The Kursk Submarine.
You may remember in August of the year 2000, 118 men died when a Russian Oscar class submarine called the Kursk exploded and sank. Twenty three of those sailors survived in an isolated chamber for few hours after the explosion. One was a 27-yr-old lieutenant captain Dimitri Kolesnikov. While he waited with the others to die, he wrote a note. We dont know the entire contents of his writing but two words were displayed in a frame next to his coffin at his funeral service. Those words translate to “Mustn’t despair”.
Now of course we can only guess what those words meant to him and who they were for. It may be that he was telling himself to keep hoping against hope that somebody would come & rescue them. Of course, he may have been telling himself to replace despair with hope in life after death. Or possibly, he was writing these words for his wife, telling her that she needs to get on with life after his death and not despair that he wasn’t there anymore. But for a 27-year-old Russian sailor, whose life was suddenly, unexpectedly ended at the bottom of ocean, his last words, were “Mustn’t despair.”
You Will Die Too.
It’s a strange thing, a few human beings, not all by any means, experience a moment in their life while they are still fully aware and active, when they know they’re going to die. Some just know that the end is coming really soon. Some can see the signs around them and some get a word from their doctor. And it’s almost an instinctive thing that in that moment they want to send a message. They want someone to know their story.
Prisoners of the Nazis in a Warsaw ghetto, having seen everybody else shot or starved to death, often used their last breaths to write notes & store them in crevices in a wall in the hope that somebody besides the Nazis will read them and know their story.
What Really Matters.
In those final moments, all the scaffolding of life as we know it, gets stripped away. All the stupid toys we’ve wasted our lives chasing evaporate. All the success, security, reputation. wealth, comfort and ease, suddenly mean nothing. And you are left with what you actually believe and what you have really built your life on.
So what if that moment were to come for you today? What if your doctor said you have two weeks to live? I think we spend our whole lives pretending it will never come, but recognise it or not, your final moment is coming and it may be sooner than you think. If it were here for you right now, what would you write? What’s the message you want to leave behind? What’s your story?
I may be facing my Dimitri situation now – though my time will likely be measured in weeks or months not hours. I’m not totally sure yet, because I’m in between scans waiting to see if the doctor can perform surgery or if I should just go home and get things in order. Other treatment options are not available and I suspect from his manner last time I visited him, the surgery option is a most unlikely outcome.
Suddenly things in my life that once were an option, become a necessity. Visiting my kids while I still have the strength has become vitally important to me. Catching up with friends has risen up the priority list. And the slow growing prostate cancer I was diagnosed with a couple of months ago has become a non event. I suspect from the conversation I had with the radiation specialist who knew about the other problems I have, it was never much of a possibility for him to proceed. Tellingly, neither he, nor the urologist I’ve seen for years bothered to make a followup appointment for me!
Funny thing is, there is something inside all of us that wants our lives to count for something. I’m so thankful for the many times I spoke up for things that matter. I’m so thankful for the opportunities I took to support the most vulnerable people who came to my attention. I’m so thankful for the many times of joy (and even difficulty) I have had with my family. I am so thankful for the faithfulness of my wife who has put up with my irrationality for 50 years. I am so thankful for the churches I’ve been part of for most of my life who helped me focus on things that matter and encouraged me to live life to the full. I now understand clearly that these things matter more than the many other things I have been distracted by. But they didn’t happen by themselves. I had to take the time to craft the words I used, to set up support processes for the vulnerable, to organise family events, to actually priorities church events when I had other things to do and to make sure my wife understood I appreciated her. Sometimes I did that one better than at other times!
Change Your Life Now.
We all want to make a difference in the world. So can I suggest that until you get to my situation, where the end is nigh, you spend time on the things that really matter. Don’t let anger control your life. Don’t let resentment take over your world. Don’t let un-forgiveness control you. Don’t let the desire for money overwhelm you. Don’t let your past control your future. Don’t let your last word be “mustn’t despair” from regret that you missed the mark in life. Focus instead, on the things that will really matter when you know your time is coming soon.
If you find it’s a difficult task to work out which things matter and which things don’t, then imagine you are sitting in the balcony looking down on a building full of people. There is someone at the front standing behind a coffin. You realise it’s your coffin, and the person at the front is about to give your eulogy. What would you like them to say? What would you like them to highlight? I suspect for them to say “he was going to be the richest man in the cemetery” will not be enough, because the next sentence probably will be – “enjoy that money whoever inherits it”. So change whatever things you need to today, so they say, “he gave his life to things that matter”.
The Most Important Thing.
Finally can I encourage you to explore what the bible says about who you are and what your purpose in life is? God never made anything without a purpose – you included. I know it’s not a popular subject today, but at the end of your life, what really matters above everything else is whether you accepted the gift of eternal life that Jesus paid for on the cross. He offers it to you for free. You don’t need to do anything to get it because it’s free. But unless you accept it, you will not experience real life here and now, and won’t experience real joy in the next life either. If you want to know more, have a look here.