Triumphant Living

"You save your life by giving it away. You think of others, not just yourself, and in doing so, you make the world a better place for everyone." Photo: Gilles Lougassi
Published November 8, 2011

When I was a chaplain in the United States Army Reserve in 1990, rumours grew that the nation might go to war. Iraq was threatening Kuwait, and a major conflict seemed imminent. As part of the preparation for deployment, U.S. troops were instructed to write or revise their wills in the event any of us were killed.

As it happened, Heather and I had just updated our will. But I kept asking myself: what would I do if I had less than a year to live? How would I live my life? What changes, if any, would I make? How would I view the world knowing I might no longer be here much longer?

On this Remembrance Sunday, I ask myself those same questions. Many brave men and women in our own Canadian Armed Forces have asked them too, in light of the possibility of their own deaths. These are the people who fought, and in some cases died, in two world wars, on the Korean Peninsula, and as peacekeepers around the world. Today Canadian troops fight and die in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan.

You and I may not die in combat, but someday we will die. That thought should not fill us with dread, or cause us to become despondent. St. Paul says in his first letter to the Thessalonians that we do not grieve “as others do who have no hope” (1 Thess 4:13b). We hope that the same God who raised Jesus from the dead will raise us as well. Death is not the end of life-God is.

Let me ask: are you living a hopeful life? Are you living as if the best is yet to come? Are you living confidently, courageously, sure that at the end of history, life will defeat death, love will conquer hate, truth will prove mightier than the lie and hope will overcome despair? Are you living in such a way that you truly believe, amidst all the turmoil and upheavals in history, that God reigns?

The greatest change-makers in modern times have been people with an indomitable hope that, at the end of history, God wins. Thirty years ago we witnessed the coming together of three great, like-minded spirits: Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II. As Canadians and Anglicans, we may not agree with their politics or theology, but each of these leaders was able to invigorate a despondent world and give it hope, ending the Cold War and opening a new chapter in human freedom.

More than 60 years ago, at the end of World War II, a cluster of remarkable leaders was ready to show a demoralized international community, broken by the carnage of war, that grounds for hope still existed. Among those leaders were America’s Harry Truman, England’s Ernest Bevin, Germany’s Konrad Adenauer and Italy’s Alcide De Gasperi. Winston Churchill was still around to sound the trumpet-tones of his oratory. In the 1930s, as the fires of civilization were burning low, it was Churchill-a giant in a generation of appeasers and tyrants-who spoke the authentic tones of democracy and decency.

In today’s world of economic, political and social upheaval, we need leaders-as well as ordinary men and women like you and me-to stand and work for the deepest human values and beliefs that make life worthwhile. So where do we begin?

First, let’s resolve to make this world a better place.

For most people, life is a draw. They leave the world as they found it. The world is no better-or worse-for their having been here. They have made no lasting impression, no lasting contribution.

Last month I met a remarkable man at a rehabilitation centre. We struck up a conversation while waiting for the elevator. The man told me he had been coming to the centre weekly for 15 years, mainly to visit the veterans. How had he got involved in such work? I asked. He said he’d responded to a newspaper ad seeking volunteers to visit the veterans. I started to praise him for his commitment, but he stopped me.

“No, Father, these veterans give me far more than I give them,” the man said. “They served their country faithfully. I figure the least I can do is to visit them and offer some companionship.”

He went on to say, “The sad part is that as these men and women get older, fewer and fewer people come to visit them. They get lonely and feel forgotten. That’s where I come in. I am here to tell them we still care about them and to thank them for a job well done.”

Here was an ordinary fellow doing something quite extraordinary-faithfully caring about others who have served this country. In the process, he felt he was receiving much more than he gave.

It happens, doesn’t it? You save your life by giving it away. You think of others, not just yourself, and in doing so, you make the world a better place for everyone.

So first, let’s intentionally leave this world a better place.

And second, let’s leave this world a legacy of love.

Consider what happened during the 1930s in Poland. Imagine being a Jewish person, or somebody of Jewish descent. Nazi forces are advancing across Europe. Jews are being rounded up and arrested. Their possessions are confiscated, their homes destroyed. Most Jewish people are sent to concentration camps, where they face beatings, torture, forced labour, starvation and mass executions.

Many victims coped with their losses by preparing “ethical wills.” Since they had nothing of material value to bequeath to future generations, they wrote wills stating who they were and what they had valued most in life and wanted to pass onto their children and grandchildren.

If you were to write an ethical will for your children and grandchildren, what might you include? Most of us, I suspect, would want to leave a legacy of kindness and compassion, decency and generosity. We would want to feel that we had made some worthwhile contribution to our world-that we would be leaving this world a better place because of our passing through it.

We have been blessed by God. We live in one of the richest countries in the world. We enjoy freedom, prosperity and peace. We have family and friends and the church. Above all, we have a God who has blessed us to be a blessing to others, a God who in Jesus Christ has given us life without end so that we might be life-givers to the world.

So what kind of legacy will you leave?

The Chinese missionary Father James Peyton said, “It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.”

We may not be able to light the whole world, but we can light our portion of it, in our own place and in our own way, according to the resources and abilities that God has given us. We can speak the truth, refuse the lie, express our love and never let hate take hold in our hearts.

I will always remember my college buddy, Conrad. In his second year, he quit his studies to serve in the U.S. Army. Just as he was about to deploy for Vietnam, he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. There was something heroic about how he handled his impending death. I once asked him, “Aren’t you angry about what’s happening to you? Don’t you feel cheated in life?” Gently, Conrad replied, “You see, Gary, it’s like this. I never let the cancer touch my heart.” At that moment, I knew that I was speaking with a person who was ready to die.

Dear friends, no one knows how much time we have on this earth, but sooner or later we will die. The brave men and women whom we remember today died serving their country. Who will we serve? What are we prepared to die for? What commands our allegiance, demands our sacrifice and warrants our best efforts?

Too often people are content to exist rather than live; to go along with the crowd rather than buck the trend; to compromise for the sake of expediency rather than take a stand on principle. None of us need live that way.

We can live with the end in mind. Live faithfully. Live hopefully. Live generously. Live courageously. Live compassionately. Live by faith in Jesus Christ, who is Lord of life that we might live forever.

On this Remembrance Sunday, never forget: the best is yet to come because God wins, Christ wins, love wins, truth wins against all the forces of evil and death in our world.

The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.




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