You never know when the end will come.
by Michael B. Ross
Twenty years ago I was a young man heading off to an Ivy League college. Like most people my age, I didn’t think of my mortality. I believed I was immortal: Tomorrow would always be there.
Now I sit alone in a prison cell and look back on those youthful days with great anguish. Why did I commit a crime deserving of the death sentence? It is too late. Sitting on death row, I see the lost opportunities of yesterday. I see the things I could have done and should have done.
All of us, in a sense, live on death row — a favorite topic of many preachers. Because humans are mortal, death is inevitable. It is life’s most powerful enemy, for no matter who we are — or how wealthy, powerful, or blessed — we all will eventually die. Yet instinctively, each of us resists death with every fiber of our being.
Are you prepared to die? Have you thought about that day when there are no more tomorrows? Many have not because we fear death and push away the thought of not existing anymore. We try to ignore death’s possibility and deny its power. When death does come, usually unexpectedly, we are unprepared.
The death row I live on isn’t the same death row that preachers describe. Mine is far more concrete and immediate, for I will be executed by the State of Connecticut for a crime I committed years ago. I will know, to within a few minutes, the exact day and time I will die. And while it may sound strange, this has been a great benefit to me.
In prison, I have been forced to face my own mortality. I have had enough time to try to set things right and make my peace with God, to ask and seek forgiveness from those I hurt. I have been given time to seek healing for my own hurts and to forgive those who have hurt me.
Few are fortunate to experience this. In their freedom outside the prison walls, people are wrapped up in their careers, family, recreation, and money. They rarely give a thought to what would happen if they died suddenly in a car accident, plane crash, or violent crime.
Don’t misunderstand me: I don’t look forward to my execution; I don’t welcome death. I have my own concerns and fears about this episode: Will I feel pain? How long will it take me to die? Will I lose courage to face my final hour? I pray daily for some miracle that will deliver me from this man-made death row and spare me from the hands of a human executioner. I would like a second chance at life; anyone in my situation would. However, should I not get that chance, then I am at least fortunate enough to have had the time to prepare for my death.
I recently read about an elder in a Bruderhof Christian community who was dying of pancreatic cancer. I take great comfort in his words and make them into a personal prayer:
My future is uncertain. The joy is knowing that it is completely in God’s hands. All I have to do is thank him. If I have not much longer to live, then that is God’s will and it should mean something. My task is to find out what it means. I have no complaints, only thanks! If it is God’s pleasure to give me a chance to start over again, that’s wonderful. If it is not His pleasure and He has other tasks for me, I accept that. Faith doesn’t depend upon me having my way; faith depends on God having His way. This must be my highest joy and delight. Otherwise how can I pray, “Thy will be done”?
Preparing to die
Each of us must face our own mortality and prepare for death. The question is, How?
Ironically, preparing for death is not a matter of how we die, but of how we live. If we live not for ourselves but for Jesus Christ, we will be ready to die at any time. To live for Christ means that we must first repent of our sins and accept His death on the cross as payment for them. In this way, we will receive salvation and the promise of eternal life.
Once we gain salvation through Christ, we must live each day as if it were our last — that is, make the most of every opportunity to help others as Jesus would and to share our faith with those who don’t know Him.
This is not as easy as it sounds. We can become so distracted with lists of things to do that we count on tomorrow always being there.
But we must keep a proper perspective. As the Indian mystic Sundar Singh said: “Only during the few years of this life are we given the privilege of serving each other and Christ. We shall have [glory] forever, but have only a short time for service here, and therefore must not waste the opportunity.”
Don’t count on tomorrow; cherish and live each day as if it were your last. Live the life that God has given you to its fullest potential to honor Him. Don’t forget the words of Jesus, to follow the greatest of God’s commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. . . . Love your neighbor as much as you love yourself” (Matthew 22:37, 39, TLB).
Not just sometimes, not just when it’s convenient, but every day! Your next encounter with your neighbor may be your last. Seek forgiveness and forgive those who have hurt you. Make your peace with God for your past transgressions and live each day to please Him.
I invite you to join me on death row — not in Connecticut (there are too many of us here already), but on God’s death row. When you live there, you live as God wants everyday. And while you may not be fortunate enough to know when your death is at hand, you will be prepared.
If you accept my invitation, then please join me in this prayer:
“My Lord Jesus, You laid Your life down for me; I shall lay down my life for You. I offer You my death with all the pain that may surround it, accepting whatever kind of death You have in store for me. I give You my life and my death, my body and soul, my whole being now and forever.”
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