A pastor friend posted this video on Facebook on Tuesday (21 May 2013). Though he wasn’t the first person in my feed who did, his comments gave me pause. He wrote:
He died yesterday at age 17.
How does a kid know so much about parenting?
How does a teen know so much about life?
How does one suffering know so much about joy?
How can such sorrow and loss shout hope and purpose?
When we talk, Sunday after Sunday, that it is possible to have joy in all things, he shows it is possible.
So how can I put the wisdom of this life, with all its joy, hope, and courage into my life? I want to be like him when I grow up.
Before watching the video, I replied:
There are those among us who have not only spent life living, but watching and thinking — the introspective contemplatives. It is in the presence of these individuals that one realizes what “an old soul” truly means. Most live simple lives that only impact the lives of those in their immediate world around them, but every so often the words of one or another of these remarkable persons are preserved and handed down. Often we find the writings of these individuals as mature adults, but in peeling back the layers, realize the individuals in question were long remarkable. Add to all of that the knowledge that he knew that life is short, fleeting, and precious long before most people figure out they aren’t invincible and immortal…that’s how.
Love the video. Zach gets it — got it:
“Because you can either sit in your basement and wait, or you can get out there and do some crazy stuff.”
“Life is just really beautiful moments, one right after the other.”
“It’s really simple actually, it’s just…try and make people happy. Maybe you have to learn in less time, maybe you have to learn it the hard way, but as long as you learn it, you’re gonna make the world a better place.”
So many people clutter up life with just…things that don’t even matter. The younger this can be learned — the sooner this can be learned — what does matter, the better. The gift that Zach’s cancer gave him was a clarity about this. The thing that can be the greatest evil in this world is not isolated incidents of wickedness and depravity, but the wholesale distraction on a massive and societal level toward ephemeral things and away from the beauty and preciousness of what makes life…life.
I have a dear baby niece who I try to see a little bit every day. She’s about four and a half months old (younger in this picture) — a sweet, willful, sassy little thing — this child has known what she wanted since before she was born. But she came into the world with little expectation from life — as we all do. Everything is a fascination, and there is so much delight and joy in her as she experiences life. What she wants is simple: to be with those she loves who so dearly love her, and to experience (and delight in) the wonder of life that is her world.
At what point will she be told that’s not good enough?
At what point will she internalize that ‘that’s not good enough’ is true?
The thought that there will come a day when that will be true fills me with profound sadness, because that is the day she will lose her life…the part that matters anyway. Because Zach is right (though I’ll be the first to admit this is a difficult truth to always internalize at every dark moment):
“Life is just really beautiful moments, one right after the other.”
If we ever lose that perspective, we risk losing — forfeiting — all the goodness, joy, hope, and love possible in this life.
For all my love for life (though not always love for the way my own life is going), for all the words of love, of hope, of encouragement…I tend to spend a lot of time on the theological dark side. Sin, evil, pain, suffering, death — what do these things mean within the parameters of a Christian worldview, what does God have to say about it, and how do theologians across the ages weigh in on the discussion? And there is a lot to be found on the subject, because the primary narrative of the Bible is not of children of light living in the glory of eternal light — the primary narrative of the Bible is God’s great rescue plan for broken humanity.
Please remember that the world didn’t start out as a place of light, it started as a place of darkness (see Genesis 1). It is, in-fact, impossible to know light without darkness. That’s not to say that the light does not exist without darkness, it is to say that it will not be noticed: for though the stars burn as brightly during the day as at night, their light is lost to us during the day because of the light of the sun.
Sometimes what makes a thing most noticeable is its deficiency.
“How does one suffering know so much about joy?”
Because amid suffering it becomes apparent that joy is the only thing that really matters. I frequently raid the theology section of a local used book shop, and was having a conversation Tuesday afternoon with the owner about my general distaste for the “heaven tourism” genre. It isn’t about whether I believe or disbelieve the accounts, it’s that I don’t find them relevant or important. I pointed to Philippians 1:21, and said that what interests me more are the books by the people who have wrestled with and internalized “to live is Christ, to die is gain” because they have faced death. It may or may not be a hard word or a hard sell to an eschatologist to say that I don’t give much thought to “what’s next,” but I don’t. I have deep enough Roman Catholic roots for God to be “allowed” to be mysterious. I know God keeps his promises. There are enough broad brush strokes in the Bible to understand the glory and benevolence of heaven without needing a tour map and itinerary. I have an eternity of “later” to think about “later,” what don’t have a lot of is “now.” A friend of mine presented the thought a few months ago that in-light of my trials, suffering, and constant illness this year she wished I could just sleep until 2014 (my reply to that can be found here). I wrote:
Time is precious…
measured in breaths…
in sunrises and sunsets…
in grains of sand…
in waves on the shore.
