“Be careful with this, his remains are heavier than you might think,” the receptionist at the funeral home said as she handed me a green cloth bag containing the urn.
Using two hands, I gently carried the bag back to my car and laid it on the passenger seat. To be honest, I was slightly creeped out. For several moments I just stared at the bag.
Most of my life is lived quickly and noisily. As a full-time Pastor with four young children, I’m used to frantic and loud! Most trips in my car are a last minute rush to an appointment or soccer game. The music is usually cranked up and I often do my best Mario Andretti imitation as I race my silver, 4-cylinder Chevy Aveo to whatever finish line awaits.
This was different.
I’m not accustomed to death riding in the passenger seat next to me. Suddenly my small car seemed even more cramped. Time appeared to slow and quiet as I considered the package I must now deliver.
Taking a deep breath, I shifted into gear and began driving to the cemetery where I would join Robert’s immediate family to lay the urn into the ground. Just like every other graveside service I’ve ever attended, the weather had shifted to match our mood. The day was bright, but the sunshine contained no warmth, the mild breeze was now biting and cold. We clutched our coats tightly and wrapped our arms around one another. I took the urn from the green bag and placed it deep in the earth. I read a few passages of Scripture and then, with tears flowing, we laid down our flowers and our expectations and said our final goodbyes.
As I drove back to my life I continued to reflect on that urn and ponder her words.
“His remains are heavier than you might think.”
“Really,” I wondered? Does that small, over-priced container hold the remains of my friend Robert? After 66 years of a full life, is this all that is left?
In one sense, yes – Robert’s life ended in the torment that cancer inflicts as it overtakes its victims. Robbed of his physical strength and vitality, he was forced to leave this world gaunt and gasping. His urn contained all that was left of a cancer-riddled corpse.
In another sense, no – no way could an urn full of ashes explain what remains of Robert. A simple box could never contain the impact, legacy or memories of one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever had the chance to meet.
What then are the remains of life?
What is it from our time on this earth that will live on after we die? Is there anything that continues? Or, like some board game, when the game is over, does it all go back in the box?
Most of us have asked these kinds of questions at one time or another.
Perhaps death stole someone you love and in the wake of your loss you wondered, “Is this it? How can things just move on? How can others keep going as if this life and death didn’t matter?”
Maybe you have been outdoors on a warm summer night and you found yourself mesmerized by the mystery of the stars or the bright dancing of the campfire flames. Something inside of your spirit stirred and you just knew that there must be more to this life than living and dying.
Possibly you’ve looked into the eyes of a child and have been stunned by their innocence and beauty. You found yourself longing to give them the very best of life but you weren’t sure exactly what that was or how to pass it on. There is an inner compass in each of us searching for a purpose beyond our time on earth. We long to know what is important enough to live for and strong enough to remain.
I’ve spent a good portion of my time on earth panning for the nuggets of life’s remains. Like you, I’ve witnessed the good, bad and ugly in the world around me, and the world in me, and wondered to myself what it’s all for. I’ve tasted from the heights of joy and depths of loss, and wondered how they could exist so closely together. One minute I am experiencing the thrill of doing what I am created to do, only to find myself in the next minute doing the very thing I know hurts me and those I care about most. I seem to move randomly from saint to sinner. There are days when I believe God is the closest and most real thing in the world. Words like glory and salvation are stirring and even thrilling to me. On other days when I look around me and see little meaning and much mess, I can hardly believe that anyone could believe.
Perhaps all these jumbling thoughts explain why I was so captured when I read these words from an ancient author suggesting that there ARE things that remain in this world after we are gone.
“Now these three remain; faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love.”
Faith, hope and love … when history has worn out to an ash heap, these three will still be standing. As I’ve pondered these three virtues, I have been increasingly captured by their worth. Their value rings true to my experiences of life and death and to my inner searching.
If these words are true, then the receptionist was right that day. Robert’s remains are heavier than I was thinking they would be. They are more substantial and significant than I first realized. But, they were not in that urn. No one can limit them to a container or bury them in the ground.
Because of the way that Robert invested his life, his remains exist today. They are present in the lives of his friends and family. They are alive in this world in the hundreds of people Robert interacted with. Because of what Robert put into motion by his decisions, words and actions there are current realities that would not be present had he not lived life as he did. Not everything remains. Robert’s poor choices, his negative qualities, his bank account and even our memories of him are already fading. It won’t be long until even his name is forgotten. But there are remains. All in his life that was invested in faith, hope and love will carry on.
Robert’s vision of God spurred him to secretly give thousands of dollars to charity and hundreds of hours to serving others. His faith lives on.
Robert’s convictions about eternity enabled him live his final five cancer-filled years with a dignity and depth that delivered hope and clarity to the hearts of each person he greeted.
Robert’s love for fishing, friends, church, his wife of 47 years and three children stitched together a new reality for all those who had the pleasure of knowing him.
The world you and I live in is a bigger and better place because of his remains.
I still have that green bag. It’s under the seat of my Formula One Dragster, silver Aveo. I take it out once in a while to carry books or my son’s soccer shoes. It reminds of my friend Robert and what remains.