I don’t understand not living.

I understand dying. As youngsters, my brother and I attended more than our fair share of wakes, funerals and ICU waiting rooms with our father, a pastor. In my own ministry, I’ve eulogized many, sat with family members while their loved ones breathed their final breaths, and said goodbye to loved ones of my own. I navigated my way through college biology, gaining an elementary understanding of how the human body works… and how it inevitably quits working. Both physically and theologically, I understand dying.

In theological terms, death is separation. For the deceased, death severs the temporary component of personhood (the physical body) from the eternal one (the spirit). The body returns to the dust from which it came; the spirit lives forever. 

For the relatives left behind, death severs relationships. We survivors experience the acute pain of separation from our departed loved one, who is no longer here to laugh with us, listen to us, or make their signature banana pudding for us.

From a Christian perspective, the pain of death’s power is mitigated by the promise of eternal life in Christ. As Dr. Martin Luther King said,

“Death is not a period that ends the great sentence of life, but a comma that punctuates it to more lofty significance. Death is not a blind alley that leads the human race into a state of nothingness, but an open door which leads man into life eternal.”

I understand death. But I don’t understand not living.

Jesus didn’t die to save your body, or anyone’s body. Not from cancer, congestive heart failure, a car accident or an angry swarm of bees. Someday, you’re going to die. People die every day, and not necessarily because they are good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. We die because ever since Eden, death is part of living. If you’re not subject to death, then you’re not really alive. Rocks do not face death, for they are not alive to begin with. Physical death is part of life. But until you die, resolve to live.

Christ-followers believe that the finished work of Jesus on the cross provides salvation. The word salvation implies deliverance from some undesirable fate or danger. The heart of the gospel is that God took on flesh. Christ gave His own life as a sacrifice to redeem sinners from eternal death. That is the narrative of redemption, but that’s not the whole story. Here’s how Peter said it:

“It was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ.” -I Peter 1:18-19

Did you catch that? The blood of Christ not only redeems believers from eternal death. It also redeems from their “empty way of life.” Peter’s word “empty” could have also been translated deceptive, not what it appears to be, vain, or worthless. Half of Peter’s audience had received a cultural religion that was full of rules, traditions, holy days and dietary restrictions, but generally empty of any personal relationship with the Creator. Emptiness.

The other half of Peter’s audience would have received a religion of political power… full of lofty-sounding ideals, but offering no hope of eternal life. For them, the gods were detached and unknowable. Stoic self control was admirable, but since physical death meant the end of existence, the chief aim of existence was to enjoy life while one could. Again, emptiness.

In Walden, Thoreau famously wrote of his fear of reaching death only to discover the he had never truly lived:

“I did not wish to live what was not life… I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life… to put to rout all that was not life.”

I met Thoreau the summer I turned 13. My teacher was Robin Williams’ Mr. Keating, as Dead Poets Society opened my eyes to a world that I’d never known, a world of beauty and poetry. Years later I grieved at the death of Robin Willliams, because I so deeply appreciated the gift that he had given me, opening my eyes to the world of words and beauty.

Sometimes, beauty can be so overwhelming that it’s almost painful. But in those moments, I’m reminded that I’m alive.

And so I pursue beauty, because beauty makes me feel alive. Teaching makes me feel alive. Even though I’m an introvert, I’m energized when standing before a crowd, sharing timeless truths and new insights. Nature makes me feel alive. Adrenaline surges when I’m floating through river rapids, wading through pre-dawn icy water, or standing atop a 2000 foot granite ledge in Yosemite. I need to feel alive.What makes you feel alive?

Part of our being made in the image of God is our capacity to love, forgive, plan, dream, and maybe most of all, to create. We are not merely animals. We are hard-wired to do something besides just eating and paying bills and procreating until we die. If you’re a believer, you’re not just redeemed from eternal separation from God – you’re also redeemed from an empty way of life. So don’t live in emptiness.

Do something. Leave a legacy. Love somebody. Beef up your obituary. Feel scared. See a sunrise. Create. Provide. Paint. Write. Feed your soul. Eat great food you can’t afford.

Someday, you’re going to die. But until then, for God’s sake, live.

 

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See kids, math really is useful in real life.

I remember it like it was yesterday. We were sitting in Mr. Pinkerton’s classroom in De Queen Middle School. The first Bush was president, and the Internet had not been invented. We’d never heard of iPhones, and Mr. Pinkerton was using white chalk on a green chalkboard to teach us about algebraic equations.

