14. An End...And A Beginning

"A worthless person, a wicked man,
goes about with crooked speech,
winks with his eye, signals with his feet,
points with his finger, with perverted heart devises evil,
continually sowing discord;
therefore calamity will come upon him suddenly;
in a moment he will be broken beyond healing."
Proverbs 6:12-15

“The heart of a man plans his way,
but the Lords establishes his steps.”
Proverbs 16:9

All was quiet in the sanctuary, except for the sounds of people shifting in their seats. Every now and then, someone would clear his throat or muffle a sob. The sanctuary was fairly full, not because the people knew the man being buried today, but because they had grown up with and cherished his widow. 

The clock on the wall showed that it was 2pm. Pastor Greg walked to the center of the stage, carrying his thin leather Bible in one hand. He looked around the room, great sadness in his eyes. He opened his Bible and began to read, his voice thick with emotion.

“‘Absolute futility. Absolute futility! Everything is futile.’” He shook his head, pausing to look down at the casket, then he continued to read. “‘What does a man gain for all his efforts that he labors at under the sun? A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.’

He paused again, looking around the room. His gaze lingered on Charlotte, who sat bent on the front row, silently weeping into her hands. He spoke again, emphasizing each word, “‘All things are wearisome; man is unable to speak….What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done. And there is nothing new under the sun.’

Three rows back sat The Man, his own eyes puffy from grief. Though he’d never met The Uncle, he wept for a life lost. He wept because this man could have been him, had he not called on Jesus. He wept for the girl he had been praying for these last few years, who lay unconscious in a room at Grace Memorial at this very moment. He looked at the picture displayed next to the closed casket. It was a portrait of The Uncle, sitting tall and proud in his uniform. The Man wept because of their many small connections. Was there something I could have done? Why did I never try to connect with them? The Man reached over and gently took the hand of The Friend, who cried beside him.

She wiped her eyes with a tissue and squeezed his hand. She was so sad this day, and she wept for the widow who grieved on the front row. Though how their marriages ended differed, she understood the loss that Charlotte now felt. She wept for this family, who had been torn apart by a tragedy that had touched them all twenty years earlier. She wept for The Sister she had found lying on the graves just a few days ago, and she wondered if she could have done more over the years, had she not been so consumed with her own life. 

Pastor Greg walked over to a small table near center stage, placing his open Bible on top. “Church, it is on days like today that we cannot deny the futility of this life. The brokenness, the heartache, it all seems utterly and completely futile…meaningless. Meaningless!” His voice cracked, and he suppressed his own sorrow. He walked down the platform slowly, moving to stand behind the beautiful oak casket. 

“And so we’ve opened our Bibles to Ecclesiastes, and it is here that we find the song of our hearts today, a melody played in the minor key. We agree with the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, who says in verse 2 of chapter 1, ‘Absolute futility. Absolute futility. Everything is futile.’” He looked down to the casket, gently brushing his hand along the delicate handiwork, thinking.

“Today, we bury a man. We bury a man who faithfully served our country for his entire adult career. We bury a man who went by the names husband, friend, son, brother, and uncle. We bury a man who concealed many dark secrets, some which became known in his last days, much to his great sorrow and mortification.

“Most might have called him a brave man. Many would have called him a good man. In the end, some may have called him a foolish man. And I can’t help but wonder as we bury him today, if, on the day of his death, he might have agreed with the Teacher. Maybe he would have said, ‘Absolute futility. Absolute futility. Everything is futile.’” 

Pastor Greg turned, climbing the stairs to the stage once more. He looked around the large sanctuary, seeing some faces he knew, but others he didn’t. “Is his story your story, as well? Do you agree with the Teacher of Ecclesiastes, that all is futile, a striving after the wind? And is there hope that your life could be different?

“A funeral like today’s is one of the most difficult tasks a pastor must face. I didn’t know this man, only what Charlotte’s told me about him. We talked extensively yesterday. Though the message today is to the point and difficult to hear, Charlotte didn’t want me to sugarcoat the tragedy of this situation. 

“You see, this man we are burying was a man who rejected Jesus Christ for his entire life. When Charlotte became a Christ follower several years into their marriage, he mocked the gospel. Even in Charlotte’s last conversation with her husband, a phone call just minutes before his death, he raged against God to his wife. 

“We can’t help but wonder, did he call on God in his dying breaths? Was there time for him to repent, and did he embrace the grace of Jesus in those final moments? We will never know on this side of eternity, though we can certainly hope that he did.”

Pastor Greg looked to The Man, who nodded his head. The Friend squeezed his hand once more, knowing what was coming. “Another story is still being written among us. A different man sits in this room today, and many of you know him. He is The Man who survived the train crash twenty years ago. Though he, too, rejected Jesus for most of his life, including in what he thought were his final moments, the Lord gave him another chance. He miraculously survived that tragic accident, and praise the Lord, he didn’t waste that opportunity. For the last twenty years, this Man has followed Jesus faithfully. 

“The contrast today is stark and undeniable. Today, we bury a man who didn’t receive another chance. He bitterly rejected the many opportunities he was given in his life. The grace of God is a mysterious thing, and we can never know when we might take our last breaths. As we bury this one today, we are reminded that we are not always guaranteed another opportunity to call on the Lord in repentance.” Walking over to his Bible, Pastor Greg stood silent as he turned the delicate pages.

“The Teacher of Ecclesiastics didn't sustain the melody in the minor key. At the end of his book, he says in 12:13-14, ‘When all has been heard, the conclusion of the matter is: fear God and keep His commands, because this is for all humanity.’”

