HOPE YOU HAVE A NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCE in the next 20 minutes. I know I’ll never forget mine. With all the bright sunshine and blue skies, the day just seemed too perfect and picturesque to include any real danger. The strong wind was churning up white-capped waves to match the pillowy clouds racing by above Lake Michigan. My dad’s Siberian huskies were gracefully sprinting along the shoreline, chasing Frisbees, and dodging the waves.
It was the end of the last of my youthful summers. With graduation behind me and a youth pastor job in Colorado before me, I was enjoying a carefree day at the beach with my dad and three friends.
What a stark contrast to the last half of that afternoon. I never felt more hopeless or close to death in my whole life.
Sometimes the Great Lakes1 can muster up swells of five- to eight-foot waves, drawing surfers even from Chicago. On occasion, rip currents can violently pull novices out into deep water. The cold water can sap a swimmer’s strength, and the waves can pound them right into the sea walls or the rocky shoreline.
The wind was gusting and the waves were curling over as I’d never seen before. After running the dogs on the beach, we headed toward the lighthouse. On each side of the cement pier was a 10-foot drop-off with a metal sea wall. As we walked along, we saw some teenagers bouncing up and down on the incredible surf. The four-foot-tall waves were crashing into the sea wall and surging together like a huge wave pool at an amusement park. It looked like so much fun, I wanted to jump in with them. One of the teenagers, a heavyset guy, waved at us. We had no idea the incredible danger he would be swept into.
After taking pictures at the lighthouse, we started walking back. While we were still in the very deep section, I started hearing a faint call: “Help . . . help!” I looked over the edge of the sea wall, and I saw the heavy teenager being tossed around by the surging waters. So I kicked off my sandals and jumped in.
I Worried Neither of Us Would Make It
The rip current had pulled him out about 150 yards from shore, and the chilly waters were sapping his strength. As I came up to the surface I found the 225-pound teenager. By this time he was very lethargic and short of breath. I went under and tried pushing him up to get some more air, but only the top of his head came out of the water. The water was so deep and the waves were pouring over us. Every time I pushed him up, he didn’t go up enough to get a full breath. At the same time, he was going into shock and trying to grab hold of my arms. I was being pulled down by him and not getting much air myself. He was so lethargic that he could barely tread water.
I looked up at the huge dark sea wall 10 feet above us and couldn’t see a ladder in either direction. The waves were surging, and they seemed ready at any given moment to lift us up in their palms and pound us into the mossy metal wall.
My greatest fears were before me. I couldn’t shake the thought that I, and especially this kid, might not make it out of the water alive.
Have You Been There?
Have you ever had a scare like I did? A brush with death? A test result comes back with a question mark; a lab throws a red flag; a tumor strikes a chord of terror; a truck blows a red light; the earth quakes; the lightning strikes; your heart skips a beat, and your mortality is suddenly before you as never before. What if your life were gone in 20 minutes?
In one Gallup poll, the top two fears of Americans were (1) public speaking and (2) death.2
It’s worth noting that those two fears are the main ways that the Christian church grew so rapidly in the beginning.
It was the preaching of the apostles and the blood of the martyrs. Tertullian wrote that the blood of the martyrs was the “seed of the church.” One Christian bravely died in the Coliseum, and three or four converts popped up in their place, amazed at a faith that could stare death in the face—and smile.
God wants us to face death squarely and early, so we can live life wisely.
The Bible says our life is a mist. “Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away” (James 4:14, NASB).*
It’s here today, and gone tomorrow. It’s here now and gone in a moment.
Almost every minute someone in the United States will die from a coronary event.3 And two people around the world will die every minute in a car accident.4 That’s 3,287 deaths per day, 1.2 million per year.
What if you were gone in 20 minutes? What if you didn’t have time to do anything else, not even to put down this magazine and make another call? What loose ends would you leave untied? When you answer those questions, you’ll probably find the priorities that have slipped into lower places.
Imagining the End
Although it seems morbid, David said it’s a wonderful blessing to look at the brevity of life. In Psalm 90 he wrote: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (verse 12). Or as Max Lucado renders it: “Teach us how short our lives really are so that we may be wise.” The breath you have is precious, but it is passing. Our time on earth is always ticking away, always becoming shorter.
For one week a while back, I’d say every morning out loud: “This may be my last day.” It almost drove my wife nuts. But I had a great week! The trivial things that normally angered me or made me critical became like nothing. After all, this was my last day on earth; why would I want to let some lousy driver or some minor misfortune ruin it? And why would I want to be critical of my family and friends when this was my last day to speak with them?
And as I would go through a busy day of work and ministry, I’d notice that the typical foolish resentment and complaining were absent. This was my last day to make a difference for the kingdom—why would I want to spend it licking my wounds or whining about not having quail?
