Thursday, August 16, 2012

The World’s Last Night

“What if this present were the world's last night?”

—John Donne

The Owyhee Avalanche, May 4, 1867, carried this report: “James Fraser was shot and killed by Indians last Friday evening between sunset and dark.” Fraser was a prospector working a gulch below Wagontown in the Owyhee Mountains of Idaho, closing in on pay dirt. He didn’t plan to die that day…but he did.

You never know…

Death “meets us everywhere and enters in at many doors,” Jeremy Taylor wrote. “It enters by the fall of a chariot and the stumbling at a stone; by a full meal or an empty stomach; by watching at the wine or by watching at prayers; by the sun or the moon; by a heat or a cold; by sleepless nights or sleeping days; by water frozen into the hardness and sharpness of a dagger, or water thawed into the floods of a river; by a hair or a raisin; by violent motion or sitting still; by severity or (slow) dissolution; by everything in nature and everything in chance.”

Peter agrees: “The end of all things is near.” This may indeed be the world’s last night—at least for me. I may go to God this day, or he may come for me.

That said, I ask myself: How should I invest the time that I have left? What activities and attitudes should fill my final hours? Is there some magnificent gesture, some grand and glorious performance to mark the end of my days?  Peter supplies the answer.

The end of all things is at hand; therefore (1) be serious and watchful in your prayers.  (2) And above all things have fervent love for one another, for “love will cover a multitude of sins.” (3) Be hospitable to one another without grumbling.  (4) As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.  If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God. If anyone ministers, let him do it as with the ability which God supplies, that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen (1 Peter 4:7-11).

First off, I must be a praying man (4:7). Prayer is my access to God, the way by which I stay in touch with him. It’s not so much that prayer moves God, but that it moves me, aligns me more closely with what he is doing, and conforms me to his will. I must bring sobriety to prayer, Peter tells me. It’s not that prayer should be joyless, for it can be whimsical, light–hearted, musical, full of mirth. No, what Peter inveighs against is superficiality. I must take seriously the need to fill my days with prayer for that is the secret of a useful life, the means by which God can fill me and use me for the highest good. Without prayer I will accomplish nothing.

I must be a loving man. I must love with great care and determination, “for love covers a multitude of sins” (4:8). Love and forgiveness mark me as God’s child and remind others of his love. “No one can see God,” John said, but they can see me. Perhaps I can do nothing for a difficult neighbor, a struggling brother, a suffering friend, but I can love. A smile, a note, a kind word, a prayer, a brief touch can the greatest thing in the world, when offered in love. And even when my journey leads into illness, weakness and infirmed old age my work can be in loving, which in the end will be my greatest gift to God and to others.

I must be a gracious man, “giving hospitality to others without complaining” (4:9). I can open my home and my heart to those in need; I can be available to anyone who happens to comes my way, for I would never know the right people to invite. “Who is my neighbor?” I ask. Jesus answers: the next needy person I meet. I must keep my home and heart open to others and welcome all comers.

I must be a serving man, “faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms” (4:10). The gifts I have been given and the work I am called to do are from one mind. The God who made me made my path. For whatever days God gives me I must put into practice his special design and purpose for me so I may live in loving service to him and to others.

And finally, I must do all things “with the strength God provides” (4:11). God must put into me all that he wants to take out of me. I am nothing; He is everything. To him be the glory—not me.

Prayer, love, hospitality and humble service. How simple and how satisfying—to do these things as the last things; to do them lovingly, faithfully, patiently this day and the next day and the next day—and thus the last day will take care of itself.

It’s never too late to get started. “I must begin today!”[1]


[1] A phrase John Wesley’s often quoted to himself.

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