One Friday night some months ago, I stood by my bedroom window and listened to my apartment neighbor downstairs bellow threats to kill me. I suppose the sound of my boys’ feet on their floor above his room set off his drunken rage. I had never experienced a threat on my life; his curses and explosion of anger left me shaking. The fear subsided slowly, even after police arrived to calm him.

But the encounter was not my only recent brush with mortality. Some months earlier I was lying in bed, drowsily waiting for sleep, when I was jarred awake by the thought that this year of my life, my thirty-fifth, is one of an ever-depleting supply. In the shadows of a winter night I had a glimpse of the transience of life —my life.

It was like the experience of Antonio Parr in Frederick Buechner’s Open Heart. As he stood at the Brooklyn graveside of his twin sister, “some stirring of the air or quick movement of squirrel or bird brought me back to myself,” Parr recounts, “and just at that instant … I knew that the self I’d been brought back to was some fine day going to be as dead as Miriam.… Through grace alone I banged right into it—not a lesson this time, a collision.”

Antonio and I are not alone. “All of a sudden,” writes Michael Specter in the New Republic, “a generation taught first to trust nobody over 30, and then to seek fulfillment through accumulated goods, has stumbled over the notion of its eventual demise.” Children of the “now” moment are being brought to the brink of a larger truth, a longer frame of reference.

But how are they dealing with the haunting discovery that life, as the psalmist wrote, is but a few handbreadths? Successful young people, Specter notes, are “hustling for the ‘right’ cemetery spot in much the same way they have scoured the nation for the most sophisticated cabernets, the most authentic Italian espresso machines, and the best Aprica strollers.” They are scrambling for a peace of mind they hope can be theirs for the price of a prestigious grave site. Though some people are concerned about death’s reality, they are not also moved to search out death’s meaning or ponder its ultimate outcome.

But that is precisely what my nighttime encounters have set in motion in me. Intimations of the transience of this life make me wonder more about the everlasting dimensions of the next life. I am thinking about heaven, feeling more the eternal weight of glory, and it is changing how I live.

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Such talk, of course, seems awkward, if not odd, in today’s society, where youthful vigor provides the implicit model for a fulfilling life. This is surely related to our culture’s focus on (sometimes obsession with) the present. “There is no cure,” said philosopher George Santayana, “for birth and death save to enjoy the interval.” We prepare best for death, some argue, by not preparing at all—by simply “enjoying the interval.” Nor should we cloud the events of today with the eventualities of tomorrow.

Americans, with hospitals and funeral homes to shield them from death’s inevitable presence, find it easy to drink deeply from this philosophical stream. That explains, perhaps, our preoccupation with health, our penchant for Nautilus rooms and fad diets. Health, that glorious state of freedom from aching joints and clogging arteries, allows us to forget, for the moment, that our bodies are not indestructible, that a day of physical reckoning awaits.

As one who jogs regularly in the hope of avoiding the heart disease that last year took my father’s life, I am all for conscientious care of the human body. But the thud and pant and grunt of our workouts takes on a zeal that has roots in something else: our desperate eagerness to cheat death and ignore mortality. Interestingly, polled Americans repeatedly list health at the top of their preoccupations—above love, work, money, or anything else. They see it as their primary source of happiness. Why? Perhaps because health helps us forget the finality of our frailty.

Society’s obsession with the feel-good satisfactions of the moment explains much else: the pervasive “culture of entertainment,” for example, that fills our living rooms and crowds out time to think about growing old. What is even more perplexing is the extent to which Christians join the paean of praise to the present. Even in evangelical churches, I sometimes get the impression that Christianity is mostly about helping people become well-adjusted, happily acclimated residents of the present tense. Rarely have I been reminded of a truth of great comfort to earlier generations of believers: that life here is a training ground for life to come. We may hear, occasionally, a sermon on living as “strangers” and sojourners, which the New Testament enjoins. But we have lost the Puritans’ great sense, as J. I. Packer states, that we should “regard readiness to die as the first step in learning to live.”

