Let's get this out of the way: I'm not dying. (To the best of my knowledge, at least.)
But for various reasons this year I've been reminded of a powerful, reckoning-filled truth: As we trudge forward day to day, trying (or not) to maintain good attitudes, struggling to raise our families (or sweating it out as we go it alone or any place in between), finding moments of true wonder and revelation offset by moments of drudgery, exhaustion, and frustration as yet another bill arrives in the mail or yet another phone call comes from far away with less-than-favorable news ... it's all a vapor.
In quiet moments I sometimes put the microscope on my existence and ask myself how I'm doing. If I'm using God's standards as my yardstick and evaluating how much I've trusted his guidance and how consistently I've obeyed him despite what others may be saying or doing, then I'm on the right track.
But if I'm hanging out too much, let's say, on social media and getting one too many glimpses of how friends appear to be doing — i.e., how successful they've become, how big their houses are, how fabulous they look, and how much cash appears to be in their bank accounts, then I'm most definitely not headed in the right direction. Indeed, I'll never have any problem finding someone among my friends and acquaintances who's better off, further ahead, or apparently more prosperous and/or fortunate than me.
The end of the line
With that in mind, I also know that the more trips I take around the sun, the more carefully I take note of well-known people who've departed this life — as well as the truth that the ages at which they pass get closer and closer to mine all the time.
Take a look at the the following notables who've left us just this year alone: Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, famed presidential candidate Ross Perot, quarterback legend Bart Starr, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, "Beverly Hills 90125" star Luke Perry, U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, comedian Tim Conway, billionaire David Koch, Peter Tork of the Monkees, architect I.M. Pei, iconic actress Doris Day, and baseball player Bill Buckner, whose fine career was overshadowed by a ball that rolled under his glove in the World Series.
Image source: YouTube screenshot
When prominent people die — whether suddenly or after long illnesses — at some point after the news hits I pause for bit and am reminded that I have a final stop on earth just like they did. We all do. And those trains keep on rolling.
'Live life to the fullest'?
A long-held response to the brevity of our time here is to "live life to the fullest." To grab that brass ring. To go for the gusto. And how is that defined, exactly? For some, admirably, it means being kind to everyone they meet. Being charitable. Giving time, love, and attention to others selflessly. To others it means having successful careers, making a ton of money — and again, admirably, perhaps giving a lot of those resources to others. Or it's the pursuit of a good time. Pleasure. Laughter. Unforgettable experiences. It also can mean for some making their mark on humanity, having an impact on a global scale.
Which brings me to Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, who certainly made an impact on all of us. Through his drive, tenacity, and obsession with being the best, he helped usher in the age of the personal computer and later put iPhones in tons of pant pockets.
When Jobs died of cancer in 2011, I read a number of tributes to him. How he changed lives — and the world — for the better. True enough.
But here are a couple of follow-up questions to ponder: Where is Steve Jobs now? And is all the wealth and fame he accumulated — and others' continued admiration of him — doing Jobs any good at this very moment?
My answer to the first question is, "I don't know." But I believe the answer to the second question is definite "no."
When death comes, we can't take our bank accounts with us. Nor can we tote all the good times we've had or the fame and acclaim we've amassed. None of our gusto grabbing in the here and now will earn us a thing in the end. Steve Jobs did a lot of great stuff when he was alive — but his ride is over. The trains also have stopped for Ross Perot, Elijah Cummings, Doris Day, David Koch, and Bill Buckner.
They all will be remembered for a longer time than most. But ultimately, so what?
By the same token, those questions also apply if your life isn't going the way you want it to. Maybe you're not as successful as you'd like to be. Maybe some bad things have happened to you — or are happening right now. If that's you, be encouraged. That's right. Be encouraged.
Because just as the earthly accomplishments of a Steve Jobs aren't currency for him in the hereafter, the trials and disappointments you're facing — even the lack of gusto despite your best efforts — won't matter when your ride is over, either. Because my train and your train and Steve Jobs' train all have endings.
The only thing that matters is where your train stops when your ride is over.
If you're a believer in Jesus Christ, when your train door opens, you leave behind your earthly existence — all your pain, all your accomplishments, all your acclaim, all your charity, all your money, all your happiness, all your sorrow — and step into an eternity with your savior that indeed will turn your past life into vapor (if you even care to recall it during that moment).
If you're not a believer in Jesus, you can become one. Whether you're hitting the heights of success right now or deeply struggling, someday your ride will be over, too — and the question you can't avoid is, "Where do you want to be when your train door opens?" If you want Jesus standing on the platform, ask him for forgiveness and a new life with him.
And no, it doesn't end there. If you've taken that first step, take another and chat with that Christian friend who's been bugging you about Jesus for too long. Walk into that church you've been avoiding and talk to the pastor. Dig into the pages of the Bible.
Amid all this, Christian author C.S. Lewis — an intellectual powerhouse who journeyed from atheism to belief and knew a good bit about longing, suffering, and what matters — has a few words to light our paths from his book, "The Problem of Pain":
"The Christian doctrine of suffering explains, I believe, a very curious fact about the world we live in. The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe, or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns but will not encourage us to mistake them for home."
'In the arms of his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ'
Earlier, I noted the passing of Bill Buckner, known the world over for his costly fielding miscue when the Boston Red Sox faced the New York Mets in the 1986 World Series. I've often wondered how he coped with such a burden, which would follow him for the rest of his life.
Must C Classic: Mets win Game 6 on Mookie Wilson's grounder that goes through Bill Buckner's legsyoutu.be
The answer, as it turns out, resided in Buckner's Christian faith.
After his death in May, his family stated that he "fought with courage and grit as he did all things in life. Our hearts are broken, but we are at peace knowing he is in the arms of his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."
As he said a few years ago about that awful ground ball: "It's life, and everybody has to deal with something, and most of the time it's a lot more important than a baseball game. You're talking about cancers, children, and those things that are much more important than baseball. You have choices, and some people can't deal with it and some can. Spiritually that helped me."
Think Bill is replaying Mookie Wilson's "little roller up along first" where he's residing about now?
How could he? That grounder is just a vapor, after all.