Certain seasons of life make writing hard for me.
Not because there’s nothing to write about. On the contrary. In this dizzying world we live in that’s rife with political, racial, and theological unrest just for starters, the case could be made that there’s too much to talk about.
Ironically, the thing that activates my pen today, on the 17th anniversary of 9/11, is something that actually rendered me speechless when I first heard about it.
On the weekend after a pretty emotional time at The Covington News – where we covered the shooting of Covington Police Department officer Matt Cooper, complete with highlighting the magnanimous outpouring of community support he and his family are receiving – I heard of the sudden and unexpected deaths of two high school students.
Both of them seniors. Both exemplary students who left indelible imprints on the lives of faculty and students alike.
One went to Eastside High School in Covington, which is part of my coverage area. The other attended Forest Park High School in Forest Park, my wife’s alma mater where she currently teaches biology and coaches softball.
It was a colossal punch in the gut to me to hear the news of the sudden demise of two young men who seemed to have the world in front of them. The Eastside student died in a car accident, while the young man from Forest Park simply slipped away in his sleep.
As a believer in Christ and a pastor, death has always been an interesting conundrum for me, particularly when dealing with it from the standpoint of a believer. For those who trust Christ as their savior, we often couch death in equal parts sad and flowery terms — grieving the earthly loss while celebrating the heavenly gain, remaining hopeful to see them again in eternity.
Over 21 years of preaching and 12 years of pastoring (and officiating many funerals) has taught me that no two experiences with death and dying are the same, despite many similar characteristics. And for me, it’s always been the sudden, here-today-gone-tomorrow type of death that causes me to struggle a bit.
It’s one thing when a person is diagnosed with some sort of terminal illness or a disease like Alzheimer’s, which currently afflicts my father. You watch them almost with a haunting sense of inevitability. You know what’s coming and you find yourself engaging the balancing act of trying to prepare for it while not grieving prematurely.
But what about when death didn’t seem to be on the horizon? Those are always tough. On the last day these two young men woke up, they had no reason to believe that it was their last day among us. Nothing clued them to the notion that their lives on earth would soon come to a screeching halt, leaving the rest of us to deal with the emotional aftermath.
And yet, it’s perhaps these kinds of deaths that provide me the greatest reminder of the futility and brevity of life, and the sheer urgency we should carry daily to live it well.
When accosted by sudden death, there’s always a certain scripture that pervades my mind and spirit. James 4:14: “Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.”
Pretty sobering thought when held in juxtaposition of how important we seem to think we are.
We may not boastfully say that we’re a big deal, but often by the vigor we use to push forth our non-salvific thoughts and beliefs onto others, or the vehemence with which we tell others why they are wrong and we are not as wrong seem to say as much.
The truth is, those here-today-gone-tomorrow deaths are, perhaps, the best embodiment of that biblical truth expressed by James that one can find. Each of us could fall to the same sudden plight that those two young men did at any time.
I don’t know about you, but the thought of it all makes me consider my stewardship. And I’m not necessarily talking about tithes and offerings here.
Rather, how well am I living with those around me? How effectively am I using my time, my energy, or even my words for God-honoring purposes? How much of the “quality me” am I giving my family? Am I wasting my time and energy on things take away the best of me, leaving them with the rest of me?
Is that 20 minutes spent on social media arguing with someone who thinks differently than I do about a matter really the best way to utilize my finite moments?
Is that active anger and ongoing grudge I hold against the one who did me wrong really worth my energy?
If I knew today would be my last day, how much would the stuff that mattered yesterday mean now? Am I showing that in my actions and how I relate to those I love — even those whom I struggle to love?
Seventeen years ago about 3,000 folks woke up on a bright, beautiful late summer September day, not realizing it would be their last.
Many of them got up, ate breakfast, saw their kids off to school, kissed their spouses, chatted with their parents, followed through with their travel arrangements, and made plans for moments beyond that day with no consideration that they were making their last moves, speaking their last words, and finalizing the last pages of their earthly story.
Who’s to say that even today, those of us who are reading this are not in a similar place? We know not what is around the corner in life, so it behooves us to maximize each moment for the glory of God and the love of His people.
The Apostle Paul puts it like this: “Pay careful attention, then, to how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, redeeming the time because the days are evil. Therefore, do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is…” (Ephesians 5:15-17).
I don’t know a ton, but I feel confident in my belief that it isn’t God’s will for us to spend our brief moments on earth in constant bickering, contention, and divisive treatment of each other over many things that, while important, don’t have much to say about the eternality of our souls.
Over time after 9/11, we adopted this phrase, “Never forget.” Sometimes as I see how we treat each other, particularly in matters of disagreement, I feel like we have forgotten. We’ve forgotten what we felt for each other during that horrific September day. We’ve seemingly forgotten that there’s something bigger than politics, religious sparring, or even race and ethnicity that’s supposed to bind us together.
As we navigate through the re-emerging emotions that this day brings, I pray that we can also find and recapture that spirit that pulled us together. I pray that we won’t need another tragedy on the scale of 9/11 to make us live that unity out again.
This post originally appeared on Stovall’s blog.