Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Between the Beginning and the End

Scientists say that the universe is about fourteen billion years old, give or take a few hundred million years one way or another. When you compare our life span to the age of the universe, the word "brief" hardly describes that blip of time from the beginning to the end of one human life. Every death is a timely reminder that whatever we would do in and with our lives, we must do it quickly.

We all begin and end life in very much the same way. The newborn begins life with a gasp for air and gets it; and at the end we gasp for air and do not get it. Who we are depends on the choices we make between those two gasps.

We did not ask to be born. We had no say in when or where we would be born. We did not get to pick our family, culture, or country. Our arrival on the scene was the result of the convergence of a complex set of factors with which we had nothing to do, including a genetic inheritance over which we have no control, and essentially no power to change.

At some point in our life-journey we will leave as we came, with essentially no choice as to how or when our exit will take place. We only know that there is an expiration date on our lives. We may anticipate our death, but the details are not ours to know. We may hold some faith-based idea of our destiny, but no concrete knowledge. The only thing that is clear to us from observation is that we go as we came, empty-handed and with no knowledge of what lies ahead. We come from a past we do not remember, and we move inexorably toward a destiny about which we know nothing.

This may sound like some species of determinism, and it is, except for that space of time, however long or short, between the beginning and end. At this exact moment we are between the beginning and the end of this strange journey. It is only here that we have some control over who we are and who we are becoming, and that control is based on the choices we make. We have choices about what we do with what we have and how we respond to the opportunities, obstacles, and various experiences of this one brief life we have been given.. Our character is formed by what we do with what we have been given.

Riches, power, and fame will not guarantee a meaningful and happy life. The wisdom of the ages, the teachings of holy writ, and a careful observation of what happens to people around us make it clear that it is ultimately disappointing to spend one's life in pursuit of things we cannot take with us when we leave. Temptations to the temporal are many and varied, but as attractive as they seem, and as enjoyable as they may feel at the moment, at best they last no longer than the brief span of this life. Acknowledging the narrow limits of our control and the condensed span between our arrival and our departure, the better part of wisdom suggests that we should be careful what we wish, aim and work for.

In one of his telling stories, Dr. Fred Craddock, erstwhile professor of preaching at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, said that while he was sightseeing in a cemetery he came upon a grave in which the slab was crossways. Because of the strange angle, it took up three burial plots. When Dr. Craddock asked a man in the community about the grave, he was told that was what the deceased's family wanted, and the church had agreed. Pressed about why, the man explained that the deceased was cross about everything. He was never pleased about anything at home, in the community or in the church, and the family decided they would not try to change him just because he was dead, so they buried him crossways. They said, "If God wants to straighten him out, then God can straighten him out!! But he left here just like he lived".

If at your death your family and friends were to offer an honest summary of the choices you made between the beginning and the end of your life, what would that summary be? If it would not be a pretty picture, you still have time to begin again. But you better hurry!