There was a period of time, whenever my husband would leave for work, the last thing he would say to all of us as he went out the door would be, “The Boss is coming back today.” This was a reference to a book, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing, that our family read during our nightly reading time. It is the story of the ship Endurance and Ernest Shackleton, who sailed on it to Antarctica. In 1914, Shackleton and twenty-seven other men embarked on an expedition to cross Antarctica by sailing as close as they could and taking dog sleds across the interior. The expedition was ill-fated. When the Endurance got trapped in freezing ice floes, they abandoned the ship with no sure means of rescue. To make a long story short—read the book!—Shackleton, who was always called the “Boss”, and four others sailed off to get help in a small, quickly altered life boat leaving the rest behind on Elephant Island to wait for their return. They had to cross eight hundred miles of stormy ocean to reach South Georgia Island, where help could be found. After the shortest possible return time elapsed, Frank Wild, the second-in-command, who had been left behind in charge of the rest of the men, began telling them each day to be ready to go, because “the Boss is coming back today.”
Chuck Colson used this story as an analogy about our life on earth. With Christ as our “Boss”, we need to be ready each day for his return to take us to heaven. When my husband gave us his reminder every day, he wasn’t referring to Shackleton’s rescue attempt. He was using it in Mr. Colson’s context: any day could be our last. God might be coming to take us to heaven today. My husband was reminding each of us of our mortality. He could have a heart attack. One or more of our children could get killed in a car accident. I could get shot in a bank robbery—don’t laugh; an acquaintance of mine died that way. Her life as a bank teller was cut short at only eighteen years of age. The Boss had come early for her.
Being reminded of our mortality is a healthy thing. We are all in the process of dying. It’s just that some of us, the terminally ill, might have a better idea of when that will be. For most of us, however, we like to hold the inevitable off at a distance, and don’t like the idea of surprises in this area. Some of us like to bank on the idea that since longevity runs in our family that we have a good chance of enjoying a long life too. Someone dear to me was surprised by a stroke recently. His response was surprising and revealing. He said, “This can’t be happening to me. I’ve got ten more years!” He had gotten caught in the thinking trap that life has guarantees. Although he had been a Boy Scout leader for many years, he was unprepared. Fortunately for him, his stroke was more like a message on the answering machine from the “Boss” than an actual pick-up appointment.
When Frank Wild announced the conviction of the Boss’s return each day, he didn’t just say the words. He made sure all the men were prepared to go. He had things on the beach ready to load onto a rescue boat. He made the men stay close at hand. The ice floes around the island shifted all the time. A rescue might come and give them only a matter of hours, or even minutes, to get through the floes before they would close up again, making rescue impossible. These desperate men were looking for the Boss to bring them to life. We need to look for the Boss to bring us through death to eternal life. Like those explorers, we need to be on the beach each day prepared to go when he comes for us.
Unlike Shackleton’s men, we don’t need to pack anything to take with us when we go. Our concern is not what we take with us—which is nothing—but what we leave behind. I’m not talking here about having our affairs in order. That is important, and an essential consideration for providing for our families. The most important thing to leave behind is not an orderly Last Will and Testament, but a clear conscience. The crucial affairs to leave in order are not our money and possessions, but our relationships.
Every Saturday night our family has its biggest, best meal together. As we sit down at the table, my husband often looks around at each one of us and asks the same question: “Does anyone need to ask for forgiveness?” Most often what follows is several moments of silence as we all look sheepishly at one another. But often enough, someone will speak up. “Son, will you forgive me for losing my temper and shouting at you today?” “Dad, will you forgive me for not doing my chores right away?” The answer always comes swiftly and simply: “Of course, I do.”
Even those not involved in the exchange can feel tension lift, like ice floes breaking up. Relief glides in, giving hope of not just life, but happiness. Any embarrassment is drowned in the words welcome to our ears: I forgive you. We are rescued from our guilt. It is not just the culpable party, but also the witnesses, who benefit from this exchange, because now they know that when their turn comes, they also will be pardoned.
Most of us are not saints. We make mistakes. We hurt others with our words and actions, or inaction. We put off fixing relationships in the mistaken idea that time will heal, and maybe we won’t have to say those dreaded, humiliating words after all: Please forgive me. It is understandable to not be perfect, but we become better people when we go back and fix those mistakes. Just like my son with his math lesson, I praise him for the ones he got right. But then I encourage him to go back and re-do the ones he got wrong, for they are the ones that show what he doesn’t know yet. The incorrect problems, when looked at more closely, can guide us the right way after all. When we undo them until we find our error, fix them, and check for their accuracy, we have truly learned.
In the same way with our relationships, when we see that we have mishandled someone, we can go back and unravel the mess, find our own error, and express our sorrow at the hurt we have caused. The person we have wronged can choose to forgive us, or not. We may even have to choose to forgive them for their part in the mess, whether they ask for it or not. If we can do all this, suddenly the baggage weighing on us becomes lighter. We are freed to move about, and it’s a good thing. You never know when you might take an unexpected trip. The Boss may be on his way now to pick you up for the adventure of your life. Be prepared. He might just come today.