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Some Thoughts Born In A Cemetery

II Chronicles 21:16-20; I Kings

The thoughts I wish to share with you today were born in a cemetery. Of course, we never think of anything being born in a cemetery—it is not a place for the beginning of life, but for the end of it. Yet what I want to share with you today had its beginnings in a cemetery…

Last fall, I preached at the funeral service for my grandmother. It was a time when my entire extended family gathered in Mobile, Alabama to celebrate the life of this extraordinary woman known to us as “Maman.” The sharp reality of death always seems to carve deep lines upon the memory, and so it was for us during those days. But one memory of that time stands out for me. Our family gathered in the old Magnolia Cemetery, the place where for many generations members of my family have been buried. There we laid to rest the body of my grandmother and said our prayers and bid our farewells to her. Then something unusual happened—something spontaneous, unexpected, unrehearsed. My Uncle Robert, who is our family’s historian, suddenly gathered up all of Maman’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren and he took us on a walk along the rows of tombstones in that place, pointing out to us the names of our family members, noting their epitaphs, and telling stories about them. There were dozens of them and as we walked and listened, we were struck silent by this startling revelation of who we are as a family and by the quality of the lives of those who have gone before us.

Yet something else burrowed its way down into my heart that day and it has never left me. I was astonished at how many of the individuals buried there had died rather young. There was a father, not yet forty, who had accomplished much but whose best years were still ahead. There was a girl, just beginning to don the apparel of adulthood when death came calling. There were the graves of children, and even a couple of stones marking the lives of those who died in infancy. As I stood there in that cemetery, bathed in a bright autumn sun, confronted by the names of people in my family who died young, I tried to remember those in the Bible for whom death came early. Three names came to mind—two from the Old Testament, one from the New.

The two names that came to my mind from the Old Testament were Jehoram and Abijah.

I read for you a moment ago the epitaphs engraved upon their stones. “Here lies Jehoram. He died with no one’s regret.” And “Here lies Abijah. He died and all of Israel mourned.” Remember, please, that both died young. Jehoram lingered a while—there was a long sickness followed by a terribly painful death. For Abijah, it was all over in an evening—death came quickly. But for both of them death came early.

The clock of life is wound but once
And no one has the power
To know just when the hands will stop
At late or early hour.

For both Jehoram and Abijah, it stopped at early hour. Yet please see what we learn from these two. Though for some the span of life may be short, every life, whether long or short, does leave some mark. Every life does write its own epitaph.

Jehoram was evil, so he wrote in evil. He was selfish. He dishonored women.
He worshipped idols instead of God. Everything about his life was stained by his own wrongdoing, and consequently when he died, he died with no one’s regret. No one was sorry. No one came to the funeral. No one wept. An ugly life leaves an ugly epitaph. It happens every time.

Abijah’s life was also short, but when he died we are told that all of Israel mourned him. All the people of Israel, rank upon rank, the rich and the poor, the prominent and those whom nobody knew—they all wept for him as if a son in their own family had died.

It is said of the great ballerina Anna Pavlova, that her technique was flawless and her compassion limitless. When she died, a memorial concert was held. At the concert they played the music for which she was best known, “The Dying Swan.” The curtain lifted. The stage was darkened, except for one spotlight which fell upon the boards of the stage at the every place where she would have been standing had she lived. As the music played, the spotlight moved across the stage following exactly the steps which would have been hers. And everyone stood in silent grief. Well, there was such light in young Abijah’s life that when he died the light remained and all Israel stood in silent grief.

You see, every life makes a mark. We write our own epitaphs. Jehoram and Abijah both wrote their own epitaphs. No one else wrote them for them. Jehoram was the son of Jehoshaphat, one of the greatest kings in the Old Testament. So Jehoram grew up in what seemed to be an ideal environment. Yet he chose the way of evil. He ruined his life. Circumstances did not do it. He did it. Abijah, on the other hand, had a father, Jeroboam, who was the worst king Israel ever had. Abijah was the son of a wicked man in a wicked family at a wicked time. His circumstances were dreadful, but he conquered them and made for himself such a beautiful life that when he died, all Israel mourned.

We write our own epitaph. In Port Gibson, Mississippi there is a cemetery where you will find these words carved on a tombstone: “Here lies the body of Bob Dent; He kicked up his heels and to hell he went.”I contrast that with the epitaph on the stone of one of my grandfathers. When he died he was the presiding judge of the Alabama Circuit Court, and his tombstone reads: “A judge whose justice flowed out of a heart of mercy.”

