Over the past month, I have come close to getting killed twice. Okay, maybe the second wasn’t a “close to death”, just a “major injury possible,” but both jarred me and made me think.

The first happened on a sunny day when Highway 53 was clear (admittedly with a chance of ice, but clear), and I was heading to Boomtown in Eveleth for the ministerial meeting. I crossed the bridge and was not yet passed the meridian barriers when a woman drove straight towards my driver’s door. She was not sliding around, desperately trying to regain control of her car. Instead, both hands were gripping the wheel and she was staring straight ahead. She was seeing, yet not seeing, my orange compact SUV directly in front of her. I tried to speed up and sound the horn, but as her car came within a foot of me, I knew I would be hit. I glanced down, waiting to see the impact. At the last possible second it seemed like she came to, and suddenly pulled the car away with enough force that it spun, hit the cement meridian in the left (fast) lane, and ended up stopping facing the wrong direction, hood crushed in. How it came to be that her car did not ram me is a mystery, a miracle if you would. Trying to figure out where to pull over, glancing in my rear view I saw that two other cars had pulled over to help her. By this point, I was a distance away, my heart pounding, hands still gripping my wheel. I decided to continue on to the meeting. Otherwise I would have added to her misery.

The second happened when the warm snap started. I hadn’t noticed that some of my garage roof’s snow had fallen off until I tried going out the side door after putting my car away. I discovered the way was blocked. Fortunately I keep a snow shovel in my garage, so I got it and shoveled a path through to my sidewalk. Pleased, I turned back, took one step into the garage to put the shovel away, and suddenly there was a deep rumbling sound as an avalanche of snow mixed with ice fell down upon where I had just been standing. The path disappeared. If I had still been standing there, it would have crashed onto me.

Life can change in less than a minute.

After 20 years as a military chaplain, in one sense I have my house in order. I have a Living Will (do not resuscitate, cremate and scatter, donate whatever organs are still useable) as well as a Last Will and Testament. With my Last Will is a sheet giving my various accounts that my executor will need, plus such miscellaneous as instructions to have my first editions appraised, and what to do with my pets. Add to that, friends and family know that I appreciate and love them. In one sense I am ready, should death come unannounced.

I got to reviewing all of the funerals I have officiated over since I was ordained in 1982. As a Navy chaplain, many of them were young people, including an infant who died of SIDS. I honestly don’t know if there have been more elderly than young.

Probably that is different for civilian clergy. But if anything, it taught me that death can come when you least expect it, and to ones young and in great health.

Am I ready? Are you? We tend not to talk about it, even among family and friends. We sanitize dying and death. Is that healthy? I have my doubts. Recently I received the newsletter of the Monks of New Skete, an Orthodox Monastery. A lay associate wrote about the funeral he had observed for one of the monks. The deceased had been struggling with dementia, and was elderly. During his last hours, monks sat next to his bed, read scripture aloud, prayed with and for him, and reassured him that he was not alone. They were there, God was there. When he died, there was no embalming. He was simply dressed in a white cassock and laid on a handmade wooden bier in the chapel. There the monks rotated through the night, reading the Psalter, keeping vigil. This monk had been part of the praying community most of his life. He was now part of his final recitation, with brothers who knew and loved him, even when he was no longer “himself”. A grave was dug by the monks, deeper than normal. A graveside service by the community was held, then the deceased on the bier was lowered down into the grave, a monk waiting below to balance and maneuver. A white cloth was put over the face, then the monk climbed out on a rope ladder. Slowly the grave was filled with dirt, by members as everyone prayed.

For the observer, there had been no disguising death. But the respect, the love, and the faith showed through so much that for the first time in his life, a funeral was truly holy. There was no “celebration of life”: death was faced head on. Instead of the emphasis on the life, there was just a trusting gratitude, and commending that life back to God. “As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be….”

Lent calls us to pause, and ask ourselves that, should life change in a minute, what then? It is not being morbid. Rather, it is a reminder to take each day as a gift. Use it well.