Sunday Meditations: The Meaning of Life

My uncle passed away this past week:

The suddenness of it as well as being in the midst of grieving family members have made it the heaviest thing on my mind, right now, but I’m still working through it.  Thoughts of death, life, afterlife, the things people say at times like these, the things they don’t say, the things people tell themselves, the things people say about you after you die and what your life meant, and what God may have to say about all these things are all at the forefront of my mind, but in the same way a heavy fog is at the forefront of perception.  It’s all chaos and sharp edges right now.

It is not so much how the grief affects me.  I am grieved; my uncle was a big deal to me as a child, and he was a truly great guy. But it has been a long time since my uncle has been a regular part of my daily life.  I do not feel the pain of loss in ways nearly as deeply or sharply as his immediate family and their in-laws, and I wouldn’t dream of pretending otherwise.  I am trying to be there for them, though, and it is a thoughtful time that I think will be illuminating when I’m able to get some distance from it.

So, I do not have any substantial meditations to offer, today, except that it is really amazing to have this guy who basically held down a series of odd jobs so he could be a minister for churches who couldn’t afford a minister, and then spent his final years at a medical mission, carrying supplies and the Kingdom to indigenous peoples in the mountains who were warned repeatedly by their witch doctors to stay away from white men and their medicine and their gods.

When you think about a life like that – look at it on paper or think of it in comparison to all the peoples and troubles in the world – it seems like such a small, insignificant thing.  And if you knew him and his family and his story over the course of many years, you knew he struggled internally against the powerful weights and pulleys that drag down the souls of humankind.  He was just some guy who worked in small towns, trying to make a better world and offer hope for tiny clumps of people who, in the grand scheme of the global economy, were not even a small divot.

And yet, the sheer amount of things people have written and said.  People who met their spouses because of Bob.  People who followed Jesus because of Bob.  People who literally regained their sight because of Bob’s help at the medical compound.  Elderly men who considered Bob their best friend because they had no one else in the world who cared about them like he did.  Hundreds and hundreds of these things, in English and Spanish, pouring in over the Internet and phone calls and letters and translators.  These little snapshots of life that, for this person or that person, was significant or meaningful.  Not just, “I remember him, and he was a great guy,” which is really the kind of thing you at least hope someone will be able to say about you, but these concrete, identifiable moments that changed the trajectory of people’s lives.  Little nudges that moved them this way or that way – little to us and to the world in general but full of significance for them.

He was not a great theologian.  He was not a scholar.  He wrote no books.  He was not on television.  He wasn’t even a full time minister.  He wasn’t a full time anything.  As smart and as personable as he was, by any definition of the American Dream or even our expectations for what adult life is supposed to contain, he didn’t do a lot of that stuff.  All he did was prioritize his pursuits in terms of what allowed him to bring something into the life of someone else.

Far be it from me to make a blanket declaration of what a person’s life is supposed to “mean.”  I don’t know that there’s some single, transcendent criterion that we can hold up to each individual’s life and declare this life more meaningful or successful than that one.  But for me, at any rate, making a positive difference in someone else’s life is a big part of my own personal standard, and the past few days have been a stunning demonstration of how many people you can affect in powerful ways – not through huge efforts and events, but simply by being a certain sort of person.