Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Life Worth Giving” first appeared in the April 2008 issue of Touchstone.
Life Worth Giving
Amanda Witt on the Immeasurable Value of Wasted Lives
Today I and five other women served a funeral meal for a hundred mourners. The proceedings didn’t move me—the deceased was full of years, and besides, I’d never met her, though I did have to walk past her open casket to get to the church kitchen, hurrying my children, not because I was worried about their fragile little psyches but because I simply didn’t feel like coping with whatever questions or emotions a dead body might raise. I’d rearranged our complicated schedules and driven across town in icy weather to help serve the funeral meal; that was enough.
Having settled the kids in an empty classroom with their schoolbooks, I rolled up my sleeves and set to work preparing lunch. The other women in the kitchen had known the dead woman, and while we pulled pork and cut cake and stocked relish trays, they talked about her.
They had a 30-year-old picture of her taken at the church building site before the building went up; she had helped start the church youth camp; she had gotten old and gone to live near her children; she’d died and been shipped home to be buried beside her husband. She sounded, in sum, very much like any number of good church women I’d known over the years.
First She Got Pregnant
“I knew her best through our children,” one woman said to me. “Her middle daughter, the one she lost, was the same age as one of my kids.”
“The daughter died?” I asked, more focused on the package of buns I was trying to open. It was probably a car accident or cancer—the usual suspects.
“Well, first she . . . got pregnant.” The almost imperceptible hesitation made me think the girl hadn’t been married at the time. “Then it was one of those straight up-and-down decisions. The doctors could save either her life or the baby’s. She had a bad diabetic problem.”
I looked up from the buns. “She chose to save the baby?”
“Yes. She decided to save him and not herself, and that’s how she died.”
Another woman spoke up: “Who raised the boy?” They answered by naming a couple of women I didn’t know—first he lived with one, they said, then the other. What a hard beginning to a life, I thought. I wondered whether he turned out well, being raised without a mother or father, passed from hand to hand; I wondered what he had made of himself, whether his life was worth his mother’s death.
“That baby is a grown man now,” they told me, counting up the years. “He must be twenty-four, twenty-five years old. In fact”—one woman gestured through the serving window at the crowded fellowship hall—“there he is.”
There he was.
Suddenly my eyes were wet.
I don’t know what he has made of himself, whether he is a good man or a bad one, but I do know that I’m ashamed for wondering. If the man who lived has gravely erred, if he has caused all manner of sorrow and suffering, that does not mean his mother should have chosen differently, any more than Christ should have chosen to spare himself and condemn the mess that is mankind. That young mother did what was right. Whether her son does what is right is a separate issue.
Love Never Wasted
We are so inclined to over-value outcomes, efficiency, even those of us who know quite well that we serve a God of profligate grace, a Lord who rejoices in pure nard squandered on the Messiah’s feet, a Creator who strews across fields and through lives full many a flower to “blush unseen and waste its sweetness on the desert air.”
Love is worth more than many ledgers; obedience, whatever the cost, is never wasted. In the right-side-up world of the kingdom of God, sacrifice is honored—and sacrifice, with “sacred” at its root, means to give up something for something else of far less worth.
It means that the books don’t balance, not on this earth, and that’s okay with God. As the prophet Isaiah noted, “I have labored to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing. Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand, and my reward is with God” (Is. 49:4).
Some years ago, a philosopher friend—a devout Christian, a conservative theologian who has publicly debated leading atheists—described listening to a man who had been, for 25 years, a missionary in Islamic lands and had won not a single convert for Christ.
“I thought, ‘What a waste,’” said my friend. “What a total waste of this man’s life. And then I felt an immediate and powerful sense of rebuke.”
He is an intellectual, not in the least inclined to emotionalism. If he says he felt rebuked, he was rebuked. And for what? For wishing Muslims had converted to Christianity? For wishing a missionary had been blessed by seeing the fruit of his labor?
Of course not. He was rebuked for forgetting that God does not tally as we tally; he was rebuked for dishonoring one weary man’s long faithfulness. As was I, for presuming to weigh—so quickly and thoughtlessly—an old woman’s life, a young one’s death, and a young man’s worth.
Amanda Witt discusses Christianity, culture, and life as a homeschooling mother at the weblog Wittingshire (www.wittingshire.blogspot.com). She lives with her husband and three children in Port Orchard, Washington.
“Life Worth Giving” first appeared in the April 2008 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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