During my recent trip to California to spend Christmas with my youngest, Kevin and his family, we wound up having “fun” with a passage from the Bible. I have always liked the book of James in the New Testament, and one of my favorite passages is this: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.” (James 4:13-16)
Now the sense of this quote is often referred to as “under the condition of James.” Or more colloquially we say, “God willin’ and the creek don’t rise.” That is, my plan is to do this or that – have dinner with you tomorrow evening, meet you downtown next Saturday ... unless some unforeseen thing keeps me from showing up!
So I reminded Kevin about this passage, and I also suggested that he could impress his friends to no end by adding to mutual plans the condition ... “under the condition of James!” (Probably a few Roman Catholics would immediately catch on.) But then I said to him that if he really wanted to impress his friends, he could say it in Latin: “Sub conditione Jacobe!” How erudite! How profound!
After my visit, after I was back in Richmond, Kevin had a meeting in New Orleans and his whole family went because the kids were still out of school. And I texted him for the flight schedule, and after he gave it to me, he said, “Of course, sub conditione Jacobe!” Oh yes ... indeed! (And thank God they did all make it safely there and back.)
Now it’s interesting that I have become so taken anew with this passage, because it has arrested my attention for years. For me, a control freak who tries very, very hard to control all aspects of my daily life, I have always recognized the profound truth that rings out from James’ words: You don’t even know what tomorrow ... or the next hour ... or the next five minutes with bring.
Shifting a bit but perhaps related to the topic at hand, I spent a couple of days this past week cleaning out some old files of mine, making room for a reorganization of sermon files ... see the lead photo ... and the exercise became at times quite nostalgic. I pulled out old papers that I had written as an undergraduate and graduate student, and discovered files of articles that I had copied over the years for courses I taught, as well as articles I myself have written. And I discovered again that I had file after file labeled, “Death and Dying.” I taught a course on the topic at one point while on the faculty at Indiana State
, and during graduate school days I was deeply into existential philosophy and theology – concentrating on the writings of Martin Heidegger (Being and Time
), Maurice Merleau-Ponty (Phenomenology of Perception
), and others during both undergraduate and graduate years. More recently as an ordained clergy, I have given adult education seminars on the topic of dying in all its forms, e.g., assisted suicide, the “good death,” and so on. So I also found an article by Miroslav Volf titled “Remember that you will die”
(Christian Century, April 7, 1999, second photo below), as I sorted through what I would keep and what I would discard.
As I mused about this topic, I remembered the story told by Forrest Church in his beautifully written book titled Love & Death
(third photo). I have preached from Church’s book and have written about his last journey in my latest work, The Fiction of Our Lives: Creating Our Stories Over a Lifetime
. Let me quote from my own words to tell you Church’s story of his best college friend – Dalton Denton – when they were students together at Stanford
. During the middle of their sophomore year, Dalton died of pneumonia while on a skiing vacation at Vail. Church says:
He had been out on the slopes just the day before. That morning he felt a little tired and somewhat congested, so he stayed in the cabin while his friends skied. When they returned home later in the afternoon, Dalton was dead ...
A week before he died, I told Dalton that I did not believe I would live past the age of twenty-five. This romantic, melodramatic flourish didn’t impress my friend. He simply said, “lighten up, Church. You’ve been reading too many existentialists. Besides, six years from now is a fantasy however you cut it. Today’s the day. Don’t ruin it.” He was right. And then he was dead.
Church devotes a whole chapter to what he calls “trapdoors.” And he begins that chapter with four italicized lines: Life is a gift, not a given. One day we will go to sleep and not wake up again. The path of life is strewn with trapdoors. Every day is a miracle.
(p. 42) And he ends this whole work with an admonition, one I picked up on in my blog on April 11, 2015
. He says “one thing I do know is that we can’t say goodbye to those we love either too early or too often. [And] “I love you” should end every farewell, howsoever briefly we plan to be apart. Death can pounce in the middle of the night or interrupt the most uneventful day. When this happens, what a relief it is that the last message we imparted to our loved one was “I love you.” (p. 131)
Well friends, sorry to have hit a somber note at this start of our brand new year. But in fact we all live under the condition of James. You and I have today. So say “I love you,” to all whom you do love. Because you never know what tomorrow will bring. Every day is, indeed, its own miracle. Don’t ruin it!