For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die.
— Ecclesiastes 3:1,2
At times these words of Scripture come to me as something more than a song by the Kinks. Recently my wife and I returned home after spending time with our newest grandchild.
We were there when he was born in April and this was a return trip. Now that he’s 4 months old, we could see his personality coming to life. The two weeks we spent with him were precious.
After two days and almost 700 miles on the road, we returned home with a desire to take it easy. Less than 24 hours later, we received word that my wife’s father had died. Twenty-fours hours later, we were on the road to Georgia.
My father-in-law was a World War II veteran. Many years ago he had told me that he wanted to be buried at a national cemetery and for me to say a few words at the graveside. During visitation at the funeral home on the day of his burial, the funeral home director told me that I would have about 10 minutes at the cemetery because of the military honors and the busy schedule.
On the trip there, I mentally modified my remarks. On arrival at the North Georgia National Cemetery, I was informed by the person in charge that I would actually have only five to seven minutes. More editing was called for.
How do you sum up a life of 91 years in five to seven minutes? The several texts I had chosen gave way to the following: “Since we are surrounded by so great a clue of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight which holds us back and run with perseverance the race that is set before us” — my paraphrase of Hebrews 12:1.
Those rows of white marble markers bore witness to the men and women who had served their country faithfully and had now passed on to their ultimate reward. I had known my father-in-law for more than 45 years. In the time allotted, I could give only the most cursory view of his life. I felt honored to be able to say those final few words.
Births and deaths come on their own schedules. The Bible encourages us to always be aware of our tenuous hold on life and remember that it is a gift. Would we live our lives any differently if we knew that every choice we make might one day influence what will be said about us when we can no longer change the story?
I was once having lunch with a group of pastors when we got to talking about who we wanted to do our funerals. I told the group that I wanted someone who really knew me and was OK with that. As a pastor, I did hundreds of funerals. Some were for people I knew very well. Sadly, some were for people that I had never met.
I think the saddest one ever was for a father with one daughter. I met with her before the service and asked if she could share any special memories of her father that I could use for the service. After a moment, she replied, “ I can’t think of any.”
Most of us don’t like to talk about death in spite of its inevitability. In a previous church, I once announced the sermon title for the upcoming week as “What will I say at your funeral?” A young couple met me at the door and told me they would not be there because they didn’t think that was the kind of thing you should talk about at church. Go figure!
The Rev. Tim Chesser retired in May 2014 after serving as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Delaware for the previous 13 years.