There was a time, it seems not long ago, that the death of a celebrity scarcely made it onto my personal radar.
I was a boy, and I didn’t understand why the loss of a pop culture icon bothered adults. We didn’t actually know any of these people, after all—and yet when Elvis died, grown adults shed tears for a man they knew only through movies and records. I was in the third grade; I couldn’t have cared less.
Fast-forward a few decades, and I find myself living on the sixth floor of life—my sixth decade—and I have started to understand.
In 2020 Eddie Van Halen died. I noticed. I did not weep, but the announcement was like a broken tooth at the back of my mouth; I could not leave it alone. He was one of those high priests of hedonism who encouraged my generation down the road to self-indulgence. I always felt a connection to him, not only because I had a bit of a wild side when I was young, but because we had some things in common: a passion for music (my passion, alas, was unaccompanied by his virtuosity), and being a son of Dutch immigrants.
He had paid a high price for his choices: cancer; a hip replacement that appeared to be ahead of the usual geriatric schedule; and other indicators that he had squandered much of his vitality on the wrong things. He had mellowed with age, as most men do, and his last interviews were markedly different from those in his earlier life. His sudden (and young!) demise bothered me. It wasn’t because his talent was gone; I had abandoned listening to the band many moons ago, when it ceased to be compatible with my newfound Christian values.
It was something else: the tragic idea that most people—even (or especially) some of the most accomplished—really live only a fraction of their lives. Sometimes decades of living isn’t really life; it’s just time.
I know; many assume that those who find wealth and fame are living life fully, but the god of public accolades demands a huge sacrifice: you will spend the rest of your life preoccupied with the act of feeding your success. Wealth must be defended and maintained. Recognition must be fed by new and greater deeds. Past awards must be continually justified. You will live with the nagging notion that you have become less than human, a mere commodity being used by others . . . and that the freedom to be your authentic self has been stolen.
Perhaps that explains, in part, Eddie Van Halen’s struggle with substance abuse.
The world looks and sees a rich and rewarded life. I see a man who had little choice but to be preoccupied with the priorities of other people; a man who was, by his own doing, coerced into spending the most precious commodity he owned—time—on the priorities and demands of others, a proverbial victim of success. I could be wrong, because I didn’t know the man any better than you do. I felt as though I knew him because of his public persona, but of course that was all a carefully marketed illusion that probably became his prison.
I’m reminded of the words of the great Roman statesman Seneca, a contemporary of Jesus, who wrote to a public figure to encourage him to claim for himself what remained of his life. “So when you see a man repeatedly wearing the robe of office, or one whose name is often spoken in the Forum, do not envy him: these things are won at the cost of life.”
Seneca was one of those rare people who enjoyed a life of leisure. Go back through history, and you will find that many of the world’s groundbreaking discoveries were brought to light by people who had the means to use their days however they pleased. I am not one of those; I must report to work every morning like most, and the way inflation has been devouring the meager dollars I have set aside for the future, there is a good chance that genuine leisure will evade me until I die. I do not have the luxury of examining my life for days on end; I likely never will.
And yet I do not wish to have what is left of my life consumed by others. I believe myself to be engaged in a very important business: that of ministry. It is, by most measures, a worthwhile pursuit, and I am pleased that God has allowed me to live this life. It is, at the same time, all-consuming. We must raise the money to stay alive. We must consistently deliver vision to those who join us through support. A significant portion of each week (I work, on average, 80 hours), is devoted to priorities that I did not set for myself.
We are forced to live in the future. I already know what I will be doing three years from now; in some cases, five. And all the while, the present slips through my fingers, like water being poured into a bottomless cup. You cannot keep the present; you must drink from it while it presents itself, and you have no guarantee of how long the stream might persist.
“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world,” Jesus famously taught, “and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mark 8:36, 37, NKJV).
In the end, if you’re lucky, the world gives you an epitaph. If you’re really famous, a 60-minute biopic on television. Is that an adequate paycheck for a lifetime?
Seneca described the average person as preoccupied. We quite willingly fritter away our most precious resource, giving our time to others more readily than our money. Time is far more valuable than money—just ask anybody suddenly faced with the prospect of an untimely death. Most would gladly exchange their money for a little more time. Yet for some reason we will gladly squander time throughout our lives, wasting moments on other peoples’ priorities, until we come to the point where we discover that, timewise, we are suddenly broke. As Oliver Wendell Holmes mourned: “Alas for those that never sing, but die with all their music in them!”
