One thing I love is exploring the stories that shape a person. What makes someone who they are? Answering this question can happen in several different ways. My favorite by far is when I’m able to sit down face to face with someone and hear about everything that makes them tick, what they’ve experienced in life, what they’ve overcome. But when that’s not possible, a good backup is watching a documentary that shares the narrative of a person’s life. And of course, reading a biography is yet another classic avenue. Either way, they’re all fascinating to me.
So, it came as no surprise when, earlier this summer, I found myself reading through a biography called, Becoming Dallas Willard by Gary Moon. Now, if you haven’t heard of him before, Dallas was a philosopher, a professor at the University of Southern California, a pastor, and an author. His writing focused on discipleship and spiritual formation, topics that I’m definitely drawn to. I enjoyed his story, but I wasn’t prepared for how moved I would be by the end of it.
At age 77, Dallas died of cancer, which is far too common and hits too close to home for so many. One of the things that struck me was Dallas’ commitment to the work God called him to, in spite of his prognosis. It led me to think about the classic question, “If you knew you only had so much time left to live, what would you do?” Typical answers to that question might include spending time with loved ones, quitting your job, or traveling the world. All answers that would probably cross my own mind. But for Dallas, when he realized his time was almost up, his response was to keep going, even working harder in some cases, because he felt like his work wasn’t finished yet. In fact, he was in the middle of writing his next book, and those closest to him could see how bothered he was when he realized the reality that he might not finish it. So he made a point to meet with three of his graduate students within days of his death and mapped out a plan for them to finish whatever he couldn’t. And they did. His last book was published after he died.
I was reminded of this kind of commitment again recently. If you’re listening in real time, you know that Representative John Lewis died not too long ago, on July 17, 2020. And his funeral was just last week, on July 30. Talk about a life committed to the cause. I was extremely moved when I heard about an article published in the New York Times on the day of his funeral. The content of the article was beautiful and powerful, as you might expect. I’ll link to it in the show notes (LINK HERE) if you haven’t had a chance to read, or you can even listen to Morgan Freeman read it, which might be an even better option. But beyond the content, what impacted me was that same unwavering commitment to the work God called him to, and the intentionality behind his last words. See, he penned the article in his last days, with the intent that it be published after he died, on the day of his funeral. What a perfectly poignant, poetic, and powerful way to wrap things up and pass the baton.
We find a similar sentiment in the words at the end of Paul’s second letter to Timothy, penned toward the end of his life, too. They might be familiar, especially since they are often shared at funerals. In 2 Timothy 4:6-7, Paul writes,
“6 As for me, my life has already been poured out as an offering to God. The time of my death is near. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful.”
A part of me wonders if these words from Paul, if this perspective toward the end of his life, influenced Dallas Willard or John Lewis when they found themselves in a similar point in life. Because in these couple of verses, Paul is communicating that he has given every ounce of his being to the cause of Christ. The only thing left is for him to urge Timothy and others to stay the course and continue the good work, inspiring them to take up the baton.
Now, I don’t know about you, and I’ve obviously never been in a similar situation before, but if I were in my last days, weeks, or months and I knew it, I feel like my focus or concern would be more about what I could soak in. What haven’t I experienced? Who do I want to see? Where do I want to go? What do I want to make sure I fit in while I still can? I would basically embrace the whole “bucket list” mentality. And while I certainly don’t think that approach is wrong in and of itself, I suppose what struck me so powerfully about the end of Dallas Willard’s life on earth and the end of John Lewis’ is that their focus wasn’t so much about what they could soak in, but rather what they had left to pour out.
Their belief in who God called them to be and what God called them to do was evident in their steadfast commitment to it, even to the very end. Even beyond the very end, by doing what they could to ensure the work continues. But it’s also important to remember that the end was not what mattered most. The way they chose to handle the end was a continuation, a direct result, of their lives long before. Finishing well was the cherry on top of a life well-lived.
But what exactly is a life well-lived? Is it a life on a large scale, with countless books and accolades to your name like Dallas Willard? Is it your name being recorded in literal history books, with millions tuning into your funeral, like John Lewis? I imagine neither of them would say that those things determined the worth of their lives. Because even a small-scale, quiet, faithful life is significant.
Back at the end of June, Brad and I were trying to reschedule a trip originally planned for April (it’s the story of all our lives right now, amiright?). We were waiting to hear back from our pet sitter of four years, to be sure she was available and our fur babies would be well taken care of. When we didn’t hear back after a couple days, which was pretty unusual, we became a bit concerned. After a couple weeks, we reached out again and this time, a response came from her husband. After a year-long battle with lung cancer, she died at age 37. We were heartbroken.
It wasn’t that we were particularly close to her - I’m certain grief hit her family and personal friends much harder. But when someone stays at your house and takes such good care of your pets while you’re away, they become a bit like family. She was trustworthy and compassionate, dedicated to caring for animals all over our community, not just ours. In fact, she was caring for local families and their pets even a few weeks before her death. She always gave a percentage of her proceeds to support global charities, and even asked that any memorials given in her name be given to continue her support of local non-profits caring for God’s creation, in hopes that her passionate work would continue. To most, it probably just seemed like a small pet sitting business, but to her, it was her ministry, and even though you probably wouldn’t know her name, her life had impact and value and worth. She certainly left a mark on us.
I’m finding that the most inspiring lives, the most impactful ones, aren’t lived in order to make a name for themselves. Instead, they are lives that are intentional, selfless, faithful, and invested in contributing to the building of God’s Kingdom, even one small brick at a time.
It’s a reminder that a well-lived life doesn't hinge on a proper, planned out goodbye. On a book or a letter or a record or an article reaching beyond the grave. The life you live ends up being the message you leave.
I don’t mean for this episode to be overly morbid. But if I’m honest, it seems that loss and death and heartache and grief are inescapable and overwhelming right now, for so many of us. And in the midst of it all, it might be important to reflect and remember the messages our lives are writing.
Annie Dillard once wrote, “How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives.” And I think it’s true: each day matters. Our priorities. Our faith. Our focus. What we invest in. Our time. Our integrity. Our perseverance. Loving our neighbor. They all matter each and every day, for each and every one of us. And the goal, of course, is that each day written into our lives points to a bigger narrative, acting as a reminder of Jesus.
Today, remember, the life you live is the message you leave. May we do our best to stay committed to the message of God’s Kingdom and remember that even small, humble work matters.