Ashes & Bones

 

By Brian Knowles

 

O

ver the course of the past few weeks, we’ve lost two family members: Chuck Hayes and Janet Oswald. Chuck was the father of our daughter-in-law, Kathy Rapp. Janet was the aunt of our son-in-law, Fred Schneider.

            Both Chuck and Janet were Christians in their own way. The former was a member of the United Church of God and the latter a Christian Scientist. Chuck died of cancer, Janet died of unknown natural causes, alone in an upstairs room of her apartment.

            Both had completed the course of their life. Now they rest in the Lord. Both are gone from this earth. They left behind only ashes and bones. In the end, this is all any of us leaves behind, except for memories, and those grow dim in the living with time.

            The void we leave cannot be filled by others because each of us is truly unique. There will never be another “Planet Janet,” as I used to call her, nor another Chuck Hayes. Part of their legacy was their uniqueness.

            In the span of time and space, none of us is truly important. Each of us is a mere speck of life, here for a moment, gone in a cosmic instant. Because we are acutely self-conscious while we live, we are important to ourselves. Because we are connected by genes, blood or marriage to others, we are important to them. Because we contribute something to the lives of still others, we have value and meaning to them. Ultimately, our circle of significance is small and transient. In a relatively short time, the whole circle will disappear to be replaced by others who have morphed into the space we once occupied. Life makes its entrances onto the stage, does its dance, and then exits into eternity to the applause of almost no one.

            We who survive are left only with memories of the deceased. We honor the dead by remembering them, telling stories and anecdotes about them, and praising them for their good qualities. We trust God with their eternities. What other choice do we have?  We believe that our Lord had some purpose in giving them their lives, as he does in our own. We are confidant that we will see our loved ones again, and that their present state is a good one.

            On some peculiar abstract plane, we argue pop theology among ourselves. We speculate about the possible immortality of the soul, about “soul sleep” and resurrections, about Heaven, Hell and Purgatory. We talk among ourselves about a “second death,” and ask “what happens to those who have never heard the Gospel?”

            We take some passages of Scripture literally and others allegorically. When it comes to the afterlife, we tend to cherry pick our passages. The unpleasant ones we reason around or ignore; the pleasant ones we embrace. We reason about what a “loving God must be like” and about what he could not possibly be like. In short, we tend to anthropomorphize our Creator in order to render him acceptable to our vulnerable, human sensitivities.

            The fact is we don’t know a lot about God, spirit or the afterlife. We know mainly what our prophets have told us, and some of them may turn out to have been false. We also know what Jesus and his apostles have told us, and in those words we trust.

            When someone we know dies, we are brought up short. We link their deaths to our own mortality. We reflexively gauge our own position on the conveyor belt of life. We think, “Someday I’ll be the one in the coffin.” We don’t know how death will come to us, but we hope that it is as painless as possible. For many, it is anything but painless. It is horrific and terrible. For some it is long and lingering and unspeakably painful. We may find that we pass from this life into the next in a morphine-induced stupor, in some impersonal hospice, only vaguely aware of what is happening to us, as did my beloved aunt of blessed memory.

            We could find ourselves in the path of a rampaging tornado, as did the Woodbury’s who died recently in Oklahoma. Others may join the thousands of victims of terrorist bombs, murderous militias, famine, disease or civil war. Death of one kind or another is a daily fact of life. It is, as Paul put it, “the last enemy.”

            It is not morbid to think about these things. It is entirely appropriate. Note the words of Solomon in Ecclesiastes 7:2 - 4, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools in the house of pleasure.”

            The death of others confronts us with our own mortality. The experience sobers us up to the realities of life. We’re here today, gone tomorrow. Over and over again, passages of Scripture remind us of this:

            “For he knows that is good for a man in life, during the few and meaningless days he passes through like a shadow. Who can tell him what will be under the sun after he is gone?” Ecclesiastes 8:12.

            “But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich man will fade away even while he goes about his business,” (James 1:10-11).

            “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes,” (James 4:14).

            “Man born of woman is of few days and full of trouble. He springs up like a flower and withers away; like a fleeting shadow, he does not endure,” (Job 14:1-2).

            Many other passages allude to the brevity and transience of life. If you’ve lived any length of time at all, you are painfully aware of the passing of people who were dear and important to you. Some of them were larger-than-life types who seemed gifted with incredible life force. How could they ever die? They were so full of life and energy! Yet they are gone. Even mighty Moses was taken at the peak of his powers (Deuteronomy 34:7). Israel’s greatest king, David, lived only 70 years, yet Scripture says of him, “He died at a good old age, having enjoyed a long life, wealth and honor…” (I Chronicles 29:27). By David’s time, a mere 70 years was viewed as a “long life”!

