Life is a marvelous and mysterious mixture of chance and choice. There is a great deal about out lives that is not ours to choose. We don’t control the weather and, (even though we often try), we can’t control each other. We take precautions and try to stay safe, but we can’t eliminate the possibility of something dreadful happening. When good things that are beyond our control happen to us, we tend to take them in stride, accept them as our due and rarely feel grateful. But when bad things happen, we often feel anxious, worried and afraid. We’re full of questions: why did this happen, whom can we blame, how safe are we, anyway?
Those are the questions for which the disciples wanted answers from Jesus. They were discussing an atrocity that cruel Pilate had committed against their fellow Galileans. And then there was that tragic accident of a tower collapse causing multiple deaths. ‘Why did this happen, who is to blame?’ they wanted to know. Jesus’ answer was that there is no answer to such questions. ’Don’t speculate about things you can’t control; concentrate, instead, on choices you can make!’ he told them. That’s the meaning of Jesus words, “Unless you repent, you will all perish.”
We waste so much time, energy, and anxiety over things that are out of our control. I tried for many years to change the direction of a personal relationship, but I never, ever, could determine more than half of what was going on between us! I could change myself, yes, but not the other person. How we’d love to steer our adult children’s lives in what we consider to be the right direction. But we really can’t, and we shouldn’t try. We’ve raised them and now the best we can do for them is to let them fly and then stand by!
When I was a pastor serving in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, two men working the furnace at the steel plant were badly burned. I visited both in the hospital and marveled at how differently each worker dealt with the tragedy. One was consumed by bitter questions that I couldn’t answer — nobody could: ‘Why did this happen to me?’ What kind of God would let this horrible thing happen, anyway?’ The other told me how grateful he was that he wasn’t even more seriously injured, or even killed. He said the accident forced him to make some decisions about what was really important in his life, and what was not.
Two men injured in the same tragic accident chose how they were going to deal with it. One chose bitterness, the other, gratitude. Neither man had any control over what had happened to them, but each could choose how he would respond to the life-changing event.
We have no control over our own mortality. Life is short and fragile — it can turn on a dime. But here is the great gift: we can decide how we shall live before we die. Jesus’ call to repent lest we perish is a call to live with a kind of spiritual urgency, to decide what is important and to reject what is not. We can decide, as the author Dawna Markova put it, that:
“I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise.”
What if you lived this year as if you knew it would be the last year of your life? What would be your priorities, what choices would you make? What would you let go of? What would you make sure you got done? Whom would you spend time with and what would you say to them? Answering those questions and then acting on them is the great work of repentance, of turning around in life and choosing what’s important and forgetting about what is not. If you try this spiritual exercise, you might find that you don’t take the good things in your life so much for granted anymore. And you might leave off anguishing over all those things you can’t do a thing about!
You often see tombstones in cemeteries that display someone’s date of birth followed by a dash and space left for a date of death to be engraved later. It’s that dash that never fails to move me, that dash representing the time we have left before we die. Jesus is calling us to attend to that dash, to have done with fear-filled, useless speculations and to live for what’s truly important. He calls us to live before we die, lest we perish before we’ve ever fully lived at all.
© Edward R. Dufresne 2016