Almost every time I speak in public, I open up by yelling at the group, “You are all going to die!” It frequently gets a nervous laugh or two and then I go on to explain that we are only on this earth a short time, it is so essential to use our time as the precious commodity that it is. Do not waste a moment. The following is the story of a man who used his last few years well.
Jack was a middle-aged man, raising two young children, who had recently moved to a smallish town in Iowa. He had newly been diagnosed with cancer but had not shared his medical condition with anybody in his new community. He was just focusing on his family and beginning the process of diagnosis and treatment.
One day, his next-door neighbor invited him to go on a short-term mission trip to serve at an orphanage in Mexico. The plan was also to help build a home for a needy family. He was not a member of the church, and his first response was, “Well, I don’t play the guitar or anything, but I am good with a hammer.” He was told he would fit in fine. In spite of everything he was going through, he decided to take a chance and tag along with the group. It was a week that would transform his next few years.
As Jack got on the plane with sixty people that he barely knew, all wearing matching t-shirts, he was not sure what to expect. They traveled about two hours south of San Diego to a small town in Mexico where they would be working. The group set up camp and got started with the construction. The team met the family they were serving, and as the team worked, they experienced the joy and bonding that only comes from serving with others in new and challenging circumstances. Jack spent the first few days quietly working alongside his newfound friends.
Midway through the week, during the evening bonfire, Jack decided to take a chance and share of his recent life struggles and his battle with cancer. The response was powerful. This group of people that he had just recently joined came up around him in every sense of the word. The team spent a great deal of time in prayer, seeking miraculous healing. We’ve all heard the phrase, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” There is something about serving alongside others under challenging circumstances that broadens our faith. Serving in missions forges deep relationships that are almost impossible to find unless we are out of our comfort zone.
Over the next few years, while cancer slowly took its toll, Jack continued to return to Baja every time the church came down. Like so many other people, these short-term mission trips became the focal point of his year, a time of joy among struggles, and transformed his life. His social media feed was filled with stories and photos of his time spent serving in Mexico. As Jack’s faith continued to grow stronger, he heard a message from God: “Builder.” This helped Jack understand how his situation was being used for the kingdom.
Above the orphanage in Baja where Jack served is a large, very distinct cross. It rises powerfully above a large hill and can be seen from all over the valley. This cross has been the sight of many marriage proposals, recommitments of faith, and other life-changing moments over the years. Jack ultimately had a drawing of the cross tattooed on his arm using the cross as the letter “T” for the word” triumph.” These trips had marked his life in every way possible.
As Jack’s life was winding down, one of the leaders came to the hospital in a nearby city to be there for him. As they talked, a nurse walked in that had been on one of these trips before Jack started, and knew all about it. Out of the hundreds of hospital staff who could have walked through the door, this nurse could understand Jack’s experience of faith through missions. They were able to excitedly share of their common experiences in that small town in Mexico.
One of his last requests to the mission leader was, “Make sure when my son is old enough, that he gets to Mexico. I want him to see the place that changed my life.” His other request is that his ashes be spread at the base of the cross overlooking the orphanage and the homes he helped build.
I share this story as an encouragement, an encouragement to end your life well. Jack’s story is one of the thousands of lives that are changed through short term missions and service trips every year. Most people live their lives without thinking too much about the ever approaching end; they make plans to do something “next year” until there are no more years left. Please use the weeks and years you have left in a way that matters. Don’t waste a day.
Jack passed away on May 3rd, 2019, surrounded by family. He is no longer battling cancer or the fights of this earth. He is now dancing in heaven. Close to five hundred people showed up at his memorial on a chilly Tuesday afternoon in Iowa. His ashes will be spread at the orphanage cross, as he requested.
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