In life, there's not always time to say goodbye

Recently, a 67-year-old woman entered a short-term care center to check on her elderly mother, whom she had placed just the day before.

As this daughter entered the lobby, observers said it seemed she tripped and fell to the floor, maybe even strking her head.

But when they rushed to her aid, they realized her condition was even more serious, for she did not respond to their attempts to help her. The summoned paramedics worked frantically for signs of life. Emergency physicians could not activate a heartbeat in spite of their best efforts.

The family, including her aged mother, was informed that this lady's earthly journey had come to an abrupt end.

When her sobbing husband called to break the news and ask for help, my memories flashed back 31 years to the afternoon when I received a call that my seemingly healthy father had died in the hills of Adams County while bugling elk. It is like a stunning, bad dream that seems so unreal.

The emotional shock stripped the mind of all thought and the words from the tongue. Life had come to an abrupt end. There was no time to coast, to adjust, and to say, "Goodbye." When we are brought to such an unexpected collision between life and death, eternity is no longer a neglected theory, but a harsh reality.

What happens now?

When this family reached out to hold their loved one, they were left with an armload of memories. When they were able to muster any kind of thought, they reflected on their last interaction, phone call and expression. Her husband fled to the comfort of their last kiss, hug and expression of love--just before she got in her car to drive to the care center. Her family and friends immediately returned to the last conversation they had with this lady who left so suddenly.

Her memorial service a few days later centered on the theme "What if there isn't time to say, 'Goodbye?'" From the perspective of those left behind, there was a lot of introspection about a relationship that came to an abrupt end. What did we value most that will help us in the days ahead?

But we were also left with the possibility of our own uncertain departure. What if my last words were those with which I stepped off the stage of life? What if my last actions were those with which I am escorted into the throne room of God to give an account of His gracious gift of life? Are there prayers I intend to pray? Or apologies needed to repair a broken relationship that I have delayed? Why am I waiting--to do the right thing? How would I live if I knew it might suddenly come to an end--in midstride?

In his teaching and parables, Jesus often talked of sudden, unexpected endings, when the monotony of life is broken by death. In Luke 12:13-21 and 16:19-31, Jesus told of men whose life came to a sudden end. One, a poor beggar, was prepared for eternity, but the other two were not. In fact, one was called a "fool," because he had elaborate plans for life, but was cavalier about life after life.

Even when overcome with sorrow and disbelief, everyone in the memorial service could not help but reflect on the question "What if it ended today, for me or someone I love dearly?" We left that service with a renewed resolve to live in light of the collision love had with death.

Billy Graham once said, "You are not prepared to live until you are prepared to die." It is incumbent to live prayerfully, carefully and gratefully, because eternity is certainly longer than time. So, give it all you've got while you can, because you never know when your act is up.