            The last words of David provide wisdom for us all:

            “The Spirit of the Lord spoke through me; his word was on my tongue. The God of Israel spoke, the Rock of Israel said to me: ‘When one rules over men in righteousness, when he rules in the fear of God, he is like the light of morning at sunrise on a cloudless morning, like the brightness after rain that brings grass from the earth.’

            “Is not my house right with God? Has he not made with me an everlasting covenant; arranged and secured in every part? Will he not bring to fruition my salvation and grant me my every desire?

            “But evil men are all to be cast aside like thorns, which are not gathered with the hand. Whoever touches thorns uses a tool of iron or the shaft of a spear; they are burned up where they lie,” (II Samuel 23:2-7).

            Ask yourself this: Have my words been anointed with God’s Spirit? If I have had the opportunity to speak, write or teach:  have I sought the leading of God for those words? Have I taught my children well the way of God? James wrote, “…no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison,” (James 3:8).  We have all said words we have later regretted. Sometimes our words have produced bitter fruit in those who heard them. Often, we have lashed out without thinking. All too often we open our mouths only long enough to change feet. When it comes to words, we all have much of which to repent.

            David used his royal authority in conscience toward God. I believe that one of the most important lessons of life is to be found in the issue of authority. We have all had authority, or power, of one kind or another. That authority may have been over lesser living creatures such as pets or animals; authority over children; authority over employees or parishioners; authority over budgets, equipment and other resources. In the real world, the strong have power over the weak. For the wicked, “weakness is a provocation.” It is a signal to them to fill the power vacuum, to hurt, to conquer. For the righteous, the weakness of others is an opportunity to serve, to strengthen, to protect, to help, to rescue or to heal. Paul wrote: “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For even Christ did not please himself…” (Romans 15:1-3a).

            We are not here strictly for ourselves, but for others. We are here to do good and to leave our part of the world a little better than we found it if at all possible. If we can strengthen the weak, help the helpless, and learn to forgive, forget and move on, we’ll have accomplished something of value with our brief sojourn on Planet Earth. The world we live in is full of evil and its fruits. There is much damage to be repaired, sickness to be healed and wounds to be bound up. There is plenty of room for godly people to seek to offset at least some of the evil, cruelty and destruction that fills the modern world.

            If we can point anyone toward God, we have done something in the interests of the kingdom. If we can extend the hand of mercy, we will have fulfilled Jesus’ beatitude: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy,” (Matthew 5:7). I don’t know about you, but I could use all of the mercy God is willing to extend me. In order to receive it, I must be willing to extend it to those for whom it is appropriate.

            For a true Christian, life is about being good, doing good, keeping clean, and learning to acquire the attributes of God. It is about walking daily in the power and leading of the Holy Spirit, and producing its fruit in our lives (James 1:27 & Galatians 5:22-26). The works of the flesh (Galatians 3:19 ff.) should be falling away, like the jettisoned pieces of a spent three-stage rocket as we ascend Godward in our conduct. As Paul writes, “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness,” (Ephesians 4:22-24).

            The way of life we once “enjoyed” was actually a way of death. What we once thought of as “cool,” “hip,” and fun can now be viewed through the eyes of the Spirit. Hatred, rage, fighting and hostility ought to be a thing of the past. Paul continues, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave us,” (Ephesians 4:31-32).

            It may be tough, but we’re here to learn to love unlovable people, to meet others at their points of real need, not with mere platitudes and well-wishing, but with actual help that provides for that need (Matthew 7:10). It is the need, not the other person’s loveability that dictates our action toward them. When people are most needy, they are not generally at their best. Was the man the Samaritan helped at his best lying bloody, filthy, naked and broke in a ditch at the side of a Roman road (Luke 10:30)? Of course not.

            Are the widows and orphans who are “in their distress” at their best? Not necessarily. They may be angry, discouraged, hateful, or even suicidal over their plight. Yet they need help and they need it now. The help they need may be financial. It may be nothing more than simple support and encouragement. It may involve auto repair, fixing a malfunctioning toilet or sink, or providing them with food. The point is, all of us experience the presence of needy people in our lives. They are forever in our faces. Often, like the priest and the Levite, we “walk by on the other side” turning a blind eye to their plight. Yet, being a Good Samaritan can be a high-risk behavior. Wisdom is required. Ask God for guidance before helping someone who appears to need it. Listen to the voice of the Spirit. A small, well-intentioned woman should not attempt to assist a large, aggressive male drunk! You get the picture.

            Life is too short to live it merely to accumulate material things, or to provide oneself with pleasures. Solomon tried that and discovered that it was an empty way of life. There is no real satisfaction in materialism. Jesus warned, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions,” (Luke 12:15).

            As Christians, we are bought with a price. That means we are here to serve the interests of Christ and the kingdom of God, not our own interests. We are salt and light in a pitch black world. There’s work to do. Before long, there’ll be nothing left of us but ashes and bones, and a legacy of…what? Good works? Works of the flesh? A squandered life lived in the service of the self? What?  Now is the time to decide.