And then it happened. One of my fellow students said the words that should have remained in his head. The student spoke the words to the heavens, not directly to the teacher. He spoke them as a lament: “What are we ever gonna use this stuff for anyway?” Mr. Pinkerton’s face instantly turned stoplight-red. For a few seconds, he said nothing. But it didn’t take him long to frame a response to the student.

We could always judge the severity of Mr. Pinkerton’s displeasure by the intensity of the V-shaped veins on his forehead. This was a biggie, a solid eight on the V-scale.

Math was never my favorite subject. I sailed through the humanities with effortless glee, but math required too much from me. I did learn to appreciate the inherent practical value of math, and even enjoyed using my hard-won geometry skills to help a former boss compute angles on a deck he was building.

But the question remains: “What are we ever gonna use this for anyway?” Well hold on kids, you’re about to learn.

Yesterday I was at the Gillham EZ-Mart. If you’re not familiar with those terms, please allow me to define them briefly. Gillham: A town in rural southwest Arkansas. It is home to about 200 souls, at least that many dogs, and one EZ-Mart. EZ-Mart: A regional chain of convenience stores, with locations in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas.

In rural communities without a grocery store (or any other store for that matter), EZ-Mart sells the things that will save you a trip to “town.” Stop in for coffee and some smokes, or treat yourself to something fried on a stick. Or if you’re prone to gambling, you can indulge in a lottery ticket and prepackaged chicken salad sandwich. The recently-constructed location in nearby Lockesburg is a veritable piazza, a monument to small-town commerce, caffeine and community life.

As I was filling my 32 oz. fountain drink, I noticed a shifty guy beside me. He looked like he had just stepped out of casting for Caddyshack. There was a brown leather jacket, stringy mullet, and camouflage pants. Think Rambo, not Realtree.

He grabbed a 16 oz. styro coffee cup and began filling it, but not with coffee. No. That would be too boring, too predictable for EZ-Mart. This gentleman was filling his coffee cup with sugar, repeatedly pressing the sugar button at the coffee station. Each press of the button produced an electronic ejection of sugar, with a sound reminiscent of a science fiction laser gun from the 1970’s. “P-shew… P-shew… P-shew.”

Like most of you, I was taught not to stare. I failed. I gawked sideways as he filled his coffee cup to the rim with sugar, capped it with a lid, gathered his other purchases (a Dr. Pepper and a snack of some sort) and proceeded to the check out. He purchased a cup full of sugar, but paid for it as if it were coffee.

Last night was a bad night at our house. Donald Trump did great in the Super Tuesday voting, and our cat died. I needed a distraction. And so I turned off CNN and started thinking about the guy who bought a coffee cup full of sugar. What was his angle? Unlike the popularity of Donald Trump or Golden Corral, maybe this was a phenomenon I could actually solve. And the answer lies with math. So buckle up, kids. Let’s do a word problem…

Joe Dirt purchased 16 fl. oz. of sugar for .99 at the Gillham EZ-Mart. Question: How much did Joe steal, if any?

We have some knowns (what Joe paid for, and what he actually received) and some unknowns (the value of what Joe actually received). Math is our friend here. And Google.

EZ Mart Sugar

We need to establish the retail value of what Joe received. As pictured, EZ-Mart sells 32 dry ounces of granulated sugar for $2.99. That yields a retail value of .09 per dry ounce ($2.99/32) of sugar. A non-conformist, Joe instead paid .99 for 16 fluid ounces, or .06 per fl. oz. (.99/16). We’re not done, because we’re not yet comparing apples to apples.

In order to solve our problem, we must know how much a fluid ounce of sugar weighs, because EZ-Mart doesn’t sell sugar in the manner in which Joe chose to purchase it yesterday. For this unknown, we must consult Google. We learn that granulated sugar weighs 7.1 dry oz. per U.S. standard measuring cup, which is 8 fl. oz. This one is easy: if 8 fluid ounces of sugar weighs 7.1 dry ounces, then 16 fl. oz. of sugar weighs 14.2 dry oz. (7.1×2).

Using the coffee cup, Joe paid .99 for 14.2 dry ounces of sugar, for a rate of .07 per dry oz. (.99/14.2). The retail value of EZ-Mart sugar is .09 per dry oz. For each dry ounce of sugar that Joe surreptitiously purchased in his coffee cup, he had a net ill-gotten gain of .02 (.09 retail value less the .07 he actually paid).

When we extend that over the entirety of his 14.2 dry oz. sugar purchase, Joe beat the Gillham EZ-Mart out of .28 (14.2x.02) with his treachery.

See kids, math IS useful in everyday life.

And may God forgive Joe Dirt for stealing .28 from the Gillham EZ-Mart.