You Can’t Run Out of Time

EE Hale

The graduating seniors—all 34 of us—were asked to choose a quote for our senior page in the yearbook. This being 1977, quotes from rock bands like Pink Floyd and The Grateful Dead were popular, but I was always the odd duck in my class. I chose the above quote from Edward Everett Hale, author of the famous short story “The Man Without a Country.”

At that time, I really had no idea what I would do with my life, but I wanted to be of service somehow. I considered becoming a nurse, a special education teacher, some kind of missionary. I felt certain I was here for a reason and God wanted me to do something. Whatever it was, I would find it and, by his grace, I would do it.

Now, more than 40 years on, I have to ask myself: Have I done it?

~~~

Certainly, I’d like to think I’ve done something worthwhile through my work as an inspirational writer, and yet the word that occurs to me most often as I reflect back over my career is failure. Sometimes it settles in quietly, sitting in lowercase letters on my shoulder and whispering of should-have-dones. Other times it storms in and thunders aloud in all caps, with exclamation points following like flashes of lightning.

Either way, I don’t like it. I don’t like feeling as though I haven’t accomplished the tasks I set out to do.

~~~

Recently, I was having one of those down days. That’s what happens when I turn away from living my life as a love story with God, when I choose instead to listen to that cultural chorus that sings high praises to the vocational curriculum vitae. Success and accomplishments are the primary factors when it comes to calculating human worth.

So there I was, looking back over 40 years and trying to measure my life from the worldly perspective. Things did not look good. I had never striven for greatness, but I had desired to do something good—you know, there was always that deep human desire to make a difference. I had managed a few things on my to-do list, but the good I wanted to do seemed somehow mostly left undone.

It’s a deeply troubling feeling, especially considering the fact that—eventually—a person runs out of time.

~~~

In that state of mind, I picked up one of the books I was reading, Heaven by Randy Alcorn. I had just been chatting on Facebook with a few people about how there always seems to be a right time to read a particular book—that is, God brings the book to us when we need it or might most appreciate it. This was one of those times.

Two brief passages stood out to me:

“Christ’s mission was to reclaim and set free not only the earth’s inhabitants, but the earth itself. He came not only to redeem mankind as individuals, but also as nations and cultures, and to redeem not only the work of his own hands…, but also the work of his creatures’ hands….” (1) (Emphasis mine.)

“Moses prayed, ‘Establish the work of our hands’ (Psalm 90:17). The Hebrew word translated ‘establish’….means ‘make permanent.” So Moses was asking God to give permanence to what he did with his hands.” (2)

~~~

It was as though God put his hand on my shoulder and said, “You think you’re running out of time, but you don’t realize you have eternity too. Besides, what I accomplish in and through you isn’t ultimately up to you; it’s up to Me, and I will fulfill My purpose for you” (Psalm 138:8).

I don’t fully understand what all this means, but I’m beginning to understand this: I’m not limited by the time restrains of this world. I’m not expected to complete my tasks in 70-some years and then go on to a place of eternal rest and be done with it all. The work I do here will somehow carry over into eternity, a place of further work, greater work, perfect work, deeply satisfying work that is most satisfying in the fact that it doesn’t glorify us but the God who made us.

~~~

The idea of God redeeming and eternally establishing the work of my hands changes everything for me. It lifts a huge burden from my shoulders, and allows me to look forward with hope. All that God wants to accomplish—through me and through all believers—will be accomplished in the unbounded stretches of forever.

In God’s Kingdom, it isn’t success or failure that matter. What matters is faithfulness and love.

This is the thought I want to leave with you today: Cease striving. Stop measuring yourself against impossible worldly standards. Instead, love God, remain faithful, and he will establish the work of your hands.

~~~

(1) Randy Alcorn, Heaven, Wheaton IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2004, p. 97.

(2) Ibid, p. 128.

Yearbook page Senior page, Sanford School, Class of ’77

**Congratulations 2020 Graduates!**

Is Al Capone in Heaven?

Al Capone headstone Those gangsters of yesteryear were a vicious lot. I was reminded of this recently when I read a book about the Mob in New York City during the 1960s and 70s.

I kept trying to imagine growing up and living in that kind of milieu, in which the business of everyday life consisted of robbing banks, hijacking trucks, laundering money, promoting prostitution and gambling, taking people hostage, beating people up, breaking people’s legs, cutting off people’s hands, and killing people with machine guns, revolvers, baseball bats, or simply one’s own fists.