How to Sabbath
Enter the Sabbath, that precious gift of time bestowed on us by our Creator. Once a week we have the opportunity to stop being preoccupied. Not that you would know it from some of our Sabbath celebrations: those can seem as full of preoccupation as our six days of labor. I have often marveled how, at major Adventist convocations, we love to start the day early and keep it full until late at night. A camp meeting Sabbath can provide 13 hours of nonstop Sabbath activity . . . which keeps a lot of people very, very busy.
Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate such things, and I have planned enough daylong Sabbaths for audiences that I am an undoubted contributor. But perhaps I should be asking myself, How much of this precious gift of time is used up by preoccupations? Are we, like the Pharisees of old, sometimes putting a hedge of sanctified activity around the Sabbath so that nobody comes even close to breaking it? How much is left over to quit doing and simply be? How much remains to help you find your way back to center, to sit quietly and listen, as the voice of God tells you what your life is supposed to be?
Six days a week we wrestle with the vicissitudes of fortune, as the pagans might have put it. There is no predicting what tomorrow might bring: one day it pushes you to new heights; the next, it kicks your legs out from under you. You cannot control the future. Soon enough you won’t even have it.
Your past, however, is securely locked away in your memory banks. (I am still plundering Seneca here!) Good or bad, it cannot be changed, and you can draw many lessons from pondering it. Your past will reveal where you have wasted time. It will show you when you were donating your life to everybody else’s agenda . . . but not God’s. Prayerful reflection will help you sort through life’s demands and expose how you have wandered from His blueprint.
Open your Bible during those sacred hours, and reflections on the past become incalculably richer. God has granted a glimpse into the lives of other people who interacted with Him. We can add their stories to our own collection of experiences, allowing their lessons to shape tomorrow’s priorities. “Your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it’ ” (Isa. 30:21, NKJV).
Worthy of Pursuit
Many things are genuinely worth pursuing. Other things we are told are worthwhile, but when you listen to those who pursued them, you hear regret. The Sabbath affords us an opportunity to learn the difference.
If you’ve never sat with a dying person, you should. It’s an eye-opener. People faced with mere days to live suddenly develop new priorities. With minutes to live, awards, accolades, and bank accounts seldom matter. Neither do silver-screen performances, platinum albums, or Pulitzer prizes. These people do not care if the world is still applauding; no, they suddenly crave something else: Did my life put a smile on the face of God?
The Sabbath is a much-needed corrective to the seemingly insuppressible drive we have to occupy every moment with something. It offers us a brief respite when we have the opportunity to stop doing. The Sabbath was not designed for accomplishment; even God Himself set aside Hisaccomplishments as He celebrated the first one. I often shake my head when I hear other Christians describe Sabbath observance as some sort of legalistic burden—something that we are grudgingly required to do. They miss the whole point: on Sabbath I am not doing anything; I am simply being.
There is a danger that we become a world of Marthas, too preoccupied by the pursuits of life to realize that we have been granted an audience with our Maker. Life slips by unexpectedly, and we find ourselves getting old, but we have never really lived. We have put off living to some imagined point in the future when we will finally claim the calendar as our own. But the future never comes.
No, I think I’d rather be Mary. It’s not easy, because I have a driven personality, the type that always needs to be doing something (I must go out and slay dragons!). It’s true that if I adopt Mary’s attitude, nobody’s going to praise the meal I made, or buy the book I wrote, or work in a building named for me, or whatever it is that people do in the hopes of securing some form of eternal life. But maybe, by claiming the gift of the Sabbath, I can arrive at the finish line having actually lived.
Jeremiah put it succinctly: “Let us search out and examine our ways, and turn back to the Lord; let us lift our hearts and hands to God in heaven” (Lam. 3:40, 41, NKJV).
The Sabbath is a gift of time, the most precious commodity on earth. God has granted you something of a life of leisure, not unlike the wealthy nobles of old. Do not waste it. Seneca argued that life is not as short as we think; it seems that way because we waste it. I’ll let him help me wrap up this meditation on a dead rock star. He wrote, “You have been preoccupied while life hastens on. Meanwhile death will arrive, and you will have no choice in making yourself available for that.”
The past two years, with millions of deaths, underline his point.
Most people merely pretend to obtain eternal life through achievement. Meanwhile, God assures us, “He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:12, NKJV).
Notice: it’s in the present tense.
Shawn Boonstra is speaker/director of the Voice of Prophecy media ministry based in Loveland, Colorado, United States.
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