When the emperor Constantine, through the herculean prayer power of his mother, unshackled the faith in the Roman Empire, he himself put off his own baptism. He still had much to accomplish as the supreme leader of the most powerful empire on earth, and believed the responsibilities of his station required him to perform many un-Christian acts.
In other words, he didn’t want to “waste” his baptism and its benefit of washing away one’s sin. Luckily for Constantine, and unluckily for his rivals and enemies, he pulled it off and was received into the Church on his deathbed.
Oh, if we all could be as lucky as an emperor of ancient Rome.
Fast forward 1,684 years. Your troubles and sins may not be as great as a fourth-century absolute ruler, but maybe you had a rough day at the office, came home thinking un-Christian things about your boss, or took your frustration and anger out on your wife and kids. There might be homework that isn’t getting done or bills that cannot be paid. You might go to bed thinking tomorrow will be better. Tomorrow you will act kinder, more lovingly, and more forgiving.
What if tomorrow never comes?
Jesus warned us not to put our conversions on the layaway plan three centuries before Constantine was born. Just like life can sneak up on us as we look in a mirror at gray hair, and hair where it just doesn’t belong, death can be even more devious, resembling that thief in the night Jesus cautioned against.
No child recited the traditional bedtime prayer: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, and if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul will take,” thinking they were not going to see another day.
But death came to a still unknown number of victims in the dreadful collapse of a condominium complex in Florida in June. It happened in the wee hours of the morning, so it is safe to assume most victims had already laid their heads on their pillows. Whether they were feeling good or ill about their life, or whether they were in a state of grace or not, death came, not quietly like a thief, but loud and roaring like a wrecking ball from hell.
The death toll from the building collapse is yet to be tallied. Maybe, God willing, we will hear about a miracle and there will be someone who survived, but more likely, we will have to satisfy ourselves with prayers for God’s mercy for both the living and especially for the dead.
When this ghastly story begins to fade in media interest, we will go back to our lives as before. It is just the way God made humans. We will climb inside a couple thousand pounds of steel and hurtle ourselves on freeways at 80 miles an hour. We will shuffle into aluminum tubes with wings and zip through the air at hundreds of miles an hour fully expecting to arrive safely at our destinations.
So much of our popular culture is about how much control we have over ourselves and our world. Slogans like “Our bodies ourselves” have never been more in style. In entertainment, we see all manner of people seemingly in control of their lives. So-called lifestyle shows that permeate television are all about those who truly believe they are captains of their own ships.
Yet, as the collapse of what seemed like a perfectly good piece of 20th-century modern construction has reminded us, we really are not in control of a lot of things. This suppressed knowledge always has a way of creeping back up into our conscious minds, especially when there is a catastrophe like the one in Florida. Earthquakes and airplane crashes have the same effect on us.
The apostles thought they were in control, too. They had seen their boss walk on water, cure the sick, and raise the dead. If there ever were any 12 people who should have had a sense of God’s sovereignty, it should have been them. But they had their moments of fear and uncertainty until they all finally realized just who was in total control, and they became fearless and faithful.
This ghastly episode in Florida can be hammered into a blessing, if we use it as a reminder of the Lord’s advice regarding being prepared for when and however our age-old nemesis decides to come to us.