It cannot be bottled, nor saved
nor kept, nor held —
only savored, cherished, remembered…or else merely regretted for its passing.
What Zach understood is that life — what we make of it, how we live, and how we die — is a matter of perspective. Whatever we go looking for in this life with intentionality — goodness or evil, hope or despair, joy or sorrow, beauty or wretchedness — we will find. One of the most profoundly affecting things I’ve ever done in my life was volunteer-visit hospice patients. Because hospice patients are a distinct group — a person has committed to not seeking further medical treatment for his or her terminal condition at that point — my various patients gave me the quiet gift of a very close view of death and dying. One thing I discovered first about hospice patients, but then chillingly realized applies to every single living human in my world, is this: absolutely everything about how a person lives his or her life and faces his or her death is tied to the question of whether or not he or she fears death.
I have faced my own death many times, and have been called to be a part of the death and dying process of many pets and people. Now there are those who do not fear death who still fight it a little — e.g., what can be done to fight this cancer, do I have a chance? There is a line, however, in a certain type of patient that never makes it to hospice — the patient who fights to fight, even when fighting is of no practical use and destroys the possibility of living and dying with dignity, because their soul has no anchor but to this life and to this world. Realizing how these people lived long before they died, the quiet similarity I’ve noticed — especially among women — is that defying the aging process on all levels becomes a macabre obsession. The thing is though, in the time spent trying to defy aging and death (which, face it, our culture shoves down out throats) we actually surrender control of our lives — minute by minute, dollar by dollar — to that same distracting, dark spirit that steals our days by filling them with ephemeral things. Zach’s view was:
“Death is just another thing on the agenda, kinda. Yeah, it’s scary, but the only reason it’s scary is ’cause you don’t know what’s next or if there is a next. So it’s kinda like sittin’ in the dark. And so you can either choose to be freaking out in the dark and thinking, ‘okay, what’s out there?’ or you can just relax and fall asleep, and be happy and content with everything.”
And it’s by this view — in not “freaking out” but knowing to “relax” — that I know Zach did not fear death, he had a greater peace.
And one of the greatest graces that facing death — reckoning with Philippians 1:21 on a very personal level — is that it can teach you how to live.
Zach knew this.
Because if a person can come to the place of peace to know “to die is gain,” it completely removes all distracting and self-serving, fear-related barriers to the “to live is Christ” portion of that verse.
Given his words:
“I want to be remembered as the kid who went down fighting…and didn’t really lose.”
and statements made this week by his family, following his death, Zach knew that too.
And its my own deep knowledge of the truth of that verse that brought me to the position I took with my friend who owns the book shop, because there are a lot of really wonderful and rich verses in the Bible to use as an anchor for life, but time and time again I keep coming back to Philippians 1:21.
It’s the ultimate win-win (which Zach also knew).
A pause to fly a little close to the earth with respect to joy and Philippians for any who might not be as deeply familiar with my favorite book in the Bible as I am (or as my pastor friend). Firstly, one of the most beautiful renderings of Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi (i.e., Philippians) is to be found in The New Testament in Modern English by J.B. Phillips (click here to read it). And to read it (in any translation), one thing that is most striking about this epistle (“epistle” is the $10 word for “letter” in Bible-speak) is that it drips with hope and joy…sometimes on a nauseating level.
Seriously, read it…joy, encouragement, hope, love (and the most beautifully succinct passage on the incarnation of Christ is to be found in Chapter 2).
So what’s the story behind the writing of Philippians? Paul hints at it — he was in prison.
Yeah, prison. He was chained to a guard 24/7 and used the opportunity to evangelize the guards. Prison — not much joy and hope to be found there. And yet? In Philippians we have one of the most beautiful books in the Bible coming out of the darkness and despair of unjust imprisonment written by a man who was eventually martyred.
“To live is Christ, to die is gain.”
