How would you rank a doughnut shop, a cemetery and a running track in order of healthiest to unhealthy? Most likely you would say a running track is the healthiest. Next would probably be the doughnut shop. And the least healthy place any person in their right mind could imagine himself is a cemetery, although frequent purveying of the doughnut shop might put you there a little sooner.
In my travels in a small town recently, these were the three choices I was presented with that morning. I was looking for a place to run and right next to a doughnut shop was an abandoned high school with a dirt track around an old football field with rusted goal posts. Perfect I thought. The discipline I exuded in bypassing the doughnut shop and choosing to run was unusual that day.
As I was trying to figure out how to get past the locked gate and cyclone fence I saw a gate that was opened, bidding for my attention. It was a gate to a cemetery. The choice was a strange one. The gate that was opened represented death and depression. The gate that was closed seemed to represent life and health, and that’s where I wanted to go. Desensitized to spiritual realities as of late, I felt a tug in my heart to go in the cemetery, look around and risk my agenda being amended by God for a ‘healthier’ choice. I hadn’t been to a cemetery in years, and my mind flashed back to my college days when my fraternity brother and I would walk a nearby cemetery and read the grave stones. It was a sublime experience and surprisingly interesting.
Psychologists say the last place a healthy person can imagine himself is six feet under the ground. Death is such an anomaly to human beings, the most complicated and valued physical entity on earth. Even the most treasured million dollar paintings, large estates, or expensive artifacts, are nothing without a human being to enjoy them. Yet when the spirit leaves, what’s left of the body is placed in the ground to deteriorate and become part of the dirt. Forgotten, lifeless, worthless. So we avoid cemeteries. We pretend we don’t see them when we drive by them. They momentarily ruin what is otherwise a busy and productive day. We shake off the impulse of horror that comes over us which is the destiny of every man and women. Sometimes we allow our minds to wonder how we will handle our deaths when the moment comes, or even if we’ll have time to handle it. But we quickly pick up the cell phone to see if someone has texted us, forget about it, and whisper to ourselves, “oh that’s somewhere long down the road.”
We avoid graveyards because the other side is so unknown. Bildad pointed out that death is the “king of terrors” (Job 18:14). Hebrews reveals that Satan keeps people in bondage with the “fear of death” all their lives (Hebrews 2:14-15). Yet death is the one area Christianity specializes in. This is because the Creator has the only code to solve this glitch. When Warren Buffet opens his mouth about finances, people listen. When Pete Sampras talks about tennis, players pay attention. And when you have a savior who has overcome death, his words tend to be authoritative. Scripture speaks with more sober authority about the topic of death; no other world religion even comes close. Ironically death is one of the greatest testimonies to the veracity of Christian truth, as Scripture gives the only adequate explanation as to the reality of death.
Psychologists have theorized that many pathologies and mental illnesses stem from the realities and fear of death. The fear of abandonment is ultimately a fear of death and a separation from life. Depression has many causes, but ultimately stems from reasoning about the futilities of a cursed world and existential despair, that life doesn’t contain the answers to it’s own meaning. The depressed aren’t weak; sometimes they’re too smart for this world. Suicide is said by some to be an attempt to escape the fear of death by leaning into it and getting it over with. Often suicide is the final end of a life of self indulgence, a disregard for the Christian truth of putting to death the flesh in a thousand other ways.
As I walked through that cemetery and read the grave markers, I wondered about who some of those people were. Many probably thought they were the cat’s meow in their day. Others may have lived with a sobriety about this life and lived for the next world. Certainly there were many who thought they would live to a ripe old age but death caught them by surprise as evidenced by the short dates. I came to a couple of conclusions reflecting in that cemetery that day.
One is that the ground is level at the foot of the cross of Christ. What does that mean? No man’s sin is worse than another’s. The cross wipe’s out partialities and mentalities built up on pride and puts everyone on equal footing. It brings people back to who they are, where nobody is superior and everyone is lost, scared, vulnarable and weak. This is one reason the world opposes the cross so much, dismisses it, doesn’t desire to understand it. The cross disrupts systems and notions built up on human power, prestige, and pride.
The other is that cemeteries are also level ground (even if the terrain is hilly). Nobody escapes death. Doesn’t matter if you were a millionaire or a martyr, a pro athlete or an artisan, a rock star or a recluse, if Christ doesn’t return first everybody buys the farm. And interestingly, you can be buried next to someone you might have looked down on in life or a family member you held a grudge with. Not only is this futile, but undealt with sin only serves to worsen the eternal state of the person after death.
A Legacy Is Not A Mausoleum
Pride is cut off at the knees in the cemetery. Big grave stones, markers or tombs do nothing for the deceased. In fact, a fancy memorial may be just one last attempt to squeeze the last drops of pride from a life of self importance. It seems some big memorials are more for the lusts of the living than for the memory of the dead. And the fanciest mausoleum I saw that day was beginning to deteriorate just like all the others. To be sure, there is a place for busts, bronzes and sculptures to memorialize great lives of self sacrifice and trigger conversation and memories of valor and inspiration. But the heritage of the godly is spiritual and best passed along in the heart. Christ had no grave marker. Legacies are left in hearts, not in holes in the ground. As the Apostle Paul clarified for the Corinthian church, “You are …written in our hearts, known and read by all men…not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts” (II Corinthians 3:2,3).
