It is a very solemn thing to realize that the physical, as well as the spiritual, life depends on that channel to the Upper Springs being kept clear for the quickening of the mortal body by the Spirit that dwelleth in us, till our work is done.
All Saints Day, of the liturgical calendar, took on new meaning to me this year. Within two weeks, I said final “good byes” to two woman who have played a significant role in my life as well in the lives of many others. The first good-bye was to a steadfast “saint” of the congregation my husband served for thirty-seven years. She was recognized in our church and community for her unflagging service sourced from her love of Jesus. I, like many others, was recipient of that unconditional love not only in acts of kindness but in a listening heart.
I had hardly put down the phone (or so it seemed) when I received another call, this time from my ancient past, informing me that a friend from my childhood was dying. Would I call and say “good-bye?” Once again, with trembly voice and teary eyes, I call this “saint” who so many years ago took a young child under her wings, building a hardback library of children’s classics. She introduced me to Anne of Green Gables along with Heidi, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, the Five Little Peppers, and Alcott’s little women – wonderful “friends” who peopled my childhood. She took me on special excursions and filled the void in my homesick heart with letters when, at the age of ten, my family moved over a thousand miles from my childhood home.
Through the lingering weepiness of the past several weeks I ponder this loss. My loss. Not theirs. Both had lived long productive lives, well-spent, to the very end. Each eagerly anticipated “going Home.” One wrote concerning her recent prognosis: “I am at complete peace. All my life I have worshipped and loved my Redeemer and Savior and now I will get to meet Him.” They were ready to leave this earthly dwelling – their “work done.” They finished strong.
And that, perhaps, is my dominant take-way: finishing strong. The same spirit of loving and serving and giving that characterized their active years, sustained them to the end. They lived life to the full, at each stage, even as they accepted gracefully the inevitable losses of aging and illness. Friends and family gathered around their respective beds, during their last days, gave witness to being blessed by their presence – to the end. And this, to me, is their parting message: finish strong.
Charles Simeon, noted Biblical commentator/clergyman (1759-1836), upon retiring from his pastoral ministry, continued to get up at 4:00 a.m. each day to pray and study Scripture. When a friend suggested he could take it easier now, Simeon retorted, “Shall I not run with all my might when the winning post is in sight?” Finishing strong.
Finishing strong. The psalmist proclaimed, “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree . . . They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green.” In his daily devotional on the Psalms, Tim Keller observes, “If we maintain fellowship with God over the years, there is a kind of ‘freshness’ than can come with increasing age. It is not the naiveté of perpetual spiritual adolescence. It is the spiritual vigor that grows only out of years of trusting God in prayer, coupled with the wisdom that comes from a treasure chest of rich memories, both sorrowful and sweet.”
Moving forward to the 21st Century, our youngest son made an observation after visiting his 95-year-old grandmother: “What an inspiring example of someone stretching and changing to meet the challenges of old age. It is a lesson to me: One never needs to stop growing at any age.”
Lilias was a prime example of finishing strong. Confined to bed her last three years of life, she wrote The Sevenfold Secret for the Sufi Mystics, arguably her magnum opus. Along with multiple projects, she wrote her love story with a people and the place of Algeria, illustrating the book, Between the Desert & the Sea, with fifteen full-color plates of watercolors, subjects culled from her forty years of dairies and journals. Her daily log for 1927, her final full year, reveals a wide range of correspondence, personal and organizational, plans and projects for the future (without her), and the presence of individuals who peopled her life, staff and nationals. It is out of her very weakness that she wrote: “It is a very solemn thing to realize that the physical, as well as the spiritual, life depends on that channel to the Upper Springs being kept clear for the quickening of the mortal body by the Spirit that dwells in us, till our work is done.” Finishing strong.
Finishing strong is not limited to ones final years. Indeed, I have been inspired by the individuals who have touched my life directly or indirectly through their stories and note that each person ended as they lived. Their final parting was a culmination – a continuation – of a lifetime of a series of choices to finish strong whatever their occupation or vocation. Finishing strong was not a final flourish, a grand finish, to mark their final days. It was a MO for living all the ages and stages of their lives, all the actions and transactions of their days.
An acquaintance whose counter-culture book on femininity catapulted her to fame in the mid-70’s – winning her a cover on Time magazine, TV talk show appearances, and contracts for future books – was challenged by a friend who was also a family counselor. “How are things on the home front?” he asked, at the pinnacle of her notoriety. Then, referring to her teenage daughters, he warned, “Be careful not to fumble the ball near the goal line.” Counsel she cherished – and heeded – a timely reminder of a larger perspective.
Once I was asked to fill in for a respected lawyer, to give a talk to adolescents on (of all things) the work place. Daunted by my task (and predecessor) and short on script, I consulted him. “What counsel did you give?” He gave the cliff notes of his talk but one bit of advise remains with me to this day. “Whatever your present job, however humble – clerking at Wal-Mart; cooking at McDonald’s – give it your best to the very end.” He went on to offer the pragmatic observation that the first recommendation your next prospective employer will seek is your last place of work. In other words: finish strong.
I’m saddened by the void left by these cherished friends and reminded that there will be others, beloved, who will leave this world before me. “Time like an ever-rolling stream bears all its sons (and daughters) away.” Yet my life has been enriched by both their presence and their example of how to live . . . and how to die . . .
Every day of every age and stage of life provides countless tasks and challenges to finish strong. But the fact is, we do tire. Become weary in well-doing. Over time we can become jaded by life itself, loosing our early enthusiasm boosted by our ideals, our dreams. Discouraged by disappointments and setbacks, we wrap a protective blanket of cynicism around our hearts. Been there; done that. We can’t seem to drum up the energy or enthusiasm to face our tasks and challenges much less finish strong.
This brings us to our true condition: dependent both physically and spiritually on the “quickening” of both body and soul by the “Spirit that dwellest in us till our work is done.” Today and each day till the end of our lives. No, we cannot always produce energy or vitality at will. But we can keep open “the channel to the Upper Springs” – that refreshment from God – as we nourish our souls through Scripture and prayer.
“The righteous will flourish like a palm tree . . . They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green.” Psalm 92:12, 14