Paul knew what Zach learned — life is too short and too precious to brood over unalterable injustices. In this broken world terrible things happen that we have no power to prevent or to change, but that doesn’t mean we have to swallow the poison and define our days by brokenness. The world was not created broken, it was created beautiful — God made it and saw that it was good. All the goodness didn’t drain out of the world at the fall — much goodness and beauty exists still, albeit imperfectly, and it’s up too us to seek it.
That’s how such sorrow and loss can shout hope and purpose — because sorrow and loss have a walk-on part in eternity for people of faith like Zach, they were not the main characters of Zach’s life, and they will have no part in things to come. Sorrow and loss certainly shaped and informed Zach’s last few years in this world, but by no means did it define him or his beautiful life.
“When we talk, Sunday after Sunday, that it is possible to have joy in all things, he shows it is possible.”
Yes, he shows it is possible, but he also doesn’t deny the bad days. What any who choose to find joy in all things will tell you, is that finding joy — and light…and hope — in profound darkness requires intentionality.
“So how can I put the wisdom of this life, with all its joy, hope, and courage into my life?”
Well that’s the answer, isn’t it: intentionality.
Please understand that finding the goodness, hope, joy and beauty in this broken world is not equivalent to turning off one’s brain and declaring that bad things and brokenness do not exist (“La, la, la — not listening!”) — they do, and they are just as real as all of the good and beautiful things. What intentionality means, is looking at all the good and all the bad, but choosing to honor the goodness of life as more important to value than the bad. It really is that simple…and yet it is so damnably easy to be distracted down the rabbit hole of despair.
Intentionality is no easy task, but it is possible for all. We don’t need to be some kind of super-saint sitting on top of a mountain contemplating life 24/7, it is perfectly possible to be intentional — each and every one of us — in everyday life. It does require a bit of contemplation.
Marginally connected to my application and acceptance to one of the best Jesuit universities on the West Coast U.S., last fall I started delving into the history of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) and their founder St. Ignatius of Loyola. I really like what Loyola had to say about much; his Spiritual Exercises (basically a month-long retreat), The Examen, and so many of his other spiritual disciplines are an amazing and simple way for everyday people to grow closer to God in a very practical way that — really — anyone can do. Ignatian Spirituality is one of the most practical approaches to conducting an interior life that I have found. And don’t think just because Loyola was a Roman Catholic, that this is somehow a “Catholic” thing and doesn’t apply to Protestants, it does. Ignatian Spirituality is a really great tool box for practical faith, and for more information I would recommend reading The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life by James Martin, SJ as a great place to start (he’s very readable and approachable and funny — this will not be a slog, Martin is great!).
Because one of the best ways I’ve found of being intentional about life is the Ignatian principle of finding God in all things — all things. There is a passage from the First week of the Spiritual Exercises that both inspires and challenges me. I’ve quoted it before, but I just keep coming back to it because it is so clear in what it teaches: come what may, our ultimate desire should be anything which enables us to best praise, revere, and serve God (which echoes the famous question/answer from the Shorter Catechism to The Westminster Confession of Faith: Q. 1. What is the chief end of man? / A. 1. Man’s Chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever). Loyola wrote:
Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord and by this means to save his soul.
And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created.
From this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid himself of them so far as they hinder him as to it.
For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it; so that, on our part, we want not health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, long rather than short life, and so in all the rest; desiring and choosing only what is most conducive for us to the end for which we are created.
To be intentional to seek to lift up what is good and worthy (regardless of circumstances), to find God in all things (regardless of circumstances), and to desire what will best enable us to serve God (regardless of whether the circumstances that come of it are particularly comfortable or desirable to us) — that’s the secret to living a life of hope and joy and courage. Embrace today, it’s the only “today” you’re going to get.
That is what Zach knew.
And so Zach journeys on without us, and we sojourn here without him. I immediately thought of the Mr. Rogers quotation when I started writing this post:
“If only you could sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you many never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you will leave at every meeting with another person.” — Fred Rogers
because whether Zach knew it or not, we know it of his beautiful life. It is a challenge to us, however — for if we leave something of ourselves with all we meet and in the lives of all we touch, what are we leaving? It cuts both ways — positive and negative. Seek to be intentional that what you leave is positive (as Zach did).
Blessings – VKS
Post-script: I’ve been intermittently watching Zach’s video “Clouds” on YouTube all week as I’ve been writing this (always makes me cry):