Mobsters were ruthless. Violence and death were status quo. And for the most part, they enjoyed it. Torturing and “whacking” people was all just part of a satisfying day’s work. That’s what I find particularly hard to understand.

~~~

In high school, I was part of a gang myself—all college-bound, honor students who nevertheless weren’t above a little mischief. Our idea of wreaking vengeance on the enemy was leaving a banana in the history teacher’s desk drawer right before Christmas break, so that when he came back in January it was overripe and plenty pungent. We also tormented that same teacher by hanging a pair of boys’ underwear on the license plate of his VW Bug while it was parked in the teachers’ lot. Just like the gangsters, we felt pretty smug about doing something wrong and getting away with it.

And then there was the time I ventured solo into the underworld of crime when I wrote a Spanish paper for a kid named Wes who paid me five dollars to do it. It was easy money and a pretty good take in 1974 dollars, but I later felt so guilty about helping him cheat that I donated my illicit earnings to a school fundraiser.

~~~

So who would be more likely to merit heaven—the gangsters like Gambino and Gotti or the goodie-goodies like me? Of course, that’s a trick question because if you know anything at all about grace you know none of us is taking the up elevator by reason of pushing any buttons on our own.

But I know I’m going to heaven and I believe I may see at least one gangster there: Al Capone. I’ll tell you why.

~~~

When I was researching my book Sweet Mercy, I read a number of books about the life of Al Capone. One of the books told of Capone’s conversion to Christianity while in Alcatraz. It seems he was among the group of prisoners who went to hear a visiting pastor preach one Sunday morning. When the pastor asked if anyone was in need of prayer, Al Capone raised his hand. When the pastor asked if anyone felt in need of a savior, Al Capone stood.

This particular event isn’t exactly an enduring part of the gangster’s famous persona. When you think of Al “Scarface” Capone, you don’t think of him as the mobster who came to Jesus behind bars. After he was released and living in Florida, he himself told visitors that he had met Jesus in Alcatraz, but few people believed him.

For one thing, old Scarface was suffering from a physical illness that affected his mind, so that one of his friends described him as “nutty as a fruitcake.” For that reason, it was easy to blow off his talk of conversion. Although, when you think about, most people who claim conversion—especially jailhouse conversion—are considered nutty as fruitcakes. Even I’ve been called nutty myself for believing in God, so it’s a pretty convenient label to pin on folks of faith.

~~~

For another jailhouse conversion, look at King Manasseh, ruler of Judah for 55 years. His evil deeds undoubtedly rivaled those of any mobster. He worshiped idols and was deep into the occult, consulting mediums, practicing sorcery, and involving himself in other “abominable practices” that the chronicler didn’t care to go into. The chronicler did mention, however, what to me is the very worst of his acts: Manasseh “made his son pass through the fire.” That is, he sacrificed his son to a non-existent pagan god. He killed his own child, maybe even more than one of them.

Even the Mafia, according to their own code of conduct, didn’t kill children.

Eventually, Manasseh was carried off by the Assyrians to Babylon and imprisoned. It was then that he humbled himself and cried out to God. His repentance must have been genuine, because God heard him and restored him to the kingdom of Judah. Once home, the former evil king cleaned up the place, tore down the pagan altars, and “commanded Judah to serve the Lord the God of Israel.” From that time forward, Manasseh belonged to the Lord.*

~~~

If God turned Manasseh around, he could do the same for Al Capone. Because the bottom line is this: It’s not how bad the person is, it’s how good God is. God’s goodness, grace and mercy are what transforms sinners into saints and opens the door to heaven, whether the sinner is a machine gun-wielding mobster or a banana-wielding adolescent. Neither deserves mercy, yet to each it is given freely.

Al Capone, being Catholic, received the sacraments of the Catholic Church before he died and, after death, was buried in consecrated ground. Marking his burial place is a stone on which is carved his name, his birth and death dates, and the words: “My Jesus Mercy.”

Is Al Capone in heaven? I don’t know for sure, but if he is, I intend to sit down and share a fruitcake with him. Won’t that be something? Me and old Scarface—just a couple of undeserving nuts enjoying the presence of God for all eternity.

 

* King Manasseh’s story is found in 2 Chronicles 33.