In the early 1950s, I served as an apprentice in a machine shop. For months, one of my jobs was to work an intricate piece of equipment called a tracer lathe.
I was always told, “Chuck, before you change the tool that cuts the aluminum, make sure to turn off the machine. Otherwise you could hurt yourself. You could even kill yourself.” Sure enough, one day I was rushing to make my production quota, and I failed to turn off the lathe. The wrench I used to loosen the tool slipped . . . and my hand lurched in and out of the spinning chuck. The bone that led to my little finger was now in a place it shouldn’t be—outside my skin.
I went to the industrial nurse and showed her my bloody, boney finger. “I think I might need a shot,” I said. She gasped and said, “I think I might need one too!” In no time, I found myself in surgery. The physician repaired the fracture, then inserted a long, stainless steel pin into the bone to hold it in place.
Each week I returned for checkups, until finally the orthopaedic surgeon said, “Come back in four days and I will pull out the pin. Well, actually, my assistant will do it, because I won’t be here.” Curious, I asked why he wouldn’t. He pulled up his shirt and showed me a little black mole on his stomach. He said he was going to have it removed.
When I went back to have the pin extracted, I asked the assistant when my surgeon would return for my final checkup. His face became grim as he said: “He’s dead.”
It turns out, when they cut him open in surgery, they discovered his entire abdomen had metastasized with cancer. Two days later, he died.
I’ll never forget my feeling of shock and emptiness.
Because time is short for all of us, let me ask you two questions only you can answer. Neither question necessarily involves your pastoral duties. I’m speaking to you as a man of God:
- Are you ready to die today—with no words left unsaid to someone else who needs to hear them?
- Do you take the occasion to engage a conversation with someone about spiritual things—realizing that each day could be his or her last?
I’ll never forget my surgeon’s final words to me: “Come back in four days . . . I won’t be here.”