In our fast-paced, frenetic world, taking time to reflect on the course of our lives may seem like a luxury. Some use the new year as an opportunity for a personal review of how they have measured up to certain ideals and goals. But sometimes opportunities to reflect come to us painfully unbidden through the sudden encroachment of loss and grief.
As I reflect back on 2012, we in Jews for Jesus have many reasons to be grateful. But it was also a year marked by the passing of three Jews for Jesus staff members whose loss we still feel deeply.
2012 began with the sudden death of Sveta Karpovetski from our Tel Aviv branch. Sveta and Misha were among our newer staff. She collapsed suddenly from a cerebral hemorrhage, leaving her husband and three children bereft. Misha, suddenly a single father with two young children and a newborn, had to set aside his very effective evangelistic ministry indefinitely.
Halfway through the year Stan Telchin, author of the bestseller Betrayed! (among other books), succumbed to failing health common to many people in their 80s. His life was full. His writings touched many and he finished well.
We all are still reeling from the unexpected passing of Jhan Moskowitz. One of the Jews for Jesus founders as well as our North American director, Jhan was without a doubt one of our best-loved staff members in and outside of our ministry. He died in September after a fall in a New York City subway at the age of 63. He was at the very height of effectiveness in his ministry. He was my right arm. He is irreplaceable.
The day that Jhan fell I was incommunicado, backpacking in the Sierra Mountains. When I came back into cellphone range the next day, he was gone. It happened so suddenly, I am still struggling to grasp the reality of it. But confounding as such sudden death is, it gives us pause to consider our own mortality and to take stock.
I don’t know if Stan recorded his reflections on life and death before he passed. Sveta and Jhan went so unexpectedly that I’d be surprised if they had taken an occasion to do so.
I have recently been encouraged by the words of a Jew for Jesus who did write down his thoughts as he prepared to leave this world. That is, the Apostle Paul. Knowing that he was at the end of his days, Paul wrote to Timothy: “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Timothy 4:6-8).
Imprisoned for the last time, Paul approached his death at the hands of Emperor Nero with a marvelous perspective—he understood his death as a “drink offering” and as a “departure.” These remarkable word pictures can transform an often grim perspective on death into something much brighter.
Scripture describes the drink offering as a part of the sacrificial system that carries a sense of worship and celebration. In effect, Paul was saying, “I am giving the last drop of my life for the glory of God and in worship to Him.”
The word he uses for his departure evokes a couple of images. One is that of striking a tent in preparation for moving on. (How often did Paul refer to this body of ours as a tent, a mere temporal shelter?)
The word for departure also conveys the image of a boat that has cast off its moorings to set sail. (Jhan loved sailing, though he wasn’t the most accomplished sailor.)
I am reminded of the final scene in The Lord of the Rings as Frodo and Bilbo join Gandalf and others to sail away to distant shores, leaving Sam, Merry and Pippin behind. It is sad for those left behind, but a grand adventure to a much better place for those who are casting off their earthly moorings for a heavenly destination.
But most striking to me is Paul’s summation of his achievements as he approached death. He cites three pillars of a life well lived: he had fought the good fight, finished the race and kept the faith.
To Paul, life was a fight. A good fight, but a fight none the less. The Greek word used here for “fight” is the same root from which we get our word “agony.” Paul had agonized the good agony… “but we were troubled on every side. Outside were conflicts, inside were fears” (2 Corinthians 7:5). So why do we want to cling so desperately to what is clearly an agony of agonies? And yet we do so fear letting go of it, don’t we?
Second, Paul triumphantly announced that he had finished the race. This was no sprint but a marathon, and Paul was glad to be crossing that finish line. Despite many troubles, he had endured to the end, overcoming many temptations that could have disqualified him. We need to do the same.
There are no shortcuts in a long distance race. In the marathon of a life well lived we need to pace ourselves; we need to continue even when fatigue sets in. And we need to develop “the kicker,” that final push to the finish line. T.S. Eliot wrote of how so many end their days poorly; instead of going out with a bang they go out with a whimper.
Paul could confidently say he had “kept the faith.” He was loyal to his commitments and confident in his convictions until the very end because he was kept secure by the One to whom he had entrusted himself: “For I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day” (2 Timothy 1:12).
That is not the sound of a whimper, but of a strong declaration of faith and triumph. We will share in that declaration as we feed our faith through God’s Word, and grow in His grace through communities of brothers and sisters and communion in prayer.
The closer we come to “that Day,” the larger it looms in our hearts and minds, the more we can allow it to shape the life we live for God. Paul had been condemned to death by Nero, but he knew that the true Judge had declared him righteous in Christ and had secured an imperishable crown for him in heaven. We can share Paul’s confidence as we grow in our love of Christ’s appearing.
Whether young, old or somewhere in between, none of us knows how close we are to our last day on earth. That’s why it’s so important to reflect deeply on how we live our lives and to pray as the Psalmist taught: “So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).
Whether short or long, no life well lived can escape the sorrows and losses of this world. But as we walk through them, a humble trust in God will give us growing confidence in that great future He has prepared for us. This new year the hope of heaven has become even more real to me and beckons all the more sweetly—not only because of those beloved who have gone before us, but especially because the One who loves us to the uttermost awaits us with that glorious crown of righteousness.