February 15, 2006

When the Fire Bells Ring

1505 page31 capttention! Attention! An emergency has been reported in the building. While this report is being verified, please stand by for further instructions. Do not enter the fire exits. Do not use elevators.?

The disturbing announcement over the hotel?s public-address system kept repeating every 30 seconds in those early hours of a cold Philadelphia morning last November, with the ominous bells of the fire alarm filling every pause.

Is this official? That was the first thought in my mind as I sized up the situation from my room on the twenty-fifth floor. If terrorists have taken over the building and want to blow it up with everyone in it, isn?t that precisely the message to send? ?Do not enter the fire exits. Do not use the elevators.?

Dismissing the thought, my mind jumped to more practical and urgent considerations. Still in pajamas and in the midst of shaving when the announcements started, I now began pondering my next move should the situation--whatever it was--worsen. Of my stuff, scattered all over the room, what do I take if the order comes to evacuate? Answering my own unspoken query, I quickly got into street clothes, shut down and bagged my computer, grabbed my keys, chucked my wallet into my pocket, then waited--the warning bells continuing, punctuated by the endless, disquieting announcements.

1505 page31Half an hour later the all clear sounded.

Incidents of that kind spark the fundamental question: What?s most important? What lies at the top of your priorities? That morning in Philadelphia, it came down to my computer, my wallet, and my keys.1 But then I?d had time to think things through while I waited in my room. But what does one take when fleeing a burning building, a flooding home, a sinking ship? What?s most important?

The incident in Philadelphia was the second that month to leave me grappling with priorities in my life. About 18 days before, following eye surgery, my doctor had placed me on a 15-minute-a-day reading restriction, the literary equivalent of house arrest for someone in my position. The upside was that in some 10 days I was able to go through the entire New Testament on tape, plus two other books. The downside was visible every time I approached my desk--a growing pile of reading materials I could not touch.

Every day I had to face the questions What?s most important? What?s significant enough to warrant three minutes of that precious allotment? What would merit 10? And is there anything so critical as to demand all 15?

It led to basic questions about my use of time. How am I using this limited commodity given me by a gracious God? To what am I devoting the lion?s share of it? If I knew I had just 15 minutes or 15 hours left to live, what things would rise to the top of my priority list? And why do they not rise there now?

No, I?m not suggesting we should live on the perpetual edge, with nary a moment to relax, to take it easy, to laugh, to enjoy one another. In fact, that, I think, is a most appropriate use of time. Still, there?s such a thing as squandering time--what Ellen G. White had in mind in those haunting words of hers: ?Our time,? she says, ?belongs to God. Every moment is His, and we are under the most solemn obligation to improve it to His glory. Of no talent He has given will He require a more strict account than of our time.?2

Six thousand years ago a cry went up from the Garden of Eden: ?Attention! Attention! An emergency has been reported on this planet. Stand by for further instructions.? And one day soon there will be an update: ?Attention! Attention! Head for the exits!? On that day I want to be ready to leave, having spent quality time building, under God, the only thing I can take with me from here: my character. On that day when fire bells begin to ring all across this doomed planet.

1 I?d taken only an unmarked, mini copy of the New Testament for the short trip, and that was expendable.
2 Christ?s Object Lessons, p. 342.


Roy Adams is an associate editor of the Adventist Review.