Five Minutes to Live
It was January 28, 1986. I was on my way to lunch in the seminary dining hall when a friend shouted across the quad, “The Challenger just blew up!” I joined others inside to watch news footage of billowy clouds framed by a bright blue sky. A beautiful sight masking a national tragedy. Do you remember where you were that day? Seventeen percent of Americans, many of them school children, witnessed the launch. Eighty-five percent heard about it within one hour, according to one survey. What we didn’t know at the time was that the seven astronauts inside the shuttle survived. They perished a few minutes later when the crew cabin hit the surface of the Atlantic Ocean.
Later in 1986, a rabbi in Tampa, Florida named Kenneth Berger wrote a sermon for Yom Kippur titled “Five Minutes to Live.” In it, he reflected on the Challenger tragedy and asked his listeners to consider those few minutes between explosion and impact. He wrote, “Can you imagine knowing that in a few moments death was imminent? What would we think of? If God forbid, you and I were in such circumstances? What would go through our mind? What went through their minds; the seven astronauts?”
Three years after delivering that sermon, Rabbi Berger and his wife and two of his children were on United flight 232 from Denver to Chicago. The plane experienced catastrophic engine failure and crash-landed forty-four minutes later at the Sioux City, Iowa airport. The impact was devastating. Five residents of Boulder died in that crash. Jay Bowler, husband of our Progressive Christian Educations Director, Heather Bowler, was on the flight as an unaccompanied eleven year-old child. He survived with significant injuries, as did the gentleman on his right, who helped him out of the plane wreckage. The woman seated on his left died. In all, there were 111 casualties and 185 survivors. Among the dead were Rabbi Kenneth Berger and his wife Aviva. Their children Avigail and Jonathan survived. What went through the mind of the Rabbi who wrote “Five Minutes to Live” as he faced his own death? What did the other 295 passengers think of as they plummeted to the earth?
When I was eight years old, I was awakened in the middle of the night to the sound of my mother’s voice as she spoke softly with officials from Boing Airlines. I fell back to sleep and learned in the morning that my father had survived a plane crash in Mexico City that resulted in many fatalities. He told me this week that it was only a matter of seconds between the realization that the plane would crash and the impact. I wonder if that was mercifully brief, or if it robbed those who survived and those who perished of important moment to reflect and prepare.
One year ago, the New York Times published an article about Rabbi Bergner and his now rather famous sermon. His daughter was interviewed and spoke of her parents holding the hands of their children and reassuring them as they braced for the crash. One of the members of our Men’s Group read that article and suggested that I preach a related sermon as my commissioned Men’s Group auction topic. And so here we are.
Did you hear the Scripture reading about Stephen who is often referred to as the first Christian martyr? He died a gruesome death as angry religious people rushed at him with heavy rocks. Stephen was apparently an excellent public speaker. He persuaded many people to become followers of Jesus. His efforts were so sincere and so good that those whose power was threatened resorted to lies. None of us has ever seen or experienced anything like that, have we?! Stephen didn’t back down and in fact delivered a history lesson detailing God’s work in delivering and caring for the lost and vulnerable. He ended by reminding them of the prophets who were killed for speaking the truth. I don’t know if that’s what gave them the idea to kill Stephen, but they immediately picked up rocks and began to throw them. As the death scene unfolded, Stephen had the presence of mind to pray. He asked God to receive his soul and to forgive those who were in the very act of taking his life. I doubt he woke up that morning expecting to die before sunset, but that is exactly what happened. And he used his last moments to pray.
Today’s Psalm, attributed to King David, says, “God, let me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.” Would you want to know when the end of your life will occur and how it will happen? Would it change what you do on that day? Would it change what you do today and the days in between? I don’t think David imagined that God would actually supply that knowledge. He was just expressing a universal human desire to know the unknowable and to find meaning in the days spent here on earth.
I wonder if David was afraid of death. He did, according to tradition, write the words “Yea, though I walk through the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” But why would he ask about when his death would come if he wasn’t at least a little uncomfortable with it? Rabbi Harold Kushner, famous for “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People” wrote another book titled “When all you’ve ever wanted isn’t enough,” in which he writes:
“I believe it is not dying that people are afraid of. It’s something else; something more unsettling and more tragic than dying frightens us. We are afraid of never having lived, of coming to the end of our days with the sense that we were never really alive, that we never figured out what life was for.”
Rabbi Berger, in his sermon “Five Minutes to Live” wrote about four “if onlies” that we might potentially experience as we grow closer to the end of our life:
“If only I had known when I said the last goodbye to my loved ones”
“If only I realized what I had, when I had it.”
“If only I appreciated what I had, when I had it.”
“If only I could do it again, I would love more intensely.”
It’s likely that we all live with “if onlies.” That doesn’t mean that we have no power to make daily choices that reduce future regret and enhance the quality of our fleeting days on earth. It seems to me that there are a few things that can do.
The first is to be determined to live in the moment. How much of life is wasted with worries and obsessive planning for the future while the present passes by at lightning speed? One of great contributions to our world by Buddhism is the practice of mindfulness. Mining the richness of what is happening right now while thoughtfully experiencing and appreciating it is a wise and wonderful way to live. I love the simple and silly quote that says “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why it’s call the present.” Don’t leave that present unopened.
The second thing we can do is decide to never take anything good for granted. The French playwright Eugene Lonesco wrote the classic drama “The Bald Soprano.” It’s about a man and a woman who meet on a train as apparent strangers. They engage in polite conversation and discover that they have a great deal in common. They live in the same town and even the same building. They both have a daughter named Alice who is seven years old with one blue and one green eye. Before long, they discover to their astonishment, and the astonishment of the audience, that they are husband and wife and have been married for fifteen years! Beyond the exaggeration, there is subtle truth exposed in the play. It’s too easy to lose the sense of wonder and joy in life and to detach from all that is good around us.
Here is the third thing to do in order avoid the regret of “if only.” When uncertain what to do in relation to others, always choose to love. Wednesday of this past week was National Coming Out Day. Each year in October I hear more stories about youth and adults whose families reject them for apparently religious reasons. I can never understand that. I also hear the stories of parents and brothers and sisters who eventually come to accept their family member. By then, much damage has been done and the regrets are significant. “If only” they had chosen love over fear at the start. There are so many times in the course of our life where choosing love from the beginning will result in a better outcome for everyone.
Whether the remainder of our life will last for five minutes or five years or five decades, it will be over before we realize it. The often-quoted American humorist Evan Esar once said with much seriousness, “You can’t do anything about the length of your life, but you can do something about its width and depth.” May your life be so rich and full and thoughtfully lived that you will come to its end without regrets and with deep gratitude and peace. Amen.