Though one step removed from the shock value of a cemetery, reading obituaries can give insight as to what people lived for. Here is a typical obituary of a Florida retiree written by a family member who may have hoped any of these strivings would leave some residual eternal significance: “Richard F., 73, died Oct. 20, 2001, at his residence. He was born March 30, 1928, in Evanston Ill. He was involved in insurance sales for many years before he retired. He served on the Venice City Council. He was a member of Moose Lodge, Friendly Sons and Daughters and was president of Waterford and Capri Isles Homeowners Association. Survivors include…” Do these really define a man? Did anybody really know Richard? What are the real sentiments in the hearts of his children and grandchildren about Richard? These answers are known only to God and his family. Richard may have served with honor in these accomplishments but if his intention was to serve self and not Christ, his life was a waste.
It’s not just doing things right. It’s doing the right thing. Obituaries of human accomplishment are so common because so many live for just this world. A wordly obituary that reads like a resume doesn’t necessarily get a job serving the King throughout eternity. In the words of an old poem, “this life will soon be passed. Only what’s done for Christ will last.”
Believer’s Should Be Experts in Death
The fear of death should be minimal for a Christian. Why? Because the New Testament says we already died. There’s one death experience we’ve gone through right there when we came to Christ. We died to the world’s value systems. But death doesn’t stop there. As horrifying as death is, Paul says we die many times to match our experiences with our eternal position. It doesn’t mean we commit suicide, but we die to our fleshly lusts. In other words, believers should be experts in death as a lifestyle. We have mini death experiences, many purging from worldly desires so that when the big one comes we’re ready for it. We’ve been trained by death because we’re suspicious about the deceptions of our flesh. If we’re in the habit of putting to death the ego, lusts and self exaltation, we’re none the less for it. All of this can happen from the perspective of the cemetery. But remember, this is not the message from a world that has lost its way. Temptations are strong to go the way of the world that constantly promotes the resurrection of the self. The world is lost and always deceives its own.
Francis Schaeffer wrote, “We are surrounded by a world that says no to nothing…then suddenly [we’re] told that in the Christian life there is to be this strong negative aspect of saying no to things and no to self, must seem hard. And if it doesn not seem hard to us, we are not really letting it speak to us…So I must ask very gently: How much thought does the necessity of death by choice provoke, how much conversation”?
The perspective of the cemetery should provoke a lot of conversation, if not with others then at least in our own minds. It is a “fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living Lord” writes the author of Hebrews and only trusters in Christ can truly face death correctly. Much of the fear of death is not just the process of letting go the spirit, but what comes after. It is facing the God of judgment. “For we must all appear for the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may be recompensed for his deeds done in the body…either good or bad” (II Cor. 5:10). Behind the fear of death is the account we will have to give for the life he gave us and why so many of the worlds values and goods were woven so tightly around our hearts. Don’t rationalize away this whole paradigm of sin, death, and judgment as a product of some man made religion. Sin, death and judgment are seen in all aspects of nature and those spiritual laws of reality are true.
The Christian life is one of purging, moderation and delay of gratification. It’s primarily boot camp with the awards ceremony later, not the other way around. So many mental illnesses would be cleared up if we could just shift our thinking about this purpose of life. Since we can’t save our lives anyway and stop the deterioration, life is best meant to be one of service, giving, sacrifice, and suffering for Christ. Life is not meant to be consumed on oneself, demanding our rights, being a narcissist, and accumulating acclaim as a glorified pack-rat. We’re much more durable and enduring than we think and life is not about who gets the most toys at the end wins. We’ll never cease to exist no matter how difficult things get so we might as well suffer a little now.
“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down but not destroyed” (II Corinthians 4: 8-9). To say this is our “best life now” as one T.V. preacher puts it could imply we’re sending on nothing up ahead. Suffering is inevitable- one can either suffer the purging fire now or later. Those whose philosophy it is to indulge the senses with pleasure, avoid pain, and promote self will pay later. Those who trust Christ and in some way are honestly dealing with issues that come between themselves and their Creator, are producing “an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (II Corinthians 4:17).
An occasional gander into a graveyard can shift our perspective about the brevity of life. Then we can agree with Moses who prayed to the Lord, “teach me to number my days so that I may have a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). Let’s not wait until our own deaths before we finally understand the eternal realities that Scripture talked about all along. We can learn from others by going to a cemetery, reading the inscriptions and reflecting on what they lived for. We can’t avoid death so let’s not pretend cemeteries don’t exist. They’re not as macabre as we think. And they may just shock us out of a life of futility and selfish living. The sooner we face the prospects of our own mortality and live with the right foundation, the less we’ll fear our own death and the more confidence we’ll have in our eternal stature with Christ. Die to your self now, with all of it’s logical fears, self interests, and deep indulgences, and trust the One who overcame death so that you can too.