We hear our fair share of stories of people who have had a ‘near death experience – they have been declared clinically dead, but somehow, come back to life. The stories tell of them seeing their own bodies on the operating table or in the ambulance or the site of the accident. They describe seeing a white light at the end of a tunnel, and an incredible sense of peace. They all describe the experience of dying and being ‘dead’. That is all well and good, and there is a certain curiosity about that experience. Which is why most of the stories end up as a book. But they seldom tell the part of story that I really want to hear – which is “How are you different now, because of that near death experience?” Now that you have been given a second chance – what have you done with the life that has been given BACK to you? Tell me, not about your ‘near death’ experience, but of your ‘new life’ experience…
We hear two stories in our readings today of near death experiences. Both times, it is the hand of God who does the raising – through the prophet, and then through Jesus himself. What I want to know is: HOW were those two sons changed by this event? Certainly you would know the relief of the widows – how completely changed her life would have been without at least a son to look over them in that paternalistic world. Bereft of any support, they would have quickly become the poorest of the poor. Having their sons restored, would have kept them supported and full members of the Jewish community. Jesus’ act of mercy toward the sons would have had profound impact on the mothers. As such, it is a part of the story of how God has always acted on behalf of those most in need.
But what of those sons? Would they have awakened each day, grateful for another day of their feet being able to hit the ground? Or as Bob Hagen often tells me when I ask him how he is doing: “Father, any day that I am above ground is a good day.” Would the mother’s have nagged them if they were being neglected: “He brought you back for a purpose, you know!” The scriptures are silent about that detail. I would hope they would have lived differently. I would hope that somehow, that brush with death would give them an appreciation for life. But we don’t know from the stories, do we. We just know the heart of our God and our Savior who had a love for widows and those on the fringes of life. In the gospel, we know a savior who was ‘deeply moved’ by the funeral procession. And a Savior who wanted a widow and her son to KNOW LIFE.
I, like many of you, have been so very blessed. I have had no near death experiences. My health has been relatively good. I’ve had some basal cell skin cancer, easily removed, a little issue with my thyroid, that medicine easy takes care of. But the danger is that I can spend most of my days in a ‘near life’ existence – aware of, but not really mindful of how short and precious the time is. Presuming there is always another day and another chance to get it right, and to do it well, and to reach out to those on the fringes. Presuming there will be another opportunity when I am ‘deeply moved’ as Jesus was, by the sufferings of others. Maybe there will be. Maybe not.
What I heard clearly in these ‘near death’ stories was an invitation to make sure my life is not a ‘near life’ existence, but one that enters fully into the moments and the days that God has given to me to spend. So I have lived with a little extra ‘gratefulness’ in the morning; a moment in the evening looking over my day with thanks, and then a prayer to let my heart be SOO ready to respond to the opportunities that God gives me daily.
And whether that is all about consoling the widows and widowers in my time, or contributing to the second collection in two weeks for the families in Moore, Oklahoma, I remind myself daily that God “keeps me here for a purpose” – not for a ‘near life’ experience, but for a FULLY alive experience of compassionate love and service.