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January 04, 2012
I fell asleep last night thinking about Mike. Mike was a friend and colleague, something of a mentor in the first real job I had after graduating from college. I met Mike on the first day at that new job and it didn’t take long for us to click. We were never great friends—we didn’t call one another on the weekends or get our families together (though we sometimes talked about it)—but for several years, as long as the job lasted, we were friends at the office.
We had a lot in common, the two of us, though Mike was a few years older and in management while I was younger and nowhere near management. Mike knew of this great little Italian restaurant not too far from the office and we would often go there for lunch together, devising creative ways of making and losing wagers on who would pay for the meal. A sports nut, he would often make paying contingent on a team that won or lost, whether that team was winning or losing at hockey, football, baseball or pretty much any other game (we drew the line at wrestling). Sometimes we would go to the local driving range at lunch and hit a bucket or two of balls—still another way of determining who would pay for lunch the next time around.
We also had in common our dedication to family. We had gotten married within a couple of years of one another and we had children that were just about the same ages. In an office full of young guys who were still sowing their wild oats, so to speak, Mike and I were more dedicated to family than to fun. When all the other guys went to a local “gentlemen’s club” to celebrate a birthday or promotion, Mike and I would go to the Italian place, eat lasagna, and talk about our kids.
Mike and I sometimes talked about the things that matter most—sin and Saviors and salvation. A lapsed Anglican, Mike was not too interested in talking about faith. It’s not that he was outwardly hostile or combative; he was simply indifferent, polite.
One day our small, privately-owned company was purchased by a giant American corporation. We were promised stock options and insurance plans and all kinds of perks. Instead we were handed pink slips. The whole branch was shut down; the technology was taken south and the staff was laid off. Mike and I went our separate ways. I didn’t see him for the next couple of years. We emailed occasionally, but no more than that.
But after a couple of years had passed I got an email from Mike’s wife. Mike had come down with a cough and then a severe backache with that cough. A trip to the doctor raised the terrifying prospect of cancer; a trip to the specialist revealed the ugly truth of a virulent form of leukemia. The doctors gave him less than a 20% chance of survival. His wife wrote to ask if I would pray. She was desperate and afraid and knew me as the guy who prayed. So I prayed.
I went to visit Mike in the hospital one time, my Bible in my pocket. Because the constant rounds of chemotherapy had destroyed his immune system he was often in isolation, but eventually I was able to visit him. He was a shadow of his former self, an athlete reduced to little more than a living skeleton. I wasn’t allowed to get too close to him, so I sat as far away as I could in the tiny little hospital room and talked about old times. Mike had moved to another company and had been on the fast-track to promotion when he got sick. The boss there was holding the job open for him in the hope that he could return soon. We talked about our kids and marriages, about our jobs and the Toronto Blue Jays. Mike talked all about his illness and prospects and hopes for the future. He was certain that the cancer was about to go into remission and that he would soon be free to get on with life. And then a nurse barged into the room and, with all the authority that comes with her position, told me my time was up. Mike had some kind of a procedure to get to and I had become persona non grata.
I said my good-byes, promised to visit again soon, and walked out of the room, feeling the weight of that Bible in my coat pocket. I hadn’t ever taken it out. I hadn’t steered the conversation to the state of Mike’s soul. The opportunity had been lost. I resolved to go back very soon and to do better this time.
Just a few weeks later I stood at the back of a crowded church, a church where the gospel had not been preached for many, many years, and heard Mike’s family say their farewells. They remembered him as a loving husband, a proud father, a loyal son, a mischievous brother. They laughed and cried, they celebrated his life and mourned his death. His little girls sat there, knowing that daddy was gone, but not yet understanding the finality of death. It was the first funeral I had ever been to for a peer—not an elderly man or woman who died old and full of years, but a friend in the prime of life.
I stood back there silent and ashamed and knowing that death is final and yet not final. I knew what everyone else there denied—that Mike was dead but alive. His body had died and was already returning to the dust. But his soul was alive and well. Or not well. Probably not well. As far as I know, Mike never turned to the Lord. He never saw the depth of his sin and his need for a Savior. And in the fear of my sin, the fear of what one man would think of me, I missed the opportunity to tell him about the One who offered him life even in death.
All these years later I am still ashamed. I know I’ve been forgiven even for this sin, but still I wish that I had done what was right, that in that one great opportunity I had offered hope and offered life. I wish…