He set his Bible down once more, pulling up a stool to sit. “Church, friends, and those of you I have never met, this is the conclusion of the matter. There are many things to fear in this world, but if we don’t get our fears right, the end is truly futile…meaningless. 

“Proverbs 8:35 tells us, “For whoever finds wisdom finds life.’ And do you know what the beginning of wisdom is? Proverbs 9:10 tells us, ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’ Fear the Lord, church. Fear the Lord, even you who don't yet know Him. Call on Jesus today, that you might live! Otherwise, it is all only absolute futile. 

“Let’s pray.”

_______________________

The continual beeping was the first thing that entered her consciousness. At first, it sounded dull and far away. Then slowly, as if being pulled out of a tunnel, the sound grew louder, clearer, until…her eyes fluttered opened. 

The ceiling above her was white, with lamps and instruments hanging from it. The glow of a light to her left dimly lit the clean, sparse room. She began to move, and a pounding headache met her attempt. She groaned, lifting her hand to her head. Wires followed her arm, and slowly, she began to remember what happened. 

I’m alive. How am I still alive? 

She moaned, her throbbing headache growing in intensity. A nurse walked by the room and noticed she was awake.

“Well look who has come back to life!” She smily warmly, and her eyes shimmered with tears. The Sister’s eyes followed this kind woman, and all she could do was slowly nod. The nurse tinkered with a few buttons and gently raised The Sister’s bed a little so that she could take in her surroundings. After ascertaining that The Sister’s head was experiencing significant pain, she increased some medicine in her IV. 

The nurse was gentle and kind, and her joy at The Sister’s awakening was evident. “I’ll let you rest now,” she said as she turned to leave. She stopped at the doorway and looked back at The Sister. Tears sparkled in her eyes. “You don’t remember me, but I knew your parents. I’m so glad you’re home.”

As the nurse quietly exited, The Sister familiarized herself with her hospital room. Her door was opened, and she watched different hospital personnel pass by every now and then. A small table was on her right, and she gasped when she recognized the shoebox sitting there. 

She seemed to hear a quiet whisper drifting through her mind, saying, It’s time. She didn’t know where it had come from, but she knew she could trust it. Slowly, she reached out, touching the worn and weathered box. She lifted it and softly placed it on to her lap. 

She fingered the now faded ribbon Aunt Charlotte had tied around this box many years ago. It had never been untied since. She worked at the knot with her fingers, and it took her a while to loosen the stubborn ribbon. At last, it fell to the sides of the box, and reverently, she lifted the lid, both hopeful and fearful of what she might find. 

As she peered into the box for the first time, gentle tears slipped down her pale cheeks. She reached in to retrieve the items on top. A pearl necklace, one she remembered her mom wearing often when she went on fancy dates with her dad. A small notebook, filled with prayers in her mother’s handwriting. A sealed envelope with her dad’s handwriting on the front, “To my beloved middle daughter on her 18th birthday.” A little late for that, she thought, but she smiled and brought the letter to her face. 

Many other small trinkets and treasures were contained in the box, until at last, she came to the last item that rested on the bottom of the box. She pulled out a leather-bound notebook and opened it to the front page. Below the “property of” line, her brother had scribbled his name in his trademark messy handwriting. Why did Aunt Charlotte save this for me? She turned the pages, laughing at several entries that detailed arguments they’d had. We were so immature and silly! Why did we ever fight about these things?

Skipping to the last entry, she noted the date. March 10. It had been the last day of his life, though her brother didn’t know it that morning when he wrote the entry. She decided to read his thoughts, intrigued when she saw that it wasn’t simply his usual recounting of events. It was a prayer. Her weary eyes drank in his scratchy, beloved handwriting. 

Lord, I’ve had so much fun this week with my family. Thank you! I wish all of us could have been together. I’ll never tell my sister, but I’m actually excited to pick her up when she gets back from camp. I don’t know why, God, but she has really been on my heart this week. She was sad that she didn’t get to come on our trip. I felt bad for her. I hope that her time at children’s camp was amazing. Help me to be kind to her, God. We fight so much, and I know a lot of the time I’m just annoyed by her. I should be more patient. God, I pray that she becomes a Christian before it’s too late. Like Mr. Andrews said last Sunday, we were all created to have a relationship with You, and that is where we find our true home. I want this for my sister, too. I pray my sister realizes she needs you and calls on You for salvation. Help me to show her, God, what you’ve shown me. Home is not in this life. Home is with You. Amen.

She stared at the page, hearing only her quiet breathing and the steady beep of the heart monitor. In and out. Beep, beep. In and out. Beep, beep. 

“Home.” She said hoarsely, and her voice sounded strange to her ears. “Home,” she said again, more strongly this time, with consuming longing. She read her brother’s prayer once more with deep wonder and reverent awe. Could this be what I’ve been searching for all these years? Does my brother speak to me now, twenty years after his death?

A noise at the door drew her attention from the journal. Aunt Charlotte stood in the doorway, crying her own tears of sadness and joy. 

The Sister dropped the journal in her lap. “Aunt Charlotte,” she said meekly, crying. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry for everything!”

Aunt Charlotte hurried to her bedside, embracing this child who was now a woman, the only daughter she’d ever known. “Don’t speak another word of it, my sweet and precious girl. You’re home now, and you’re alive! We’re together again. That’s all that matters.” 

Aunt Charlotte’s mention of home caused a stirring in The Sister’s heart. “Aunt Charlotte, I want to be home. It’s all I’ve ever wanted! I desperately want home!” She picked up the journal, showing Aunt Charlotte the prayer.

The Sister wept tears of confession and repentance that day. Crying rom the depths of her soul, she at last acknowledged and declared her need for Jesus. And on that day, The Sister finally found her home.