Lives well lived, like all good stories, should be celebrated

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, February 28, 2007

There’s a line in the Psalms that has long intrigued me with its candor on the brevity of life.

“Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom,” the writer of Psalm 90 pleads.

This psalm is familiar to many for its majestic opening:

“Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.”

Mere mortals, on the other hand, are “like grass which groweth up. In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.”

That’s why we are told to “apply our hearts unto wisdom” – and at the heart of wisdom are the stories of our brief, faltering steps toward full humanity.

In last week’s column I paid tribute to the memory of our recently-deceased coffee companion Gerald Kaquitts, Morley photographer, philosopher and leader among the Stoney Nakoda Nation whose stories buoyed me up in difficult times.

But in the past few days, we have also lost three other coffee companions: John VanderLee, longtime Bow Valley community leader who passed away in Florida, of failing health; and Chris and Betty Harvey, environmental bridge-builders formerly of Cochrane and most recently of Rimbey, Alta., killed instantly in a collision along a rural road.

Each of these helped me embrace the godly wisdom of enjoying each day as a gift to be celebrated in the spirit of love and gratitude.

Furthermore, reflecting on their lives and the all-too-short lives of others who have helped shape my own journey, I have come to appreciate the importance of eulogies and shared memories at funerals.

Such celebration of lives has not always been the norm, however.

Many years ago I attended a funeral where the pastor would not allow any reminiscence over the deceased’s life – no eulogies, no tributes. In fact, not even the name of the deceased was to be spoken, lest its mere mention evoke uncontrollable grief.

All the lessons of their lives – all their struggles and triumphs, laughter and tears, and insights and impact – were discarded as if they were of no more value than yesterday’s coffee grounds.

What a pity, I thought.

For it is precisely this legacy of memories that is a treasure more valuable than gold. Writers understand this and make it their business to extend to subsequent generations the wisdom that otherwise goes to the grave at the end of a solitary life.

Indeed, our experience of another’s life is not unlike our enjoyment of a good book.

I go to my bookshelf and pull out a novel. After a few pages, I’m hooked by its captivating plot and beauty of expression. I relate to the characters, and they to me, as we sometimes agree – and sometimes disagree.

We step through the pages together, and powerful images are planted in my mind – images charged with maturing me into my full humanity.

Then I arrive at the last chapter, read the last words, and close the cover.

Shall I now, without a word, bury the novel among the books on my shelf from which it came – earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes, so to speak? Shall I now become so obsessed with having closed the book that I can no longer even speak about it? Shall I terminate the great dialogue of life, with all its loves and hates and dreams – all because the volume has come to its end?

No, not at all! I would celebrate the book with others, even recommend it to them.

And so it is with eulogizing those who have become part of our very being, whether Gerald, or John, or Betty or Chris, or others whose last chapter in this life has ended and the covers closed.

In this regard, I’d like to conclude with a word of gratitude for another life well lived – a life that helped shape the thinking and practice of many biblical scholars around the world, and especially those, like myself, committed to the science and art of Bible translation.

Prof. Bruce Metzger, of Princeton, New Jersey, finished his short life Feb. 13. He was 93. His leadership in the compilation of ancient biblical manuscripts and overseeing accurate translations of them into modern English has made the Scriptures accessible to readers for generations to come. His story will be remembered whenever the Greatest Story is told and retold.

He, too, numbered his days and applied his heart to wisdom.

© 2007 Warren Harbeck

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