Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. So says the Westminster Shorter Catechism, a document created in the mid-1650s as a manual to instruct children in the tenets of their faith.
I got to thinking about this particular assertion today as I came across separate stories that draw sharp contrasts in relation to man’s chief end. The first item was in the form of a news story (but also a blog post) chronicling the end of a life. Thirty-six year old Charlotte Kitley had been posting about her battle with Stage 4 bowel cancer for a private blog as well as on the Huffington Post Lifestyle (UK) section. HuffPo marked Kitley’s death Tuesday (9/16/14) by printing her final entry, And So There Must Come An End.
This was my first reading of Kitley’s story and her struggle to live as long as possible … for her kids, for her husband, for the life she found worth living and wholeheartedly embracing. In 2012, Kitley described her cancer diagnosis as life taking “an unexpected twist” and promised to narrate the ups and downs of treatment, hospitalizations and various ongoing “medical woes.”
Her final installment, intended to be published and read after her death, is a poignant goodbye as well as an urgent reminder to all her readers about how important it is to “Take [life] by both hands, grab it, shake it and believe in every second of it.” She offers the perspective of someone who understands how precious life is, how important those relationships (with spouse, with children, with friends) are and how painful is one’s imminent parting. In essence, her last message to those who knew and loved her acknowledges in a nutshell: life is too short.
A second pertinent story (on the subject of man’s chief end) came via a feature in The Atlantic by Ezekiel J. Emanuel titled Why I Hope to Die at 75. Now I’m no fan of Emanuel (the author of ObamaCare legislation) but with a title as provocative as that, I thought I’d wade in a bit just to understand his viewpoint. Framed at the start by the 57 year old’s smiling, grandfatherly face, it’s difficult not to like him and that image sets the stage. In the first part of the article, I couldn’t disagree with much about his pitch, though I don’t share his point of view because my approach comes from a different set of presuppositions.
As the piece continues, Professor Emanuel makes the case that as we’ve extended life expectancy through life-saving measures, we’ve also prolonged the dying process. Anyone who has parents living into their 80s and 90s is well aware (and sometimes painfully aware) how the insults of old age diminish one’s overall quality of life. Bolstered by a chart and a wealth of resources to make his case, Emanuel asserts that leaving our children and our grandchildren with the final images of “our frailty is the ultimate tragedy.” In essence, given the indignities of life after 75, Emanuel declares: life is too long.
This afternoon, another pertinent news item came to my attention, this one closer to home. I learned a childhood friend lies in a hospital ICU struggling for his life. He’s about ten years away from reaching 75; whether or not he’ll reach that milestone is in God’s hands. Were I to talk with him right now, I wonder: would he say his life has been too short … or too long?
I’m drawing together all three of these individual stories because there’s a common thread. David, the Psalmist, put it this way: “Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; And in Your book were all written the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them.” Another passage (Jesus speaking) observes: “And which of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life’s span?“
I know little about Kitley’s life nor what motivated her (except she clearly cared for her loved ones).
I know little more about Emanuel’s life, but I can quibble with his conclusions (as inferred and/or stated within his writing). My sense is his view of the world is highly utilitarian, so a lack of production or meaningful work in one’s later years resembles death to him. I would posit that his approach epitomizes the American immortal about whom he writes. He views the so-called sunset years with derision and even when he acknowledges those acquaintances he calls outliers (who have remained vibrant despite advanced years), he broad-brushes their experiences as diminished.
While he cites his father’s elderly experience, Emanuel characterizes it as loss even though his father acknowledges being happy. I think Emanuel is projecting his own feelings onto his father’s existence and is perplexed – seeming to ask, how can this man be happy when he’s lost so much?
Probably my most vehement quibble with Emanuel is how he ignores the crying need we have in our world today for helpless and vulnerable people who need our assistance. Yes, I mean it! Helpless people are often cast aside or institutionalized. Babies are helpless but they grow up eventually, so we give them a pass. But a society that thrives on strength and production, on goal-driven metrics, on hyperactive functionality? This is a society where helpless individuals are detested and considered unworthy of resources. Isn’t this one of the reasons children with genetic abnormalities are quietly being culled from the birth track?
I would not understand grace and humility today were it not for the gift of my mother’s and my mother-in-law’s dependency … and I have such a long way to go in attaining greater grace and humility I need! Sweep them aside? Hide them away? Let the so-called professionals handle their care? Then I would not know mercy and kindness … and I would deserve neither mercy nor kindness in return.
I have often wondered why God leaves people on this earth when their minds and bodies have deteriorated to the point of complete dependency. It is for our benefit – for the living – because by ministering to the least of these, we are bringing glory to God. We should welcome that ministry as an honor and privilege.
The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.