“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.”
(Henry David Thoreau)
In my 10 years of ministry in Pennsylvania, I grew to appreciate the cemetery that sat less than fifty yards from my church office window. If I needed to get up and stretch my legs from sitting at my desk, I would often go out and walk around the neglected grassy roads or wander among the headstones of all sizes, shapes, and condition.
More often than not, however, I would meander across the road simple to clear my head, to think, and to pray. Although here in Michigan there isn’t a cemetery across the road from my office, there is no shortage of nearby Potter’s Fields for me to wander. No matter the season, I take full advantage of the opportunity. I’m drawn to them intuitively—perhaps many of us are.
Roaming aimlessly among the stones I see markers of unreadable dates and names askew and broken from the effects of time. The evening sun shines upon polished monuments of proudly proclaimed family names still raw with fresh brown soil. Old and new, they silently imprint upon our souls something perhaps we would rather not consider, but should.
For me, to read the names, calculate ages, contemplate the epitaphs, and ponder the possible connections of the headstone names I read with those I’m familiar with today, I find myself wondering…what was their life like, how did they earn a living, did they attend church here at Coe Church of Christ, or were they even believers? I also ask myself, “What would they say to us if they had the chance? What wisdom would they impart to their husbands, wives, or children that still dwell on this side of the grave if such communication were possible?” Would their words influence the conducting of our lives? Would we perhaps make different choices? How about our morality? Would their words alter our relationships with our family and friends? Could their advice influence our relationship with God? Would it make any difference at all?
There is an old saying that I heard my grandfather use. “Make all your important life decisions in a cemetery, because it will give you the proper perspective of their importance.” How true that is! When you gaze upon the names, dates, and the little hyphen that represents a life between birth and death, it does help to clarify the insignificance of our earthly time in light of the eternal.
“Cemeteries are full of unfulfilled dreams.” Steve Maraboli writes, “countless echoes of ‘could have’ and ‘should have’…countless books unwritten…countless songs unsung.” I hope not.
We are masters of deception when it comes to the length of days God blesses us. Yet it is only ourselves we deceive. Annie Dillard, in her book “For the Time Being” quotes an ancient text: “Of all the world’s wonders, which is the most amazing? That no man, though he sees others dying all around him, believes that he himself will die.”
On a wonderful, bright, early fall morning I spoke to a man I met who also was out among the grave markers. He told me he was searching for family, and as he grew older, it was becoming more and more important for him to discover meaning in his life, to discover his identity, and to comprehend the purpose of his existence, and ruefully wishing those whose remains lie beneath him could speak. I wished him well, but as we went our separate way it occurred to me, the dead don’t speak. Only the living speak! E.M. Forster wrote. “The two entities who might enlighten us, the baby and the corpse, cannot do so.” Jesus said: “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and they are life. Yet, there are some of you who do not believe.” (John 6:63) Why search for meaning in the silence of what we can’t comprehend? Only the living can give us advice, only in what is living can be found meaning, understanding and identity.
Today it seems like people are searching for something—anything—to give meaning to their lives. From the world’s trappings we randomly seek relief to our pains and trials; wisdom and advice to get us through the hard times, comfort to get us through lonely nights, and pleasures to make our life worth the effort of our earthly endeavors. The trouble is we search in the wrong places.
We are quick to convince ourselves that if we just make a little more money and have a few more possessions, we will be happy. We swallow hook, line, and sinker the ill-conceived tenet that if we seek advice from our horoscopes, Dr. Oz, or Dr. Phil, Oprah, or Ellen, then we can come out winners. We have become proficient at creating our self-worth and identity via the clothes we wear, the houses we live in, the cars we drive, the toys we possess, the polices of our favorite politician, and the ‘flavor of the day’ social cause. Yet, it is never enough. Discontent reigns, and we continue to wander among those headstones vainly looking for answers and affirmation. What makes us rummage through the deadness of what this world offers when it makes no sound?
“Why look for the living among the dead? He is not here?” the angels told the women as they searched the cemetery for meaning (Luke 24:5b-6a). As Christians, shouldn’t it be obvious where our meaning—our identity—our self-worth—is found? More to the point, shouldn’t our lives convey that truth to a watching and seeking, and vastly unbelieving world?
What we ultimately seek is found only in the blood of Jesus Christ. True comfort, advice, identity, and joy are revealed only in Scripture. Yet the Bible—the speaking LIVING Word—seems to be the place of last resort that sits unopened on the bed stand as we lie troubled and awake at night and dusty on the bookshelf as we seek futilely during the day.
The writer of Hebrews stated what all who proclaim the assurance of the promised resurrection rest. “…faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see…” (11:1)
That verse was on my mind as I—someone who does his best to live a life of hope and faith—was wandering through yet another small rural Michigan cemetery a few months ago, and I came across a headstone that made me pause. At the lower corner below the family name and the dates of birth and death were these words written in stone for all who ramble amongst the silence: “his faith is now sight.” I really like that.
Go ahead, wander through the cemetery on a warm and sunny afternoon; sit down, lean your back against a headstone and consider the lives of those who have gone before you. Contemplate where you are going and how you are living. Gain perspective for important life decisions, but do it with the precept of eternity, an open Bible on your lap, and the Words of Life in your heart.