Monday, August 4, 2008

Preparing for Death - Part 2 "Fading Legacies and Being Forgotten"

Today is a fitting day to continue this series on preparing for the inevitable approach of death. I had the privilege of presiding as the honor guard commander for the military funeral ceremony of a fellow Lutheran today. I always enjoy attending a good, Christian funeral. In my opinion, the funeral service is where the rubber of faith meets the road of reality. This is where all of our pet topics get stripped down to the real problem of sinful man: death. This is where people flock to hear St. Paul speak about the resurrection. This is where the full weight of the Gospel is most evident. The local Lutheran pastors pull out all of the stops at funerals. I cannot help but thank God for them as they continue to declare the message of Christ crucified and the hope of our rebirth through the power of the His resurrection.

I would be remiss if I failed to point out that the Lutherans of my city do not corner the market on fine funeral services. Death seems to bring out the best in most Christian preachers. The grave seems to strip away much of the pietism, humanism, and rationalism. The uncompromising power of the grave can leave even the most purpose driven Christian helpless at the feet of Almighty God.

We have a local Roman Catholic priest who excels at presiding over funerals. He once gave a fantastic sermon about the daily meditation of your own death. The primary point that he drove home was to keep your eyes fixed on the cross every day of your life and never allow your gaze to waver from it. Christ is all that matters. The foot of the cross is the one place where the shadow of the grave no longer falls. He observed that it is when we look away from the cross that we fall into fear and doubt. Apart from the hope of Christ is where death has the ability to haunt us.

Isn’t that always the case? When we think about death, we quickly look away from Christ and begin to consider other concerns… petty matters. Sinful man looks at what is to come and forsakes it in favor of what is about to pass away. We worry about the finances (our earthly treasure). We worry about how our loved ones will go on without us. We worry about the work that we have left undone. We worry about how the world will remember us. All of this blossoms out of concerns about our legacy. That is when dread begins to creep in and take hold. Death becomes an unwanted interruption. Death cuts a good man short. It is the thief that robs us of our good works and our ongoing pleasure.

This preoccupation with the worldly matters can offer us no comfort. These things are temporary and beyond our control. Our written wills can be contested, legacies tarnished, and great memorials forgotten. In time, the world will see our tombstones crumble, epitaphs erode, and eulogies forgotten. The obligatory grave site visits will cease, the acclaim will fade, and people will move on with their lives. Nothing made with human hands will last. I think that we fear death not only because of its finality but also because we are overpowered by the loneliness of it. Not only are we gone, but our memory is quickly dismissed and ignored.

I am reminded of a fellow Soldier that I honored earlier this year. The man lived well into his eighties and was a veteran of WWII. When members of my unit arrived to conduct the funeral, we were surprised and saddened that no one was going to attend and no clergy had been requested. The funeral staff explained that the man’s family lived far away and that none of them would make the long journey. His brother had requested that the funeral staff take photographs of the military honors and email it to him.

We performed our duty in the empty cemetery. The funeral director received the flag on behalf of the next of kin so that it could be sent to him. No one at the site knew this man apart from what was printed on the impersonal information sheet that we brought with us. He received a government funded funeral, a simple grave marker, and a flag as the meager compensation for his status as a war veteran. The decades of his life and the great sacrifices of his service culminated in an unattended ceremony and a brief mention of his passing in the local paper. What had he done in his life? What were his triumphs? His trials? Aside from being an old Soldier... who was he?

Whenever I am at that particular cemetery, I cannot help but go visit his grave. It is a poignant reminder about how lonely death can be. I highly doubt that anyone who knew him will ever visit the place where he is buried. Today, as I stood at his marker, I realized that his story is not particularly different than most. The loneliness of his grave was not that significant. His body had just become neglected earlier than most. The cemetery is full of forgotten graves and forsaken mausoleums. There are hundreds of people buried there who are at best little more than annotations in someone’s genealogy report. I think about all of the folk that I know whose graves I have never visited and whose names I rarely even remember.

