I’ve always been fascinated by graveyards. This stems, I think, not from an undue interest in the macabre, but rather with the sense of solemnity and connection to previous generations that a cemetery holds. Today as I walked from home to my office at church I stopped off at something that I only noticed yesterday even though I’ve passed it almost daily for the last two years- a small cemetery delineated by crude and crumbling stack-stone walls.
Here’s the first of several pictures I took:
As you can see it appears this graveyard is a small family plot dating at least back into the mid 1800s. As such, it is not much of a novelty in a state like South Carolina; yet for a recent transplant like myself who hails from a region of the country where anything older than about a hundred years tends to be Native American and thus tragically neglected and ill preserved, such distant dates hand-chiseled in stone still hold a real appeal.
Yet even more than the graveyard itself, I was struck today by the fact that this solemn little place has become something of a sacred island in a sea of secular advance. It sits perched just feet from a sprawling parking lot and shopping center. In fact, the edge of the cemetery is only about five feet away from the closest building, meaning that it might actually be closer to the people inside than the people below, if you go by the traditional six foot reckoning.
Three reflections seem apropos.
1. Remember how Quickly We Will Be Forgotten
The names on these headstones once conjured up a lifetime of memories and feeling at their mere mention. December 25 (!), 1774 was probably a date of intense joy for many. May 8, 1853, was probably a date of intense mourning and loss. Now they are just dates on a weathered slab of stone most people will never notice.
I doubt that even the descendants of the departed feel much of an emotional attachment to the names inscribed. Everyone who knew them is also dead. The world has moved on, quite literally, all around their final resting place. The most important events in their lives are forgotten. Their most precious moments don’t matter anymore. No one knows, no one remembers, and so no one cares.
We make way too much of our own staying power. It’s like the old quote (with various attributions) says:
You are going to die. They are going to drop you in a hole. They are going to throw dirt in your face and go back inside the church and eat potato salad.
The point is not the detract from the dignity of death and the solemnity of the moment, the point is to arrest our own self importance. We let controversy and conflict ruin our lives, but after we’re dead it’s very likely no one will even remember what we were fighting about, let alone care. Remember how quickly we will all be forgotten, and try to care about the stuff that actually matters.
Which leads us well into the next reflection.
2. Don’t Gain the World at the Cost of Your Soul
Remember that building that’s about five feet away from the graveyard wall? It’s actually a fitness center. It’s full of people running and jumping and lifting and trying desperately to stave off the inevitable. With hard work you can make yourself look ten years younger, but you can’t really stop the clock. That chiseled physique is going six feet deep.
What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, yet lose his soul?
The answer to the rhetorical question is obvious: nothing. It gains you nothing to be the fittest, richest, most powerful person on earth if you neglect the one thing you actually can take with you after death- your eternal soul. You are not merely a body, you have a spiritual life that death can never kill. That’s how God made you, and one day you’re going to stand in his presence.
This isn’t a sentimental post about trying to motivate you to spend more time with family or give money to charity, noble as those efforts may be. This is about you and God, face to face. It will happen. You will be there. And all that will matter in that moment is your sin. Your sin will condemn you and you will go through something that feels like a second death- only it will go on forever and ever into eternity. Hell is for real.
But the gospel held out to you (from God himself, no less) is that Jesus Christ has lived a perfect life in your place. He never sinned, and he offers his perfect record to you for the taking. It’s free. Furthermore, he has suffered on the cross the penalty that sin requires. He suffered it until it killed him, but after three days he rose from the dead. He fought sin on your behalf, and he won.
Having the things that Jesus did applied to you so that you will go to heaven instead of hell is what salvation is all about. God has graciously provided a way to to saved, really and truly saved.
Please, please, please go to a church that preaches this gospel and talk to them about it. Don’t chose the escapism of the shopping center and ignore the cemetery that’s only five feet away.
What a blessing it is to have this third reflection:
3. Christians Do Not Need to Sorrow as Others Who Have No Hope
It only seems fitting to end these reflections with a quotation of what the Apostle Paul wrote to Christians as they struggle with the sorrowful reality of death’s awful advance:
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 ESV)
If you are trusting in this gospel for your forgiveness and living a life a faith in Jesus Christ, be encouraged. If you are not, be encouraged to come and meet Jesus in a real and saving way for the very first time. Don’t put it off.
Don’t be so focused on the shopping center that you ignore the inevitable cemetery. Be ready.
(By: Nicolas Alford)