Some years ago in a former parish I was asked by a man not connected with our church if I might come to his home and meet with his wife for the purpose of planning her funeral. By this time she’d been ill for a number of months, and she clearly knew her time was short; so there were things she wanted to discuss with me before she died, which not only included what she wished to have happen at her eventual memorial service, but also a few things that she was quite adamant not happen!
Actually, as I recall, despite the subject matter the conversation turned out to rather pleasant and quite lively as she proceeded to grill this local pastor about hymns, scripture passages and the theological and social significance of all the various and sundry traditions that go along with such gatherings in the church! Eventually, however, she began to talk about other matters as well; telling me about things she was doing in these waning days of her life, as well as expressing concern as to some things she felt she needed to do in the time she had left. Notice that I didn’t say what she wanted to do, but what she needed to do; as evidenced by a long list of tasks, both large and small, that she’d written very neatly and carefully on a folded piece of paper and to which she referred often as we spoke.
For instance, there had been an old friend with whom at one time she’d been very close, but since a falling out years before, they’d hardly spoken. She’d long regretted what had happened; but now, finally, she’d sought out her friend to apologize and make things right. Her list was filled with things like that, and so much more; most prominently a series of mostly small promises she’d made to her children and grandchildren over the years that she was intent on honoring, as well as bits of wisdom and words of love she was determined to share with husband and family and friend alike.
It was with great enthusiasm and, dare I say, a distinct tone of joy in her voice that she described to me these crucial tasks that lay before her. And as I listened, it suddenly occurred to me that I was sitting in the lovely living room of a beautiful house, surrounded by a huge yard with a swimming pool in the back; this was clearly everything this woman and her husband had worked so many years to have and to enjoy. And yet it was also clear that there was not a single item on her list of crucial things to do that had anything at all to do with her home, her yard, her pool, her wealth or her “things.” Everything on that list had to do with the people she loved; it was about setting things aright; about extending as much love and care as she possibly could in whatever time she had left in this life. She was determined to make it all happen; and even as frail as her body had become, there was nonetheless a lightness to her heart and a brightness about her spirit that was a true inspiration.
Among those Jesus encountered “along the way” was a man who cried out from the crowd for Jesus to please intervene for him in an apparently ongoing conflict he was having with his brother over a family inheritance. There was some rhyme and reason to such a request, as Jewish law did address such matters and Jesus would seem the perfect arbitrator for such a dispute; but rather than get caught up in a family feud, Jesus used the moment to warn against “the least bit of greed,” and to remind all those around that “life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot.” (Luke 12:15, “The Message”) Jesus goes on to tell the story of a “rich fool” who stores up ample resources for himself, but who is “not rich toward God;” (12:21, NRSV) and at the (imminent!) end of his life discovers that ultimately he had nothing at all of real value.
It’s yet another reminder from Jesus that the so-called “good life” does not consist of riches and possessions, but that which grows out of our relationship with God; and by extension, our relationships with one another. Understand, the point that Jesus makes here is not that we shouldn’t be saving for the future; nor is it even that we should not, in the words of Ecclesiastes, “eat and drink and take pleasure in all [our] toil,” (3:13) enjoying all that we have been given, for this is truly God’s gift. But Jesus would also have us remember that real life and true security is not found therein, but wholly in the ways that we direct ourselves and the substance of our riches toward God; and ultimately it’s in living lives girded on that priority that every other good thing we can ever hope to experience follows.
I’ll confess that there are moments, now that our children are all grown, that I lament not having done more of the “big ticket” activities when they were little; you know, taking the kind of vacations that are filled with amusement parks and concerts and “Griswald” styled cross-country road trips to Walley World. On such occasions I’ll find myself thinking that if there’d only been more money and more time back in those days then maybe we could have actually done some of those things, and our children would have been the richer for it. And yet, these days on those all-too rare occasions we’re all together (inevitably at camp sitting around a campfire), the talk is never about the lack of those big events in their childhood but rather of all the memories they have of long ago family camping trips, days spent at the lake and all of the little, private jokes shared by a parcel of preacher’s kids that mean absolutely nothing to anyone else listening in, but which never fail to reduce our family unit to collective giggles. And it’s then that I realize that for my money – or, more accurately, the lack thereof – we were living the good life all along.
And so might that always be the goal.
c. 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry