Loving to the End

In a throwaway culture, what does it mean to finish well?

It’s easy to love beginnings. A promising job opportunity, a new home, the first blooms in a spring garden, a freshly painted nursery—all of these hold pure, unclouded hope. Every page of the future opens pristine, blank, with no stray marks, no mistakes or regrets. “I dwell in Possibility,” poet Emily Dickinson exulted, “a fairer House than Prose.” I can certainly appreciate her view. Possibility—or “what might be”—bears an allure rarely matched by the prose of present-day reality. Long middles and slow endings are far harder than hopeful beginnings to gracefully navigate, much less to love. Beginning well is easy. Finishing well is hard.

 

I have long admired the apostle John’s particular remembrance of Jesus as one who, “having loved His own who were in the world … loved them to the end” (John 13:1). He did this, John said, knowing “His hour had come that He would depart out of this world to the Father.” Jesus, in other words, was on the way out and He knew it. His time with those He loved was short, and many things would be left unsaid and undone. But He didn’t cease to love. The Son of God was no short-timer with regard to emotional investment. And not only was He aware His remaining time was brief; He realized it would be—at least humanly speaking—heartbreaking for them all.

I long to be that brave. Several years ago, a friend of mine was dying and he knew it. We who loved him knew it. As a single, divorced man, he might have shut his friends out, hunkered down, and faced his death in private. But thankfully he chose something better. He invited his work partners and staff to his home once a week for “strategy meetings,” which were nothing more than thinly veiled opportunities for him to remind them of their strengths and encourage them with praise. Both individually and in front of peers, he affirmed their gifts and exhorted them to carry on. Quietly and with no fanfare at all, he signed his share of the company over to his partner to ensure that there would be minimal financial impact on the remaining team. Most of this he did unshaven, in his bathrobe, with a portable IV line dangling from his elbow.

Long middles and slow endings are far harder than hopeful beginnings to gracefully navigate, much less to love. Beginning well is easy. Finishing well is hard.

On one of his last lucid days, my moment with him came. We sat together in the dim light of his living room. Perched on the end of the sofa, with his frail legs folded underneath him, he—an excellent writer—called me the most gifted writer he knew. Then he reached for a nearby shelf and pulled out a book by one of our favorite authors. He held it up and said, “You’re the only one I know who could write something this beautiful and true.” Then, with a sarcastic humor utterly his own, he added, “I’d hoped you would have done it by now and I could have seen it. But you’ve missed that deadline. So get busy, kid.” His brave engagement in the face of death gave each of us who knew him a rare gift: We got to love him back when it counted most.

Endings come in myriad ways; death is only one. A move from a beloved neighborhood or church, the loss of a job, the completion of a degree, or a change in leadership—all of these provide us with a choice. We can detach and distance ourselves in hopes that we might ease the inevitable pain, or we can follow the example of Christ and press in.

Two winters ago, my own mother died. Often volatile and rarely affectionate, ours was a difficult relationship through the years. But two days before her death—because she was simply too weak and tired to push me away and I too afraid of losing her to retreat—I chose to risk her displeasure and love her “to the end.” I brushed her hair, adjusted her pillows, rubbed her cramping legs, and put lotion on her hands. I fed her ice cream from a spoon and almost laughed when she looked at me with a cheek full of homemade vanilla and insisted, “This dying business is hard work.” When she could no longer see or hear me, I prayed over her bed, swabbed her dry mouth, and brushed my thumb down and across her forehead again and again, making the sign of the cross. When the hospice nurse called with the news that she had just passed, I drove with a friend to her bedside and sat in the quiet room with her body, holding her small hand in mine until all the warmth in it was gone. I wished I could have loved her better, sooner, and longer. But I will be forever grateful that I could finally, at least at the finish, love her well.

I have long admired the apostle John’s particular remembrance of Jesus as one who, “having loved His own who were in the world … loved them to the end.”

Ours is a culture that encourages the disposal of barely out-of-date products, that insists on the impracticality of knowing our neighbors, and that barely blinks when plans (and more formal commitments) are forsaken with impunity. Is a job frustrating? Quit, and work elsewhere. A church home unsatisfying? Move on down the road, or surf services online to avoid entanglements. Is a relationship growing more and more difficult to maintain? Let it go and start another. We can certainly do these things. No one would raise an eyebrow if we did. But those of us who long to imitate our Savior won’t. By His grace—and because He first loved us—we will dig in, dive deep, swallow hard, and keep on loving. We will choose to finish all things well and know the hard joy of doing so. It is a joy that far outweighs the fleeting relief of stopping short, shutting down, and checking out. We have everything we need to finish well. After all, He showed us how it’s done.

 

Illustration by Matt Saunders
Related Topics:  Death

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1 Now before the Feast of the Passover, Jesus knowing that His hour had come that He would depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.

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