My friend Robert, a retired pastor in one of the Protestant denominations, told me over coffee he preferred – especially in his later years -- to officiate at funerals than weddings. The reason for that, he said, is weddings “are all about the bride – how pretty she looks, and now nice a couple she and her husband make.” At funerals, however, it’s all about the family left behind – and how much a privilege it was for him to put his arm around a father’s shoulder at the coffin of his child, or hold a widow’s hand, or sit quietly with mourners and simply ‘be there’ for them.
As he spoke, I readily understood his preference. I have attended joyous weddings. And I have also sat in too many funeral homes and beside too many hospital deathbeds as family gathered to say their last goodbyes.
I know what it is like to be in the presence of death.
At sixty-four, my thoughts turn far more frequently to death than they ever did when I was thirty. (Thirty. It seems like only three weeks ago I was thirty). Please do not misunderstand my comment. I do not think of my eventual death in a morbid, gloomy way, but rather with a ‘matter of fact’ acceptance. Death is, after all, the destiny awaiting each of us – some sooner, some later, whether rich or poor, popular or unknown, powerful or weak, intelligent or slow, handsome or unattractive . . . .
That is why toward the end of his life, Solomon said what he did about houses of feasting and houses of mourning. He discovered – as most of us who are older discover – that when we are young we don’t think much of our own mortality or of the relentless and unyielding passage of years. There is too much living to do, too many parties to attend.
But when we find ourselves in a funeral home or at the deathbed of someone we love – then the realities of life offer us the chance to “take things to heart.” It is during those times that popularity and wealth, fame and position, and all the things so many of us strive for – it is there that those things often fall into proper perspective.
Perhaps one of the more well-known stories Jesus told is of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). If it has been a while since you’ve read it, I hope today you will take a few moments to do so.
From the perspective of those who knew him, the Rich Man had everything a person could hope for. But from God’s perspective – he was poor and naked and miserable and blind. The Rich Man had nothing. Even less than nothing.
Like so many we meet every day, the Rich Man missed a critically essential element of life’s meaning. Jesus warned about it when He said: For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matthew 16:26)
The Lord always asked good questions. What you and I need are the right answers – because a house of mourning is in the future for every one of us.
That is why Solomon closed his book of Ecclesiastes this way: The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.