One day, I will die. My life here will come to an end. I say that not to be morbid, but to state the obvious. Whatever I am doing in that final moment, wherever I am, when I die, I will leave my life in media res. The relationships I have cultivated will still be in motion. The consequences of the words and deeds I have said and done will still trail out behind me. All the work of my life, all the love I have given, will finally end incomplete. If I have any material goods to leave to my estate, they will dwindle away, parceled out here and there. My legacy, whatever it may be, will pass out of my hands. All that I have, all that I am, will end with much still left to do.
There is a fiction that we build a life to completion. This is impossible for us. We are taught to bless one another with the prayer, “God grant you many years.” But this is a prayer asking that we may be given enough time to turn from the sins, mistakes and hurt we have done and caused others, to do instead those good works that heal and mend, to say those words that soothe and comfort. Like a Kansas farmer tilling soil, we cultivate a life of good deeds and words, knowing full well not all the good deeds and words of a thousand lifetimes would be enough. Our brief journey of perhaps seventy-five years will always fall far short, the gap between what should have been and what has been infinitely large.
We do not often consciously think about ourselves, our lives, as incomplete. But we do so rush around as to fill the gap with so many things, with relationships, with experiences and feeling. We turn our attentions, our hopes, our anger, outward. We seek power and control to mold our lives and our circumstances, and other people, to fill this gap within. But there is no, and never will be, satisfaction of that sort. We must seek a different fulfillment.
If we have no belief in an after life, our finiteness is ever more presented in bold relief. But even if we do, if we pause long enough to think it through, we realize entry to that after life will never be successfully predicated on what we do or say. Even if we were, somehow, to avoid any ill deeds and words, it will be the failures to speak and act, the things we did not do or say, which will provide reason enough to bar our entry. We might, as Job, wish ourselves never to have been born.
This is not, however, cause for despair. In fact, it is a great mercy and a relief. Imperfect creatures as we are, we offer up only that which is ours to offer, namely the imperfect works of love and prayer and mercy such as we are able to give. We are dust, to be sure, and to dust we shall return. But in the meantime, we love, we live, and we find joy in the midst of our imperfection. A joy that is not created by us, but is rather given to us in mercy.
An incomplete life is, we must understand, a gift. What we have, all that we have, is given. The very breaths we take are a gift. These same breaths we will surrender on the appointed day. The breaths that have warmed the necks of our children as we embrace them at bedtime. The breaths that have whispered private words in the ears of our beloved. And when we surrender them, there will still be so much more to do.
This, then, is mercy and grace. One day I will die. My life here will come to an end. And when I die, I will still be in the middle of things. Things I have done and left undone. Words I said or failed to say. I will not be able even to offer these at the end. In the end, it is the very fact of my incomplete life that I will only be able to offer. It was given to me in the first place. I will only be able to offer it back, in trust, asking mercy for my stewardship of it.