Author and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner (1926- ) tells this story:
My wife and I were buying groceries one day; I was on one side of the small store and she was on the other. I said loudly, “Don’t forget the ice cream,” and she said, “All right, but don’t you forget you are trying to lose weight.” I replied, “Oh well, you only live once.”
The store was nearly empty, so the woman at the checkout counter had no trouble hearing us. It was a hot, muggy afternoon, and she had been working hard all day. She looked tired and bored, and when I said, “Oh well, you only live once,” she broke into the conversation and said, “I think once is enough, don’t you?”
Buechner went on to say that on one level, it was just small talk and everyone chuckled. But he knew that lady, and he had a feeling that on a deeper level there was more going on. He said he sensed a good deal of despair in her words, and he recognized it because he too felt that way at times. He thought that perhaps on a deeper level that lady was saying, “People come and go here; most of them are strangers and I don’t very much like the ones I do know. I am sick of them, and I am sick of myself too, and I am sick of the same old thing every day. I will live out my life to the last, and I expect to have good days as well as bad. But when the end comes, I won’t complain. I’m tired. One life will be enough for me.”
Buechner admitted he might have been reading too much into one casual comment, but maybe he wasn’t. Maybe those days and those feelings come for all of us. I know they come for me.
In her small talk, that lady was making an important statement. It was life and death she was talking about; her own life and death. Jesus once said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, even though he dies, yet shall he live again.” But the checkout lady would reply, “No thanks, once is enough for me.”
We all face despair, discouragement, boredom, and hopelessness, and we sometimes (maybe oftentimes) do get tired of it all. But it is a mistake to be like that checkout lady and decide that you are sick of life. LIFE is a miraculous gift of God, precious and wonderful even though we sometimes, or oftentimes, fail to realize that. Life is not the problem.
DEATH is the problem, and by death I do not mean that only in the narrow sense of the last breath we take. Rather, I mean death in ALL of its destructive forms. In graveside committal services, we often hear these words: “In the midst of life, we are in death; of whom may we seek comfort but of Thee, O Lord?” Throughout our lives we face this death which overshadows our whole existence.
In the midst of our own life, we face the death of loved ones. Time and again we make that sad drive to the cemetery to commit another family member or friend to the ground. But bodily death is not the only death we face.
We also face the death of our hopes and dreams, for ourselves and others. “I always wanted to go to college, but I never had the chance… I always wanted to have my own business, but I lost everything trying… We always wanted a child, but that never happened for us… I always hoped he would get his life together, but now he has messed it up for good… I had always hoped we could settle our differences, but now it is too late… I just wanted a happy home, but I all we do is fight… I was so looking forward to retirement, but then came my wife’s stroke.” When we realize that something we had been hoping for is not going to happen, that is like a death. That hope is dead, and it hurts.
The passing of years is another sort of death. Gone forever is our youth, or the years that the children were at home, or the years of a happy marriage. In our mobile society, people move often, and always saying good-bye to neighbors and friends is a kind of death. They all go on living, but they are dead to us, and even if we say we will keep in touch, we usually don’t. And in a world of wars, injustice, hunger, conflict, and coronaviruses, we feel the death of hope and peace. With the death of so many things all around us, we can begin to feel the death of the joy of living. “In the midst of life, we are in death…” (continued…)