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Desperate Times

April 26, 2003

"So watch your step. Use your head. Make the most of every chance you get. These are desperate times! Don't live carelessly, unthinkingly. Make sure you understand what the Master wants. (Ephesians 5:15-17, The Message)

A week ago Monday night, my mother took my father to the hospital with chest pains. By the time I heard about it, he was already in the emergency room. Through a series of phone calls between Chicago and Tennessee, the story begin to spin out. He might have a blockage. He has a blockage in one artery. They're thinking they're going to do angioplasty. A stint. No, wait, he might have more blockages. He has five blockages. Within two hours of entering the ER of his local hospital he was on an operating table in a different hospital having a quintuple bypass.

It's amazing how fast our best-laid plans go awry. Dad and Mom had intended to spend a quiet evening at home. Dad had worked in the yard and grilled out. (Wonder if it was those hamburgers that sealed the deal for him?) He would have been in the office at his usual time the next morning. Mom had planned to go to Florida with my sister later that week. Open-heart surgery was on no one's agenda, but on Monday night it moved to the top of everyone's. Dad's surgery and recovery made schedules irrelevant.

Including mine. I had scheduled my week. Had my trusty Palm Pilot filled up with "important" stuff that just wouldn't get done without me. About the time Dad was going into surgery, I was figuring out how to get to Tennessee as fast as possible. The week I actually spent in Tennessee didn't look much like the week I had planned. If you'd asked me last Monday morning, I would've told you that I didn't have time to fit a trip to Tennessee into last week. But when it became important, it was amazing how easily it was done. It was amazing how other people did the things on my schedule that really needed to be done. It was amazing how much of those "important" things really weren't so important when it came right down to it.

Crises have a way of boiling life down to what's really important. When someone you love's on a ventilator in ICU your to-do list really isn't on your mind very much. A few things rise to the surface: you reflect on how valuable your loved ones are, how fragile life is, how much we depend on God. You pray more. You're thankful for small victories. You appreciate the angels of God who come out of the woodwork with food, phone calls, and promises of prayer and "whatever I can do."

Dad's back home now. He's recovering. In a few weeks, he'll be 100 percent. In a few months last week will in all probability be a blip on the radar, with only a few scars and a new diet as reminders. I've been back in Chicago since Saturday, and life has almost returned to routine. Almost. But if it takes a crisis for me to distinguish between what matters and what doesn't, then maybe I'd better realize that the human races lives in a state of perpetual crisis.

We do, don't we? We get used to the level of crisis and forget to notice it, but we live in crisis all the same. "These are desperate times!" Paul reminds us. "The days are evil" is the way another translation puts is. Look at the world around us and tell me we don't live in crisis. Homelessness plagues the richest country in the world. Kids go to school through metal detectors. Our troops fight a war to overthrow a tyrant. A mysterious disease kills hundreds. A hostile government reawakens nuclear fears. Life seems fragile. We do indeed live in desperate times.

And more than that, we live in a crisis created by God. In sending Jesus to die for us and then raising him from the dead, God put the world on alert. "Scrap your schedules," he warns. If Dad's heart attack and surgery sent me scrambling to the airport with my Palm Pilot gathering dust on desk, shouldn't the death and resurrection of the Son of God make a bit of a ripple in the calm waters of business as usual? Jesus often told stories of masters going away and leaving their servants with responsibilities. The smart ones didn't get lazy, sloppy, and careless when the master left. They were sure he'd be back.

"Watch your step and use your head," Paul reminds us. Be careful how you live and don't be stupid. Careless and thoughtless living is only for times of safety and tranquility. Our world doesn't give us that luxury, and the inevitability of seeing our Lord and answering for our choices doesn't let us get too comfy either. Desperate times demand that we feel an urgency about life. Desperate times demand an end to triviality and foolishness. Every interaction, every action, every thought and hope and idea, must be redeemed for the kingdom of God. When the crisis is passed, his kingdom alone will matter.

I'm not telling you to stock up on food and water and hide in your basement with your Bible to wait out Armageddon. I don't know when or how Jesus is coming again. I can't tell you how this present world will end. I wouldn't presume to say anything authoritative about something that Jesus himself couldn't speak authoritatively about. I'm quite sure that none of us will miss it when it happens. I presume there'll be instructions about anything that isn't clear.

The danger is that we'll waste the time we have before that day on things that don't matter. The danger is that we won't see the coming crisis until it's upon us and that we'll spend our years and days and hours on our own fancies and the world's foolishness. It's so easy for us to be charmed by wealth, lulled to sleep by business meetings and baseball games, drugged by pleasure, and seduced by sin. That's why we have to make even more of an effort to be careful how we live and to not be stupid.

We have to live with the coming crisis in mind. We have to make the most of every chance we get. To do good. To love. To show the grace of God. To speak the gospel. To worship. To comfort, challenge, teach, and confront. To read to our kids. To hold the hand of the dying. To lift up the weak, feed the hungry, welcome the stranger. To teach the lost. We must do our dead-level best to never miss an opportunity to represent God's kingdom in our world. We must cultivate the habit of constantly asking ourselves what the Lord wants of us. And we must be always ready to make the most of the opportunities he gives us to do it.

Desperate times will not allow for anything else.


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