In A Reader’s Guide to 2019, RELEVANT contributor Sharon McKeeman takes you through 2019 book by book, offering wisdom, analysis and recommendations along the way.
N.D. Wilson’s 2013 book, Death By Living: Life Is Meant to Be Spent is my go-to read when I need a reminder of how to make each day count. Wilson’s combination of sharp theology and off-kilter, non-sequitur anecdotes evolve the intellectual challenges of his 2009 book Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl, to challenges of how we ought to live. In Death By Living, Wilson draws parallels and pathways from his grandparents’ stories to his story to his children’s stories. This can sound sure and simple, but Wilson’s writing takes us through all the raw twists and turns of life and death and beyond.
Each new year brings a fresh look at our own story. In January 2018, I decided to dive into the world of intentional goal planning. I bought a planner, grabbed some markers and color-coded my dreams. Then in July, complications from an injury left me without any function in one of my legs. The prognosis for recovery was uncertain, and I found myself further from my goals than when I had begun working toward them six months earlier. Instead of tending to my goals, each day encompassed the challenges of learning to navigate life from a wheelchair, surviving physical therapy and remaining positive.
So when 2019 arrived I left the markers in the drawer. There was no need to map my goals because they just consisted of working toward walking again and loving life in the meantime. I took a back seat to the New Year’s resolution fervor, watching friends purchase planners, chart courses and psych themselves up. At the end of January, I was slogging through the daily grind of life with one leg and my friends’ intentions were falling by the wayside. Their frustration and resignation grew. More than a few of them asked me how I’m hopeful as I roll on.
I tell my friends I spend three days a week at PT around others facing far worse battles than myself. Still they fight on, so still, we keep living. I tell my friends to read Death by Living because when a quarter of your body doesn’t function, you can’t take for granted that your heart continues to beat and your arms can hold the ones you love.
Wilson weaves together stories of fatherhood, travel, his parents’ adventures and more mundane moments with the common thread that we are all marching toward death, so we might as well live in the process. In one story about over-gifting to our kids on Christmas, Wilson talks about having to break their obsession with one toy so we can show them the next and keep something spectacular from sitting in the corner unnoticed. He writes, “We are all that overwhelmed kid, not even noticing our heartbeats, not even noticing our breathing, not even noticing that our fingertips can feel and pick things up, that pie smells like pie and that our hangnails heal and that honey-crisp apples are real and that dogs wag their tails and that awe perpetually awaits us in the sky… Oh but we notice heartbeats when they stop and we beg for more.”
This is the antidote to the post-holiday craze and letdown. If we believe we can manufacture our days on a straight path toward our goals, and we operate on the ideal that relentless striving guarantees success and happiness, we will forget that our hearts are beating. And we forget that they will stop.
With that comes a nagging feeling we are missing the mark. When we don’t make time to pick apples, play with our dog, watch sunsets or slow down for life’s simple but important treasures, our hearts feel lack. Our minds think that lack comes from not tending to our goals or upholding our New Year’s resolutions to do more, have more, be more.
Wilson offers an alternate path. We are small and the story is large. He points out: “Living means decisions. Living means writing your every word and action and thought and drool spot down in forever. It means writing your story within the Story. It means being terrible at it. It means failing and knowing that, somehow, all of our messes will still contribute, that the creative God has merely given Himself a greater challenge—drawing glory from our clumsy botching of the past.”
Wilson reminds us death is not just a curse; it brings us freedom from a fallen world. Death is the close of our earthly story, but also the beginning of a new and eternal chapter, and that holds weight. While we are galloping toward our eternal homes, we are also writing narratives that can not be crossed out or changed. Wilson isn’t urging perfection. Instead, he is reminding us to be present, grateful, passionate and trusting that God will bring glory when we give him our clumsily written pages.
Wilson offers this idea: Tear up your to-do lists. Stop trying to escape mortality. Stop shooting for perfection. We are all dying, so… “Do your best. Live. Create. Fail.”
I believe I can do that this year.
Whether I am walking or rolling, with a plan or without—I can do my best, live, create, fail. When we acknowledge death’s inevitability, life becomes sweeter. When we put failure on our calendar it takes the pressure off.
I hope I live half as many adventures and love a fraction the amount as the characters in Death By Living. I don’t have muscles that can shake the world, but I want to participate. I want to join in the creation of this great epic God is writing even though my contribution feels small, haphazard and often unsuccessful.
And that will be enough.
The pressure is off for 2019 because, as Wilson writes: “From it all, from the compost of our efforts, God brings glory… By His grace we are the water made wine. We are the dust made flesh made dust made flesh again. We are the whores made brides and the thieves made saints and the killers made apostles. We are the dead made living.”
We who once were dead have been redeemed, so how could we possibly be behind on 2019? This year isn’t about success or failure. It’s an opportunity to know our Creator, love people and experience His beautiful world before our time is over. Wilson’s rich, unexpected prose helps us break free from overly parsed words and predictable paths and remember our life is meant to be spent.
So leave the color-coded markers on your desk, grab a copy of this book and let’s get busy living.