I awake this morning feeling sad. Not because of a dream that I had, or worries about the day; nor because of anything that I am cognitively aware of. My subconscious mind has an amazing awareness of the date—February the 23rd.
Grieve it tells me.
This is the anniversary of my father’s death.
Recognizing this day’s significance, the latest episode of Downton Abbey comes to mind. To non-fans, Downton Abbey is an Edwardian soap opera; but to devotees, the Crawley family and their servants are like family. Last Sunday lady Mary Crawley viciously betrayed her sister Edith by gossiping to Edith’s suitor and thus ruining Edith’s hopes for marriage. Later in the same show, Mary is about to be wedded and Edith shows up unexpectedly for the celebration. Explaining this seemingly impossible act of forgiveness, Edith tells Mary “In the end, you’re my sister, and one day, only we will remember Sybil (their deceased sister) Or Mama or Papa … Or Granny or Carson or any of the others who have peopled our youth. Until at last, our shared memories will mean more than our mutual dislike.”
Shared memories of our loved ones are immensely valuable for surviving family members. The generation of my parents’ friends has entirely passed away, and my children barely knew them. So my surviving extended family and our older children are now the only people who can talk about my father and mother with vivid recollections.
There’s a passage in the Old Testament that is probably no one’s favorite Bible verse: “There is no eternal memory of the wise any more than the foolish, because everyone is forgotten before long” (Ecclesiastes 2:16, CEB). It’s hardly inspiring, but profoundly true. To those of us who knew him, my father was extraordinary; a scientist and a polymath, he helped Heparin—an essential medicine—to become more easily available. He built his own sailboat, and radio, and camera, and airplane. And yet, less than a decade after his death, only a handful of people think or talk about him. Ecclesiastes nailed it, everyone is forgotten before long.
This thinking at first appears only negative, but its truth can be redeemed. Skylight publishes a great little book by Rabbi Rami Shapiro titled Ecclesiastes: Annotated & Explained. In this book, Rabbi Shapiro discusses the Hebrew word yitron, “usually translated as ‘profit’ in the sense of something being left over after all is said and done.” He then shares this illustration, “what profit, in the sense of something left over, is there in burning a candle in the dark? None if we expect that something of value remains when the candle burns down and the flame sputters out. But this doesn’t mean there was no value when the candle was aflame. While nothing has permanent profit, many things can profit us in the moment.”
We immediately recognize the truth of this as regards literal candles; we ignite tea-lite or votive candles which provide a lovely sense of atmosphere and we never think “this is a lousy candle, because it will only burn for a finite amount of time.” No, we appreciate the candle while it is lit. The worth of a candle is not in its durability, but in its ability to illumine while lit.
Is the same not true of our lives, and the lives of our loved ones? As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us “It is not how long you live, but how well you do it.” Even if I created an immense marble edifice for my father’s ashes, that structure would decay over time and its meaning would be forgotten. My father’s memories will vaporize after my generation of the family passes—but that’s not a tragedy. It’s the only way this world exists; unless your name is Elvis, everyone is forgotten before long. What does ‘profit’ us is to live fully whilst alive, to be recklessly engaged in this moment’s enactment of God’s justice and peace. A good candle glows while lit, and if the tapers of our lives are healthy we will strive to be illumined and to illuminate.
Problems come when we become focused on longevity, on out-lasting our time to burn. We can expend crazy amounts of effort trying to memorialize the dead and even crazier energies attempting to gain some sort of personal immortality. Yet these misguided efforts detract from our burning brightly in the now.
Churches face the same exact problem, the temptation to focus on longevity rather than illumination. I serve as Church Growth Coordinator for the Southwest Conference, and when congregations contact me they are usually wishing to talk about survival. Conversations boil down to “How do we make our church last longer?” The more valuable question for churches is: How much light can we shine in the now? Without too much thought of the morrow, churches need to ask: whose lives can we bless and transform as who we are, where we are, in the present moment?
Ironically, churches that put their energies into blessing others in the present moment tend to be more attractive churches—and the paradoxical result of shining brighter in the now is a possible renewal of the church, an unexpected second life. Could the same thing, perhaps, be said for individual souls? The book that follows Ecclesiastes in canonical order, The Song of Songs, tells us “love is as strong as death…Its darts are…divine flame!” (Song of Songs 8:6, CEB). That great Christian novelist and apologist C.S. Lewis, in his novel The Great Divorce, puts these words into the sainted mouth of his mentor George McDonald, “Every natural love will rise again and live forever in this country (heaven) but none will rise again until it has been buried.” My father spoke little of spiritual matters, but he did once tell me, late in his life, that he expected to continue existing after death on another dimensional plane, and that he expected to be re-united with his wife, who would be on the same dimensional apogee.
So today I remember my father’s candle, after it has gone out. I reaffirm my intention to burn brightly in my time. And if the things that our Scriptures and traditions point to are true, then the love we light now may blaze on into an unforeseeable eternity.