enjoy them. But renunciation is not about not enjoying what we have. Rather it is about understanding the transitory nature of worldly pleasure and understanding that there is something more needed to satisfy us – that, ultimately, to be truly happy, we need to turn from materialism to a life of spirit. And that is something that requires an intentional process of transformation.