The Vapor and the Shadow

by Andy Wood on May 9, 2011

in Allocating Your Resources, Consumers, Five LV Laws, Insight, Life Currency, Love, LV Alter-egos, LV Cycle, Principle of Legacy

I believe that it is not dying that people are afraid of.  Something else, something more unsettling and more tragic than dying frightens us.  We are afraid of never having lived, of coming to the end of our days with the sense that we were never really alive, that we never figured out what life was for. – Harold Kushner

The great Presbyterian pastor Donald Grey Barnhouse was once riding in a funeral procession in Philadelphia when he noticed a large cargo truck running in front of the procession.  From the way the sun was positioned, he noticed that the truck was casting a large shadow on the sidewalk.  That shadow crossed light poles, road signs, and even people, and didn’t harm anything.  No one would want to be in front of the truck, mind you, but the shadow was harmless.

Every one of us was born on the other side of something called “labor.”  We enter the world completely helpless and fragile, totally dependent on the protection, care and kindness of others.  We borrow the oxygen and assorted things for a span of time the Bible calls a “vapor.”   Despite our claims to ownership, we take no possessions with us.  And we end our sojourn on earth passing through something called a “shadow.”

Birth is a labor soon forgotten…

Life is a vapor quickly fading…

Possessions are an illusion suddenly passing…

Death is shadow silently creeping…

Is there any wonder we struggle sometimes to know what’s real?  And what’s valuable?

All the Vain Things That Charm Us Most

Geniuses that we are, left to our own devices humans come up with novel solutions to our problems, and strange answers to our questions.  Nowhere is this truer than in our solutions to the search for the real and the valuable.

Take pleasure, for instance.  Shouldn’t you do it if it feels good?  Doesn’t it make sense to spend a lifetime in the pursuit of pleasure?  Just one problem.  Most of us are born in pain and die in pain (or numbed to oblivion).  If pleasure is the answer to what’s real and valuable, shouldn’t it offer something at life’s ultimate moments?

How about possessions?  In Job’s words, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return.”  Andy Andrews puts it like this:

“Life is like a game of Monopoly.  You may own hotels on Boardwalk or you may be renting on Baltic Avenue.  But in the end, it all goes back in the box.  The next generation will be getting out all your stuff and playing with it or fighting over it.”

Pride has the same problem – people pursue it in more ways that I can count. But at the time when pride should offer the most answers – birth and death – it is strangely silent and missing.

The Choice

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the Lord your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life and the length of your days…” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20, NASU).

In anticipation of the fulfillment of all their dreams – the entry to the Land of Promise, Moses the Man of God lays out a choice – life and death.  The blessing and the curse.  Speaking to a generation that had witnessed the needless deaths of their parents due to unbelief (they were dying before they were dead), Moses says, “Choose life while you are alive!”

A world of pleasure awaited them on the other side of the Jordan.  But life wasn’t found in the pleasure.  A land of wealth – “flowing with milk and honey” had their name on it.  But the real and valuable wasn’t found there, either.  An identity as the people of God’s choosing, and the terror of other nations gave them reason to be proud.  But as they would later learn, not even their birth heritage guaranteed them the blessing.

How about you?  When you’re living somewhere between the Vapor and the Shadow, where do you turn to find the real and the valuable?  After all, you only get one of these to invest.  Where do you find life?  Try these:

1.  The people you love.

Who’s in your heart?  That’s real.  That’s valuable.  More importantly, whose heart do you rest in, whose memory do you live in, whose imagination do you play in, and whose dreams do you wait in?  To them you have become real, valuable, and alive.

In the classic children’s story The Velveteen Rabbit, the toy Rabbit asked the Skin Horse about being Real.

“When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time… Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

2.  The followers you lead.

I was having coffee with a friend the other day and the conversation turned to people in the Bible.  “I think Paul is still getting his reward,” I said, “because he’s still influencing people to this day.”

Peter’s still challenging people to “get out of the boat.”  David continues to this day to raise up giant slayers.  Martha’s sister Mary continues to define extravagant worship for new generations of women and men.  Abel “being dead still speaks” (Hebrews 11:4).

Someone follows you, too.  And just as you continue to be influenced by those who live on through you, they can continue to follow you long after your Vapor disappears in the Shadow.

3.  The lessons you learn.

Something about the teachable moments and the joy of discovery give form and substance to life.  Whether it’s my grandson learning to say “Tigger” (his newest word) or me learning a handy dandy new software application, the sense of increase is priceless.

More vital than knowledge, however, is the wisdom that must come to make it real. Choosing life and blessing means going beyond facts and data.  It means having a teachable spirit, a discerning eye, and a developing sense of maturity.  Even when the dash between our birth date and death date seems woefully short, wisdom gives substance to the Vapor.

4.  The destiny you chase.

This may be an uncomfortable question, but I’ll ask it anyway.  If you keep going in the direction you’re going, where are you going to wind up?   Wherever you’re headed, you’re eventually going to get there.  That’s why it’s a good idea to take a look at where you’re headed.

“Choose life,” Moses said.  How?  By loving the Lord, obeying His voice, and holding fast to Him.  What does that have to do with destiny?  Everything.  And not even death can change that.

Put this in your theological oven and bake it:

All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth (Hebrews 11:13, NASU).

Translation:  What you believe and who you pursue live on in you and through you, even after your life on earth is over.

5.  The values you hold.

The principles you live by, the priorities that order your day, the issues and commitments that hold sway over you – these make your life real and, hopefully, valuable.

If you’ve never developed a personal mission statement (I actually have three), it would be a healthy exercise for you.  Here’s one I developed after answering (from the heart) three key questions:

My primary purpose in life is to create a world of personal fulfillment by communicating truth with passion and personally encouraging others.

One way to clarify your values is to write your own epitaph. How do you want to be remembered?  Just remember – others will record your values by what you actually do, not just by what you say.


Birth is a labor soon forgotten…

Life is a vapor quickly fading…

Possessions are an illusion suddenly passing…

Death is shadow silently creeping…

With no guarantees other than this moment, what will you do to make your sojourn real and valuable?  Between the Vapor and the Shadow… choose life.

Yeo KH September 20, 2015 at 5:40 am

I am a first born son into a poor family; I have no chioce but to start my life and responsibilities as the elder son. Not having the required education and skills, I launched into making a living for the family at age 13. Working in the vulneability and fear that I MUST support my father’s family and brought home food on the table for the family of 7. I have lived with drivers of ‘must work hard’ ‘must please others to survive’ ‘must be perfect in order to stay competitive’ ‘must must must.’ I have applied the same musts to bringing up my own family. I must bring ‘enough’ home for my family, and children education and future, etc.
All the ‘musts’ conditioned me into ‘fear of failure’ ‘fear of rejection’ ‘fear or the 2 letters work, no’ ‘fear of being judged, inadequate’ ‘fear of…’ I am living in the measurements of others! I know I have to choose life…, but walking out of the 40 years of shadom of ‘fear and being judged’ is indeed going to be a long journey of unlearning. So help me God!

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