She saw herself floating out the window. On her back, feet forward, she was leaving this world. She had to make a decision, and fast. Was she going to choose to live or to die?
Jill and I had just returned from nearly three weeks in Africa. The view from our Paris hotel room was stunning. Three days to recuperate alongside the Seine River across the street from Notre Dame Cathedral sounded perfect. However, awakened by sharp chest pains around 12:30 a.m., our dream suddenly disfigured into a terrifying nightmare. With her life in the balance, she heard herself say, “NO! I have a husband. I have two sons!”
We didn’t know it at the time, but Jill was experiencing a potentially fatal pulmonary embolism, stemming from a deep vein thrombosis in one of her legs. A blood clot, formed during the long overnight flight from Nairobi, Kenya, broke loose, and traveled up her veins. After passing through her heart, it entered her lungs in one or more pieces, choking off oxygen to vital regions.
From a medical point of view, five days in the hospital and a steady dose of blood thinners saved her life. However, her decision to come back through the window for the sake of her sons and me may have been even more instrumental to her survival.
Few truly want to die, but choosing to live for the sake of others under such circumstances is not a given. The crisis revealed the depth of her love for her family, and her decision showed the extent of her devotion.
In prison, the Apostle Paul similarly found himself in a struggle between living and dying. We don’t know if he was at risk of being executed or simply felt he had an option to surrender his life to his suffering. Whatever the case, under his circumstances, death had become increasingly attractive.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul described his ambivalence about living and explained his rationale for the choice he finally made:
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me. (Philippians 1:21-26, NIV)
Paul did not choose life because he was afraid to die. His relationship with Jesus Christ and his faith actually made the next life very appealing. However, he said no to death, because he had a stronger reason to live.
Most of us are not aware of making a decision about life or death, or even feel that we have any say in the matter. But the truth is, every day we are deciding, and we do have a say.
I’m not talking just about our power to affect our physical wellbeing. I’m referring to coming to grips with our raison d’être—our reason to wake up in the morning. I, for one, have no interest in simply trudging through life, just keeping busy or passively yielding to the demands and expectations of the status quo. I refuse to go through the motions of looking alive, when I am actually dying on the inside. I want to live, and want to do so with the meaning, purpose, and passion that grow out of God’s unique calling on my life.
We have choices. We can allow ourselves to be controlled by misguided values and empty pursuits, or we can look at our lives as a series of opportunities to make a difference. How we find the life we were meant to live will be different for each one of us, but only by making a concerted effort to discover and to pursue our callings will we truly live.
Near death experiences like Jill’s slap us in the face. We suddenly grasp that we cannot take our life for granted. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, after his encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Future, we may gratefully gulp down the air whose consumption proves that we still are alive. In our moment of second chances, we may eagerly search about for whatever changes we can quickly make while we still can.
You may not see yourself going out a window feet first, having to choose between life and death, but you do have life or death choices to make. What are they going to be?
“Dear Lord God, I want to live. I mean truly live. Please show me where I have settled for lesser gods or simply meaningless preoccupations, and set me free. Lead me in the path of life, and give me the wisdom, courage, and strength to take the next steps available to me…for Christ’s sake, for mine, and for all those you want to bless through me. Amen.”