A matter of moments

“The police told me that just before I got out of my car, the sniper, the younger one [Lee Boyd Malvo], had both Mr. Walekar and myself in his viewfinder,” [Caroline] Namrow says. “He could see me sitting behind my windshield, and he could see Mr. Walekar standing outside his car.

“And he must have decided it was a clearer shot at Mr. Walekar,” says Namrow, now 38, adding: “I still think about that. I realize how blessed I am. I think, for a matter of just a few moments, my life was saved. So I really try to enjoy my life and my children. I try to make an impact on the community I live in. I give a lot more of my time to charitable events.” — Sniper’s imprint, faded, remains indelible, Paul Duggan, The Washington Post

military_funeral“For a matter of just a few moments, my life was saved.” We rarely see life and death with that sort of bright clarity. It was just an ordinary day, and Caroline Namrow was performing a familiar and mundane ritual. There was nothing to distinguish that day from any other, until the man standing beside her was shot dead and the sickening realization hit: that could have been me.

The survivors of the Ft. Hood massacre will forever live with the knowledge that their lives were arbitrarily saved by the briefest of moments, while others died by the same tiny margins. Such an event makes death seem capricious, and life all the more precious.

In the summer and fall of 2002, leading up to October’s terrifying DC rampage, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo took turns lying prone and hidden in the trunk of a Chevy, silently peering through the scope of a rifle, choosing whom they would let live and who would die. By the time they were caught, they had executed at least fourteen people and wounded seven.

Malvo received life in prison for his cooperation against his partner. His own life was apparently quite precious, as he used his knowledge of their crimes to save himself from death. Muhammad made no such deal and was executed by the state of Virginia this week. He died in silence, without acknowledging his crimes or his guilt.

We live in a cruel and chaotic world. Life thrives abundantly, and yet is surprisingly fragile.

The thwop-thwop-thwop of rotor blades clawing the pre-dawn air woke me this morning as a medevac chopper flew north over my home, no doubt responding to an urgent call from the scene of some life and death situation.

For a matter of just a few moments… Death is always uncomfortably near.

At such times, we are forced to open our eyes to the fragility of our lives, and the fact of our own mortality. We are slapped in the face with those discomfiting questions about God, eternity and the ultimate fate of our souls. Gazing into an open casket, it is painfully obvious that the person lying there has lost his personhood. Where did it go? Has it vanished forever, or merely been transported elsewhere?

The casket descends into the hard ground and the living are forever cut off from someone who breathed and spoke and laughed and loved. Something inside of us is repulsed at the finality of that loss. We want there to be more. There ought to be more.

No sooner do we begin to live… than we begin to move ceaselessly towards death. …our whole life is nothing but a race towards death, in which no one is allowed to stand still… — St. Augustine, The City of God, Book XIII

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned in Nazi Germany during WWII, and often lay flat on the floor of his cell as Allied bombers pounded the city so intensely that he felt certain he would not survive. Rather than turning fatalistic or morose, Bonhoeffer’s faith transformed the nearness of death into a realization that “every new day is a miracle.” Elsewhere, he contrasted Socrates’ view of death with that of Jesus:

Socrates mastered the art of dying; Jesus Christ overcame death as “the last enemy” (I Corinthians 15:26). There is a real difference between the two things; the one is within the scope of human possibilities, the other means resurrection. It is not from the art of dying, but from the resurrection of Christ, that a new and purifying wind can blow through our present world. — Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison

If Christ rose from the dead, all who put their faith in him have a reasonable hope that death will not have the final word. It means that this present life is only a prelude to something grander and more miraculous than we have ever experienced.

Jesus died. His life ebbed away over painful hours and his heart gave out. He was laid in a cold tomb where his friends wept as they said their goodbyes.

On the third day, he wiped away their tears and gave them, and us, a glimpse of eternity. That’s the claim of Christianity, the most important claim in all of human history.

Each of us is racing towards death. Someday, for a matter of just a few moments, you and I will not be saved. Before that day comes, for the sake of your eternal soul, take the time to examine the claims of Jesus and decide for yourself whether death is the end, or merely a new beginning.

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  1. Pat Slomanski says

    Dear Charlie,

    Thank you for reminding me of the fragility of life. I have experienced the loss of a husband and parents. I almost lost myself in the process of grief. Often I try to stay as busy as I can so that I won’t think about the pain. Although I have dedicated my life to Jesus Christ, I often do not stop and recognize each day as a miracle. The grief often hides the realization. Thank you for reminding me of this fact. God bless your ministry.

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