My sweet sister, Judy, heard me present this message several years ago and requested that I share it with you today. It’s my privilege and blessing to do so.
I have a habit that some of my friends find somewhat curious.
I like to spend time in cemeteries. I like to walk in old cemeteries. And I like to make important decisions in cemeteries. And here’s why:
Death gives perspective to life.
When I’m walking in a cemetery it is easy for me to imagine that one day someone—maybe you—will be walking in the Palestine Cemetery and they’ll look over and see a gravestone with my name on it: Kim Jackson. Born May 2, 1957 -- died…well that date is to be determined. We all know that the most important part of that is not the date of my birth, which I know, or the date of my death, which I don’t know, but the dash in between which symbolizes all the days of my life that God has planned for me.
I was walking in an old cemetery in Manassas, Virginia, years ago when I came upon an gravestone of a woman who didn’t have many years in her dash, but from what I could tell by the words written on her stone, there was a lot of life in her few years. There were five simple words written on her gravestone that I believe succinctly and powerfully sum up a life well lived: She went about doing good.
At that moment I began wondering, could I sum up my life in five words? Could you?
To think about it more deeply I did a mental exercise, and I’m going to ask you to join me in doing it today. Let’s pretend that we all just died. And in a couple of days the engraver who is working on our gravestone calls the people closest to us: our family, friends, coworkers. And the conversation goes something like this:
“I’ve got your loved one’s name, date of birth and date of death on the gravestone, but I’ve got enough room left over for say, oh, five words. Could you give me five words that best describe your loved one, words that sum up the passion and purpose of their life?"
What would those five words be?
I began thinking of some of my acquaintances—not my closest friends—but people that I know and have observed how they spend the majority of their time, energy and resources, and their frequent topics of conversation. Here are a few words that come to mind when I consider what seems to be the focus of their lives:
His yard always looked great
She retired early and traveled
He had a successful job
She kept an immaculate house
And in honor of Final Four Weekend: (He or She) was a sports fanatic.
Ludicrous, you say? Well I have another odd habit that may prove otherwise. I collect obituaries. Some of my favorites are from when I lived in Orlando. Every so often in the midst of several newspaper pages full of obituaries, one would be highlighted with a large headline. For example:
Paula K. Stephens loved her collection of dolls
Mayme Ballenger loved her bonsai trees
Lyda Hadley co-founded nudist resort
I rest my case.
Sociologist Tony Campolo once interviewed 50 people aged 95 years or older and asked them if they could change something about how they had lived their lives, what would it be? There were a variety of answers, but they fell in to three broad categories.
The first response was that they would risk more. They would do more things that took them out of their comfort zone. The wise person has said “You can’t steal second base with your foot firmly planted on first base.”
Secondly, they said they would reflect more. They would slow down and ponder the important matters of life.
And lastly, they said they would do more things that last after they’re dead. They would do more things of an eternal nature. Wise words coming from people who have lived over nine decades.
Contrary to what you may be thinking, I don’t spend all my days pondering death, but there is another place that always makes me consider eternity: when I’m flying. I’m on airplanes quite a bit, and each time I fly back to North Carolina I’ll hear the flight attendant’s voice on the intercom just as we’re landing: “Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Charlotte, North Carolina. If you have a connecting flight here we’d like to wish you a pleasant journey to your final destination.”
Final destination. We all have one. And while we can’t choose how we die or when, we can choose how we live, and we can be confident of where we will spend eternity.
I don’t know if Judy chose her five words after she heard me present this message. But looking at her life, I chose five words for her: Judy lived a faithful life. She was faithful to her husband, faithful to her family, to her church, to her friends, and most importantly to her God. And not only was she faithful, she was full of faith.
Yet one day, if the Lord tarries, someone will be walking in a cemetery and they’ll look over and see a gravestone with your name on it.
What will your five words be?
(c) Kim Jackson 1999-2016