There’s something about death that shrinks the trivial and enlarges the important. It distills our priorities. One friend of our family found out shortly before her wedding that her husband had a terminal illness. This couple knew they had only a short time together, so they cut out all those foolish toothpaste and toilet paper arguments that we typical newlyweds (and even oldlyweds) wallow in. They knew their time was short, so they seized every moment and filled it to the brim with love. Their five years together were filled with the equivalent of 50 years of memories and romance.
Jesus was like that. He packed so much into His brief life on earth. He seems like the type who laughed hard at people’s jokes, cried at people’s pain, danced at people’s weddings, played hard, prayed hard, and tapped every single ounce of glory out of each day.
You can just hear someone asking Jesus, “So what did you do last week?” Jesus being humble says, “Oh, you know, the same old stuff.” One of His disciples pipes up, “Yeah, He just walked on water, stopped a hurricane, healed a leper, had a blast at a wedding feast, hiked a mountain, preached a sermon, prayed with a soldier, went fishing, went sailing, took a long nap in the boat, and prayed at dawn and at dusk each day.”
John said that if someone tried to write down all the things that Jesus did, there wouldn’t be enough room in the world for all the books they’d fill.
And yet, even with that clock ticking, Jesus never seemed to be in a hurry. (A spiritual mentor told John Ortberg that his one action item for spiritual growth was to “ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.”)5 With His short life, His hectic schedule, the most important start-up company and the most important job in all of history, Jesus was never too busy to pray. Maybe that’s why He reached all His goals. He knew why He was here. He knew where the real power was. He knew that life was too short to waste a moment without God the Father.
God wants you to have some incredible things to talk about when your days are over, and He wants you to have no regrets.
What are the priorities you want to have at the center of your life? If you had only 20 minutes to live, how would you finish these statements?
1. I need to thank . . .(“One of [the lepers], when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him” [Luke 17:15, 16].)
2. I need to forgive . . .(“Forgive as the Lord forgave you” [Col. 3:13].)
3. I need to make peace with . . .(“Do not let the sun set on your anger” [Eph. 4:26, NASB].)
4. I need to do something nice for . . .(“Whatever you did for one of the least of these . . . you did for me” [Matt. 25:40].)
5. I need to share God’s love and my faith with . . .(“Pray that every time I open my mouth I’ll be able to make Christ plain as day to them. . . . Make the most of every opportunity” [Col. 4:4-6, The Message].†)
How It Ended
Now back to that opening scene in the water. That huge guy in deep water with crashing waves really needed an Olympic swimmer that day. Instead he got someone with the build of a Ping-Pong player. I felt like neither of us was going to survive.
Have you ever noticed that emergencies have a way of eliminating the fluff from your prayers? I started praying, “JESUS, JESUS, come and help us! Come, Jesus, come!”
And with that I felt a new burst of energy and strength come within me. I pushed the teenager to the sea wall, and hoped he could get a grip there. I hoisted him up, but his hands only slid down the slick metal. The waves were pushing us back and forth, and I was hoping they wouldn’t crash us into the wall. I looked up and saw my friend on top of the sea wall, and asked her where the nearest ladder was. She pointed toward the deeper water. So I pushed him farther and yelled for him to start kicking his legs. We pushed and kicked and splashed our way against the waves until we found the ladder and made it to safety on the pier.
Although several people drown there each year, we made it out alive. When I got up on top of the walkway, he came and thanked me. He said, “You saved my life.”
He was looking at me as if he couldn’t believe I helped him. With my eyes bloodshot from the stress, I said something like, “Hey man, that wasn’t about me. Look at my biceps, you could floss your teeth with these puppies. Jesus cares about you and He wanted you to live, so He saved us.”
A few minutes later, he chased after me and said, “Hey, what church do you go to?”
I was happy to tell him. And a couple of weeks later when I preached my last sermon in Illinois, he was there, receiving his invitation to a life that never ends.
This teenager and I survived that brush with death, just as you have survived these 20 minutes. Whether you’re gone in 20 minutes or gone in 20 years, the question for all of us is: “What will we do with the time we have left?” Because you never know when it will end.
*Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
†The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
1 A group of five large lakes in North America on or near the Canada-United States border (Wikipedia).
2 In one Seinfeld episode, Seinfeld joked that at any given funeral, people would much rather be in the casket than give the eulogy.
3 Stanford University Medical Center Web site: www.stanfordhospital.com/
4World Report on Road Traffic Injury Prevention, Apr. 7, 2004.
5Leadership Magazine, July 4, 2002.
Sam McKee is senior pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist church in Sunnyvale, California. He and his wife enjoy surfing, snowboarding, and playing at the beach with their two children