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Christian faith, however, has always argued that meaning in life will be found beyond life. “In my end is my beginning,” the poet T. S. Eliot wrote. Those words are found not only in his early poem “Burnt Norton,” but also on his tombstone. In a profound way, where we are headed affects how we travel. And death, for all its mystery and starkness and seeming darkness, leads, for the believer, to something better than life. Despite the richness of this world, the New Testament reminds us that we are on our way to a reality even clearer and more substantial than we presently experience. “Here we do not have an enduring city,” the writer to the Hebrews wrote, “but we are looking for the city to come” (Heb. 13:14, NIV). Or, as Paul put it, “We look not to the things that are seen, but to the things that are unseen” (2 Cor. 4:16, 18).

Indeed, we will never live fully if we think we can exhaust the meaning of the moment without reference to the longer stretch. Writer Annie Dillard discovered a related truth while finishing a book at a friend’s cabin on northern Puget Sound in Washington. She had to heat the cabin with a kerosene heater and a wood stove. But she did not know how to split wood. “What I did was less like splitting wood than chipping flints.… One night … I had a dream in which I was given to understand, by the powers that be, how to split wood. You aim, said the dream—of course!—at the chopping block. It is true. You aim at the chopping block, not at the wood; then you split the wood, instead of chipping it. You cannot do the job cleanly unless you treat the wood as the transparent means to an end, by aiming past it.”

What is true about writing or splitting pine logs is true about carrying on our lives: We cannot live rightly until we aim past life. Eternity provides the only goal that makes ultimate sense of each moment. Seventeenth-century Anglican churchman Jeremy Taylor said it differently: “Since we stay not here, being people but of a day’s abode, and our age is like that of a fly and contemporary with a gourd, we must look somewhere else, for an abiding city, a place in another country to fix our house in, whose walls and foundation is God, where we must find rest, or else be restless for ever.”

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Awareness of death, and of its opening to a life beyond, has not only framed how I look at life. It has also begun to work a change in how I walk through life. It has, in other words, brought not just new meaning to my moments, but changes to my behavior. As Samuel Johnson reportedly said, “When a man knows he is going to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Our awareness of the transitoriness of this life, I find, concentrates my priorities, helps me refashion my daily choices.

To know that life is not a destinationless journey helps me live more completely for a final good, an ultimate end. Says England’s bishop of Salisbury, John Baker, “We should think about our death far more, because … it makes you say, ‘What are the really important things I should be doing with my life, not just selfishly, but for other people? Are there quarrels I’d like to heal, relationships I should mend, something I’d like to do for somebody I keep putting off?”

But it is more than simply thinking about death that will do it. The Puritan divine Richard Baxter spoke of the attracting, transforming power of what he called the “saints’ everlasting rest.” In his book by that title, he noted, “As everything inclines to its proper centre, so the rational creature is carried on in all its motion, which desires after its end [our ‘everlasting rest’].” To know that “we have such a hope,” as Paul says, makes us “very bold” (2 Cor. 3:12, NIV). God’s gracious assurance and promise of eternal care helps us “incline to our proper centre.” Our daily decisions become oriented around something more profound.

I am still human enough, of course, that death often seems intimidating. However my shaking encounter with my neighbor might have been a tonic for my soul, it was still harrowing. But a conviction about what lies beyond is giving me courage to live more fully and more faithfully. And I find that thinking about death—even my death—is no hangdog, maudlin exercise. Indeed, because of my knowledge of a life to come (which glories I have surely only begun to fathom), the awareness sometimes even brings a sense of certainty and expectation. That helps me realize that whatever happens, however long or short I live, God can take even my frailty and mortality and invest it with eternal significance, and plant within me an unceasing delight.

Eugene H. Peterson is pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church, Bel Air, Maryland, and author of A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (InterVarsity) and Answering God (Harper & Row), both of which are about the Psalms.

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