Three candles stood on the podium in the third grade Sunday School classroom—a long one, a medium sized one, and a short one.
“Which candle is the youngest?” asked the teacher.
My eight-year-old hand shot up. “The shortest,” I said confidently.
But then the teacher explained: “The short candle has been burning a long time, but the tall candle is just beginning. The short candle is actually the oldest.”
Sometimes the candle of life is snuffed out. Abruptly. Quickly. Before we can make sense of it.
Having worked with teenagers and young people for many years, I have witnessed several tall candles that are now extinguished. Each blown-out candle has reminded me of this fragile journey that is life and has forced me, ever so slowly, out of the comfort of daily existence, to live in the reality of something called Eternity.
For years, I’ve been part of door knocking efforts in our town, going out to share the Good News of Jesus. From the time I was eight until well into my teens, I had the opportunity to ride alongside many young people whom I otherwise never would have met had I not spent my Saturdays “bus visiting” with my mom and others— offering area youngsters a free ride to Sunday School on our church’s big, white bus.
Our “bus ministry,” once a thriving venue that reached dozens of children in our small town and its neighboring communities, dwindled to a mere handful, so that by the time I was sixteen, there were only a few families riding weekly and, within a decade, only a few children rode to church—usually with other families from our congregation.
One summer, I was abruptly reminded that those to whom we ministered could depart from this earth at any time. None of us ever knows when our last spiritual conversation with someone will be. We’re not guaranteed that the needy kids we try to reach today will even live past their teens.
Early June on the farm brought boatloads of work. Whether it was helping mow hay, sell at one of many farmers’ markets, or just spend time supervising my younger siblings with their chores, life was busy. The phone rang at 7:00 one Monday evening. It was a Dr. Brown from Chicago.
“It’s for you,” Dad had said, handing my sister the kitchen phone.
“Can you help him?” I heard my younger sister ask the doctor.
Dr. Brown had assisted my sister a few years before when she had struggled with her own various health issues.
“There’s nothing I can do,” the physician told her. He added, “Rod’s kidneys are already beginning to shut down. “The best thing you can do,” he said, “is help this boy prepare for death. It’s a very spiritual matter.”
So Rod Schultz was dying. And right now we shouldn’t be expecting physicial healing. We should pray that he was ready to meet God.
Up till that point, even though we knew Rod was really sick, we’d been hoping for a miracle. Rod. The kid who showed up at youth activities every couple months or so. Who accompanied his dad to special breakfasts at church. Who even sat in the pew and listened when we had evangelists preach. Rod. The kid who palled around with our younger brother sometimes doing farm work.
One summer, Rod had even attended a Christian camp for a week. In these various junctures, he had heard Gospel many times. But, as far as we knew, he’d never come to Christ. Not even made a profession of faith. As he entered his teen years, the boy took several turns for the worse. It was not uncommon to find him hanging out at the local fast-food restaurant with some of the worst kids in town or to find out he had become the “friend” a wayward church teen had begun to hang with after deciding to call the quits on God.
During the last few years, many prayers had been offered for Rod. At 19, he’d already had leukemia three years; and he had no time to play with his soul. He needed to turn to God. Completely.
A few months earlier, Rod had undergone a bone marrow transplant. I remember that time well, for my sister and I had gone to the hospital to see him.
After donning surgical masks and gloves, we entered the nearly germ-free environment of Rod’s hospital room. What we saw on a whiteboard at the door of his room made us stop still in wonder; for there, Rod had written a surprising message. “God at work here”—Psalm 16:11. I stared at the words, contemplating their message and hoping that Rod really had turned to Jesus Christ.
Rod was upbeat and friendly, even with his recent procedure. And, as it turned out, the nineteen-year-old had no mind to die. In fact, his will to live so impressed the doctors that they began to wonder if it was part of the reason he was still alive, beating the odds. But upon Rod’s return home, he showed no sign that he was on the path of life, mentioned in Psalm 16:11. Back he went to his old friends; never once did he darken the church door; and try as we might to remind him of his eternal need, Rod continued to shrug it off, only to declare his plans for the future.
Rod graduated from high school that spring and, within a week, was asking his dad where his college application was. Rod’s will to live never expired, even though the doctors said he wouldn’t make it for another two weeks. That was the setting of this most recent phone call. The time that we learned Rod would need to be ready to meet God.
Rod had beat the odds other times. And, each time he had willed to live, it had worked. At every other juncture in which he had been given a message of doom, Rod decided he would not even consider death a possibility. Somehow, each time, he’d made it through.
But now, no internal will could drive Death from Rod’s door. Rod’s summons to eternity had arrived, and nothing would change it.
I was working in the church office some days later when I received the phone call. As Dr. Brown had forewarned, Rod had entered eternity. His funeral would be held at a nearby Catholic church. I took down the information.
The weather was warm and sunny the day of the funeral as I entered the sanctuary. At the front stood Rod’s dad, who told me about Rod’s last moments: the young man had screamed at the moment of death. While his grandmother interpreted it as a release of his spirit, I wondered if perhaps the scream meant something else.
It is when young people like Rod pass away that I am reminded of the message of eternity: Life is short. Death is real. The Bible is true, and Hell is forever.
Several teens of my acquaintance, once under the influence of God’s Word in some measure, have now passed into eternity. It is because of their lives that I rarely can spend one day not contemplating the reality of forever. Their short existence spurs me to look into the sometimes hollow eyes of young people and ask them a question that most have never considered: “If you died tonight, do you know where you would go?” Even if they mock or laugh, I want every young person to be confronted with truth. Eternity is too long of a time to let one day on earth pass without remembering it. Earth’s comforts seem insignificant when placed in the balance of “forever.”
Eternity. May we ever consider its reality! And may we daily let its truth drive us to share the life-giving Gospel of Jesus Christ!