Right before the clock marked the start of theology class each day, Dr. Todd Billings would arrive in a rush: a massive stack of reference articles tucked beneath his arm, a legal pad filled with scribbles in his hand, and the quirkiest of laughs ready to sound in delight at his students.
Under Dr. Billings’ care and attention, I learned many things, but the most important lessons he ever taught me were about death. Because in addition to his bright career as a theologian and his joyous young family, Dr. Billings also has terminal blood cancer.
Over the course of my time in seminary, I watched him wrestle with what life means in light of death and what death means in light of life. Ultimately, he published a book, The End of the Christian Life: How Embracing Our Mortality Frees Us to Truly Live, exploring the choice to embrace the sacredness of his limits as well as his place within the limitless love of God.
I’ve never forgotten Dr. Billings’ courage in asking the questions so many of us flee about the end of life. And I continue to recall his description in his book of a small ordinary moment when he started to help his seven-year-old son find language for the deaths he was starting to face in his own small world: pets and grandparents gone too soon.
It was an imaginative act of brave and painful love.
Tonight, with a pumpkin candle flickering nearby and a quilt wrapped around me, Dr. Billings’ stories have toppled from their shelves in the library of my mind to roll around freely among my other thoughts.
Perhaps the memories have been knocked loose by the first fall leaves, twirling towards the ground this last week.
Or perhaps it is the unwanted brushes with mortality that keep creeping in and touching those whom I love that have me pondering endings and lives well lived.
There’s a verse in 2 Timothy, written by an older man to a younger man. It is recited often at funerals: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
I love that faith communities return to this verse so often to help us reflect on someone we love with gratitude and a sense of closure.
But in a world where death is far too often surprising and loss comes in split-second changes and unexpected phone calls, some of us need a more expansive story about life than a race with a clearly marked finish line or a faith swaddled safely away from doubt.
Surely God has words for all of the rest of us in what Paul speaks to Timothy?
Perhaps, the larger invitation of God is found not in Paul’s words themselves, but in his actions: the writing of a letter to ask a dear friend to come visit as death approaches. Perhaps the lessons of God in Paul’s letter align with one of the lessons Todd Billings taught me: “The meaning of life rests in the small moments.”
Small moments, when I ask for a friend to comfort me.
Small moments, when the fingers of my husband interlock with mine.
Small moments, handing a spoon caked with homemade batter over for my sister to lick.
And small moments, penning my story so loved ones can bear witness to what I’ve lived.
Small moments, exchanging memories with family around the very old Christmas tree.
And small moments, laughing with each other while playing an absurd game into the night.
There is wonder to be found in the very small and ordinary. There is a good God who delights in the details of things waiting for us there.
As overwhelming thoughts on the nature of a good life loom large, I pray that I will knit my heart to those I love by savoring and sharing the small moment right here, right now in front of me.
And I pray the same for you.
Katy (Johnson) Stafford dreams, writes, and occasionally podcasts in the messy middle of life. Newly married, Katy is spending her 30s embracing hope, longing, and the wild spaces in her own heart. Her favorite creative project right now is called In Love, a memoir about loving your life beyond white picket fences. Katy shares more of her thoughts here, where she cultivates a community for writers and creatives.