Will Scott: The marrow of life

When he was still a young man, Henry David Thoreau left most of what he knew to live in a cabin beside a pond. He expressed his reasoning for this change in a line from his memoir, "Walden."

He said, "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to confront only the essential facts of life, ... and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. ... I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life."

The sentiment is clear. Thoreau wanted to live -- really live. And the image used for this living is the memorable metaphor, "suck the marrow out of life." Maybe this is just an artful way of saying what we've heard repeated innumerable times: "Live life to the fullest. Live every day like it's your last."

We all know what this is like. We know what it's like to live the best we can. Maybe we have much and expect more. And maybe we know what it's like to think that life doesn't have quite enough for us. We want to live better, fuller. We want to suck the marrow out of life.

When you're young the answers are simple. To live well, go to school. Get a job. Get married. Have kids. This is what it means to have a full life.

When you're a bit older and have accomplished some of these things maybe the answers are different. Try a new hobby. Take a vacation. Redo your kitchen. Funny how the scope of life narrows in this way.

When this isn't enough you try something really different. You go to church more, or you try a new practice of prayer. You read books on spirituality. You volunteer for some worthwhile cause. All of these are good things, and maybe they help. You want to live the best you can, and you have found that you can't live without something that feeds your soul.

Here is the problem with this kind of approach. It doesn't work. No matter how well-intentioned your life is, your goals, the things you're working towards, it's never enough to fill you up. The hunger always comes back. And so do the challenges -- the conflict, the illness, the uncertainty of the world -- all of which intrude on our best-laid plans to suck the marrow out of life. There is no amount of insurance you can by to protect your best-laid plans from disappointing you. Eventually you think of something else, something more. Having longed for so many good things, and having received them from the hand of God, you wonder if they come with a gift receipt so you can make your next purchase.

Then some phrase comes to you. Something you heard at church or in Sunday school a long time ago, something that all of a sudden makes sense when you see it in your own life, "For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it" (Luke 9:24).

The author of Hebrews describes the word of God as a two-edged sword, "piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow."

Maybe to live to the fullest, to suck the marrow out of life, something has to break first. Some kind of radical rupture has to precede growth or transformation. You have to lose your life first.

I'm not sure there is a better example of the cutting power of God's word than what Jesus says above. Jesus says that our attempts to curate our lives and shape them into something worthwhile will ultimately be our downfall. Only the challenge, the loss, can silence the nagging voice of ego long enough to hear something of God. We notice the insufficiency of all we build in light of what God creates. Jesus offers a way through the cross instead.

That's the giving up. That's the moment that allows for the rest -- the gift you can only receive with empty arms. A confession. A belief. Trust that God, the maker of heaven and earth, offers us life, human life, our life, life full of marrow, in the person of Jesus. If only we have to be cut first.

Will Scott is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Dalton. His column appears the fourth Friday of the month.

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