When Jesus’ disciples went to the tomb to look for his body, the angel who met them there asked, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” This is such a telling question. We seem so confused about life and death and even more so about the ambivalent state of being that might be best described as existence.
This became more than clear when Kim and I were in Beirut preparing to go into the Bekáa Valley. We were minutes from the border where ISIS was at war with the people of Lebanon. But before we were allowed to jump into our cars, we were asked to take a moment to fill out a series of forms. As I looked over the forms, there was one that jumped right to the surface. Its heading was simply “Proof of Life.” I have been to a lot of crazy places in the world, but I have never had to fill out a form demanding proof of life.
There were a series of blank spaces where I could write down questions that could be asked if I were taken hostage, questions that only I and the people closest to me would know the answers to. I knew I should be taking this seriously, but I kept thinking to myself, What are the proofs of my life? I wanted to write such things as “He loves dancing in the rain” and “He stops on the side of the road to smell wildflowers and run through fields.”
The greatest proof of life is when my kids hold me tight and tell me they love me after all these years. I know that’s not what the officials in Beirut were looking for. They wanted mundane pieces of information that were confidential enough not to be discoverable by those who might take me hostage. But really, are the facts a proof of life, or are they proof of existence?
In that moment, for me the real proof of life was that my wife and I, along with an amazing young cinematographer named Jake Viramontez, were willing to enter a part of the world where our lives would be at risk in order to give others a chance for life. In contrast, what is it about us that persuades us to choose mere existence over life? Why is it that we would rather exist for as long as we can rather than to live fully for a short time?
As we were filling out our forms, we were given one caution: “Make sure you put answers to questions that you’ll remember. We’ve had people who filled these out who couldn’t even remember their own answers and whose loved ones did not know the answers as well.”
If you were to ask the people closest to you, “What would you say are the three most powerful proofs of my life?” what would their answers be? What is your proof of life? What are you doing right now that proves to the world, or at least to those in your world, that you are fully alive?
I have found that life can be incredibly elusive because it exists just on the other side of existence. Most of us are not choosing between life and death; we are choosing between existence and death. We actually never choose to live. We are so afraid of death and all its relatives, such as failure and disappointment and injury, that we actually never choose to live. For all of us, death comes too soon. It comes long before we’ve taken our final breaths. It’s only when we realize we are terminal that we start treating time with the respect it deserves.
I was in Lima, Peru, having been invited to speak at a series of events. Everything about Lima surprised me. I had no idea how beautiful it was. I never could have foreseen that in Lima I would discover some of the best food in the world and some of the most gracious people I had ever encountered.
It would have been enough to have found world-class cafés and Paris-trained gourmet chefs to have created memories for a lifetime, but what really stood out to me was the night I was invited to speak at what was once a bullfighting arena. It was my understanding that this was the largest venue in all of Peru. There was a time when thousands of people filled the arena to watch the bullfighters take on the noble beasts. I understand the controversy that has been rightfully raised around the cruelty of bullfighting, yet there was a sense that we had stepped into an ancient time, into a different world.
As we were entering the arena where I would speak, our hosts pointed out a spot where the bullfighters would wait before they would face the bulls. As our hosts were proudly walking me through the details of their cultural past, I noticed one particular place and asked them, “What happened over here?”
My guide said, “That corner right there, that’s where the bullfighters would go and kneel and pray before they risked their lives in battle.”
I asked him if the pastors who speak there ever go to that corner and pray as well, and he said, “No, I don’t think that’s ever happened.”
I said, “Well, if that’s where the bullfighters went to find their courage, let’s go kneel there and pray ourselves before we enter this battle.”
I must confess it was surreal to kneel in the same spot where ancient matadors would pray to God for courage and strength as they entered the battle, but I was now kneeling and praying as I entered the room to speak to fifteen thousand people about who Jesus is and how he has come to give us life.
I mean, I’ll admit that I have a morbid sense of the finality of life, but I promise you that it works to my advantage. Even though I got to kneel only once where the matadors stopped to pray before they risked their lives, it didn’t take a high PSA level or filling out a form titled “Proof of Life” to cause me to understand the value of life itself.
Too many of us act as if we’re going to live forever or that life can wait until we’re ready to live it. But when it comes to life, we get no trial runs. We get no practice games. And when it comes to life, you need to act as though your life depends on it.
Adapted from The Last Arrow Copyright © 2017 by Erwin Raphael McManus. Reprinted by permission of WaterBrook, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
Erwin Raphael McManus is an iconoclast, artist and cultural-thought leader known for his integration of creativity and spirituality. He is the founder of MOSAIC—a Los Angeles-based community of faith recognized as one of America’s most influential and innovative churches.