You see, there are always two factors involved in the building of a life: There is what happens to us in life and there is what we do with what happens to us in life. Don’t blame your parents for any problems you have in life. Don’t blame heredity or environment. Look in the mirror and ask yourself “what are you doing with what has come your way in life?” Look at Jehoram and Abijah. Or look at Jane and Al. Jane and Al grew up on the same block in Chicago. Their childhood years were spent under almost identical circumstances. Jane went on to live a perfectly beautiful life, founding the Hull Houses of Charity across the eastern United States: Jane Hull was her name. And Al, her friend and neighbor—well, he made a name for himself, too. He died a pathetic, diseased parolee from prisons Al Capone was his name.

We write on our epitaph by the way we live. To say that our lives are shaped and controlled and determined by our environment and our circumstances is a cop-out. It’s just a convenient way of avoiding personal responsibility for our actions—and that runs counter to our Christian faith. You know how it is in chess —the white always moves first. If you play chess as poorly as I do, you can win or lose regardless of whether you are playing white or black, moving first or second. But for chess masters, drawing the first move assures them of victory, or, at least a tie, unless they commit some foolish blunder. Some people look at their circumstances in life and think that the best they can do is a tie. Then I remember Efram Bogulubov, the great chess master of the 30’s who used to say: “When I am white I win because I am white. When I am black I win because I am Bogulubov.” He understood, you see, that the outcome was in his hands—that there are always two things: what happens to you and what you do with what happens to you. My friends, the epitaph to our lives is not written by circumstance or environment. We write it ourselves.

I thought about that as I walked among the tombstones of the old Magnolia Cemetery last fall. And I have to ask myself: “What mark have you made in your life? Is anyone changed, anyone lifted, anyone loved because of you?” Jehoram’s epitaph read: “He died with no one’s regret.” Abijah’s read: “He died and all Israel mourned!” What will my epitaph say? Or yours?

But that day in the cemetery I thought about One in the New Testament who died young.

His name, of course, was Jesus. I look at Him and at His life and at His death, and I am reminded that life is serious. We dare not treat it lightly. We dare not put off until tomorrow what should be done now. For as I stood by the graves of those in my family who died so young, I was reminded that tomorrow may never come. More times than I want to have to remember I have stood at the graveside to bury the young.

I remember the time when a cemetery echoed with the sound of a 21-gun salute and with heels clicking at attention as young soldiers folded the flag, and handed it to a mother who just days before had heard a representative from the Department of the Army say: “I regret to inform you that your son was killed in action near Khe Sanh.” I well remember the day when we carried to the cemetery the body of a young boy who was struck by lightning in a terrible storm, and I don’t suppose I was ever able to answer those parents’ question: “Why?” Or I think of the time I buried one of my best friends and his son—they were killed by a drunk driver—and I tried to preach and to pray as we placed them side by side in the cemetery. I think I left a piece of my heart in that place. And, of course, I remember the young people in this congregation, so bright and attractive and full of life, cut down long before their time, and I have struggled for all I am worth to try to help their families find a way to live on. But then I go on to remember that God our Father had a son. And in great love God gave that Son to die for us and God then sat by the grave of His young Son and mourned a while, until on Easter, He gave to His Son and to all of us life eternal.

Therefore, my friends, the great tragedy in life is not to die—not even to die young. The great tragedy is to die without having lived. The ultimate tragedy is to die without having lived with Christ and for Christ.

I mentioned earlier the little town in Port Gibson, Mississippi. My great-grandfather served as the minister of the Presbyterian Church there. It is one of the most unusual churches in the world. It’s architectural style is classic and it has a towering steeple. But atop that steeple is not a cross, but an immense golden hand, with the fingers folded except for the index finger pointing toward the heavens. The greatest tragedy in life is not to die, but to die without having responded to the upward call of God in Jesus Christ.

Back during the Second World War there were some young American soldiers gathered in the basement of a London Church on the night before they were to be shipped out to combat on the coast of France. They were being entertained by members of the congregation. Afterward, a spokesperson for the soldiers stood to voice the group’s thanks to the church people. He expressed his gratitude, but then he went one sentence too far. It slipped out. He said: “Tomorrow we go to France and perhaps to die.” He wished he hadn’t said it. The ensuing silence was terribly awkward. Then he suddenly blurted out: “Can any of you tell us how to die?” One older woman got up, walked over to the piano and began to play and to sing the great aria from Mendelssohn’s “Elijah”, “Oh Rest in the Lord.”

That’s the way for us to live—resting in the Lord. And that’s the way for us to die—resting in the Lord. So my beloved, do not think of where you will die—at home or on highway or in hospital. Do not think of when you will die—at late or early hour or sometime in between. Think only of this: when the moment of death comes will you be resting in Jesus? Will Jesus be so much with you in life that after your death those who go to that place where memories are etched in marble will see your stone and read its epitaph: “My dying is nothing but the most beautiful of beginnings. Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit”? Is that the way it will be for you? Is that what your epitaph will say?

Well…

Those are my thoughts born one day in a cemetery.

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