In A Moment, There is Death
I must confess I have always been, have always been concerned somehow that it was not normal, that it was not ordinary, for me to have this morbid interest in death. I am obsessed with the possibility of my own death. I see a grim around every corner. See the possibility of my death everywhere I look
In everything that is alive around me, I see death. Life thrives on death, and someday will not the life of others thrive on my own death?
It is not so much that I am afraid I will die. No, I do not fear death, nor what I shall meet on the other side. What I fear is all that I am leaving behind: the shadows and darkness, the confusion and sense of loss. I fear what will become of those I desired to nurture and shelter. I fear of what will become of the world I tried to build for them.
Yes, I know, I should fear that I have not built for them the world of love I intended. That I have been faithless in my attempt to be faithful. That I have left things undone that should have been completed. Yes, that I do fear. That I do fear very much indeed.
But it is not for any sense of judgment that I fear them. I am able to bear any suffering I am given at the Mighty Throne of Judgment, save that I fear the most: the judgment of knowing what a mess I leave behind. The judgment of knowing what I have left undone that can no longer be completed. The judgment of the impact of my passing on the lives I leave in my wake. Did I teach my daughter well when I had my chance? Did I train her up in the way that was right, so that in her old age she too will give Glory to the God who formed her? Did I teach her to be kind to others? To forgive and forbear rather than to judge another? Was I kind to my wife? Did I leave her with a sense of purpose and confidence, or did I make her question her faith: relieved that I am finally gone from her?
Questions of death impress themselves upon me. I go down into Sheol, into the depths of hell. Deep, deep into the abyss. Thinking about what I leave behind on this earth: those things I did not accomplish, that I should have - those things that I did that I shouldn't have done. Now, I think I can comprehend the meaning of hell. It is more than simply being in the presence of a God we cannot stand to be near. It is also being in the absence of all that we might have done, and being in the presence of all that we did evil.
The question that pursues me, like a coon-dog hounding after a squirrel: when is my time and why? Why wasn't today my day to depart this earth? Will it be tomorrow?
I sense that miracles happen every day around me. Every step I take on this earth is filled with grace and mystery. Why does God love me so? How can I be worth it? I know that His grace does not end when my days here expire like grass. I know that His love goes with me, even though I travel through the depths of Hell. But why does He endure my stupidity even here on this earth?
Today I was driving home from work. I saw up ahead a woman get off the bus. I saw her walking northward along the sidewalk alongside the bus. The traffic was thick, and the bus was at a standstill. I thought the bus stop was beyond that crosswalk there. I could have sworn it was. I started to pass several cars in the right lane. I soared past them at maybe 30 to 35 mph, trying to read all the awful signs the city engineering department placed everywhere (covering both sides of the street at the crosswalk). Signs about street closures. And while I was trying to think: 132nd, 132nd, which of these cross-streets is 13...... SCREEEEEECH. There she was suddenly standing in front of my car in the crosswalk.
I skid about 10 to 15 feet. My laptop-briefcase on the seat beside me is suddenly caught in my right hand. Caught by the handle. Somehow I have managed to skid, and hit the clutch at the same time so that I don't stall the car. My heart is pounding up in my throat and the woman is standing in front of my car with a wild look in her eyes: a look of terror.
But, I thought I just saw her walking up the street past the crosswalk, I muttered to myself aloud: barely audible over the sound of my pounding rock music. Keeping rhythm with my heart.
Why did I not hit that woman, and wind up in jail? Why did God spare me, and why did God spare her?
Our lives are filled with miracles we cannot comprehend. We cannot even begin to fathom them.
Standing there at Fr. Thomas' funeral, thinking to myself of the children and wife he had left behind. Why was it his time to go? In a sense I was quite angry. Why did God see fit to take him at this time? Why him and not me? Why is it anyone's time? How do we know when we are at the end? Will I go to sleep this night and not waken?
There was once a day when a tanker truck exploded on the freeway. It was right where I might have been if I had been taking that freeway that day instead of a side road. People were killed, but why wasn't I?
What is His plan for me? Why does he keep me here on this earth?
And other miracles, no less sincere, no less heart wrenching.
On a day several weeks ago, my tea kettle started screeching. I went to the kitchen and pulled it off the stove. With my right hand I lifted the tea kettle, and poured hot water over my left hand and into a cup. Of course, I was frightened by what I had done in my clumsiness. I jerked my hand away quickly, wincing as if I were in pain. But... What's this? I looked at my hand in horror, terrified at what I was experiencing. There was no pain! My hand was drenched. Soaking wet, and no pain!
And it's not like I had just been at the sink or something. No, I'd been down the hall typing at my computer. My hand was wet, my teacup was steaming, the tea was already turning brown from the teabag. I placed the kettle back on the burner and it immediately came back to a boil, screeching out the spout, from the heat of the burner. There was no question that the water was scalding hot. I tried to stick my right forefinger in the teacup and couldn't. It burned the tip of my finger. There was no question that the water in the cup - the very water I had poured over my hand - was near boiling temperature. And yet, my hand wasn't the slightest bit burnt or singed. It was wet, and I felt the water on my hand, and that water was cold - not refrigerator cold, but room temperature, and yet the water in the tea cup was scalding.
A miracle? How can it be anything less? Why does God fill our lives with miracles?
I am convinced that our lives are constantly filled with miracles. That every day he does countless things to protect us. But why? Some day I will die. Perhaps tonight I will die, but this afternoon he spared me for some unknown and inexplicable task? Today, perchance I am kept from stumbling and falling down the stairs and never realized it. I might have broken my leg, or I might have skinned my elbow against a rough stone wall, or I might have been bitten by a flea that carried some exotic disease that will kill me in ten or fifteen years, or I might have gotten sick to my stomach at something I ate (perhaps even while denying myself meat). But I have avoided all of that, and why? So that I might get hit by a car when I walk to my mailbox and end my life? So that I might die in my sleep of a heart attack? So that I might suddenly have a blood vessel burst in my head?
We do not know these things. We do not know the when or the why, except that we know this: we must learn to love Him. We must learn to see Him. We must learn to worship Him with our each and every breath.
Another time, years ago when Helen and I were just married. We had gone on a walk or out to eat dinner or something, and had come back home to find the stove on and our tea-kettle melted to the stovetop. The plastic of the handle was smoking like it would burst any minute into flame, and I was stupid and tried to pick it up off the stove, as if that were the way to prevent something. I dropped it instantly, and it fell into the middle of the kitchen floor where it melted the linoleum. If we had come back 5 minute later would the apartment building have been on fire?
Thank you God for sparing us all! Thank You God for sparing us again and again.
But when is my time to go from this earth, and for what reason has He spared me.
I do not know. I cannot say.
My friend Barnabas says: "well maybe you aren't a saint" (and I can assure you I am not) "but he wasn't to give you the chance to be one. Maybe he's letting you stay on this earth until you have become a saint."
That's a frightening thing to consider, but I find another possibility even more frightening: is he leaving me here to perfect my sin? To seal myself off completely from Him in the debauchery of my ways? For I find there are two fates that linger in my flesh. On the one hand I might worship and glorify Him, and on the other hand I might give myself up completely to earthly pleasure. It seems the two extremes, albeit distant and extreme, are always close at hand. Ever near.
And I wonder again, which one this day have I chosen?