Even the most famous and powerful among us are relegated to a few paragraphs in some fourth grader’s history report. Eventually time makes strangers of us all. None of us really know George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Emperor Meji, or Queen Elizabeth II any better than I know that man whose grave site I frequent. All that is left is dusty and impersonal academic knowledge. There is little mere more than the passing recognition of a familiar name as told to us by someone else who did not know them any better than we do. We know a birth date, a list of accomplishments, perhaps a book, speech, or song that the deceased once authored... and we know the day that they died. What is that hollow recognition really worth?

We are all forgotten in the end. Our legacies fade. The details that make us individuals will get lost in the shuffle. We are remembered for a season and then pushed to the back burner as the pressing concerns of the day take the lead and time creates a chasm of unfamiliarity. Cemeteries are full of attempts to fight this entropic trend. There are huge stone structures with symbols, favorite Bible verses, and quotes to remind us of the lives of those who are no longer able to speak on their own behalf. There are memorials that try their best to remind us of things that we collectively have just… forgotten about.

Grave sites are often accompanied by benches for loved ones to sit with the fallen and remember them. Those chairs are all empty now. Many were meant for people who have become too busy to sit. Many of the visitors are now bed-ridden or they moved far away. Some of these benches had to be moved because the people who once sat in them now lay next to the loved ones that they came to visit.

No wonder we hate to think about death! The world’s way of looking at it is just so depressing. Being truly remembered and preserved is an impossible task.

But there is One who does not forget His children. The saints who were purchased with the blood of Christ Jesus are remembered from eternity. Their names have been inscribed in the book of life since before the foundation of the world. This is not mere academic knowledge. This is not the Trivial Pursuit knowledge of the world. This is more than a fading list of archival data and accomplishments.

We are talking about a vibrant and living intimacy that is created and preserved by faith. Christ knows His sheep. He preserves them. This is an intimate and unbreakable bond that is more powerful than death. The only lasting legacy is the one of victory through faith in Christ Jesus. Though their bodies may lay forgotten to the denizens of this earth, the departed saints have not been abandoned by their loving Savior. They are not alone; no, far from it!

The graves of the saints may lie unmarked and unkept. Their memories may have passed from our recollection. Their accomplishments are taken for granted and their treasures have been divided by generations of heirs and hordes of debt collectors.

But there will come a day when the bodies of the dead in Christ shall be raised up. Jesus remembers each of His sheep and welcomes them to Himself. All of those forgotten names will be recalled on the Last Day. All of those lonely graves will burst forth with new life. Almighty God remembers us when we are forgotten. In Christ we are more than merely preserved, we carry the promise of being vivified and perfected on the Last Day. All of the money in the entire world cannot purchase such a legacy!

We get caught up in the temporary things that fade away in time. We worry about death because we see it from an earthly perspective. We look at death from this side of the grave. We place our hope in things that are sure to fail and fall short. It does not have to be this way for those whose hope rests in the eternal providence of God through the merits of His Son, Jesus Christ.

When we contemplate our mortality we tend to focus on what we leave behind rather than what we finally gain. We are tempted to try to preserve the ephemeral things that we have earned rather than laying hold of the eternal gift that was earned for us by Jesus Christ. Why cling to that which holds no eternal value? It is far better to free ourselves of such concerns and embrace the One who has conquered the grave for us. It is far better to cast our hopes upon Jesus Christ who perfectly remembers us eternally.

That priest was right: Christ is all that matters.

Ephesians 1:3-14 [ESV]: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth."

"In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory."

2 Timothy 1:8-12 [ESV]: "Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, which is why I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me."

2 comments:

Thursday's Child said...

Wonderful!

Cindy Ramos said...

"That priest was right: Christ is all that matters." Indeed. It's the most important thing that I know, yet in my sinfulness I manage to forget, and I need to be reminded all the time. Thank you for this excellent law & gospel/death & resurrection message.