In a small rural town, two brothers were known to be ruthless, lying, drunken, criminals who were always looking for trouble. The townspeople couldn’t stand them.
Then one fateful day, one of the brothers died. So the other brother went to the town preacher and stated emphatically he wanted a proper funeral for his brother, that he would pay the church an exorbitant sum to do so, but only if the preacher would proclaim loudly and directly that his brother was a saint.
The townspeople couldn’t believe it when they heard the preacher had agreed to those conditions.
A few days later the church was packed for the funeral. They weren’t there to pay their respects; they were there to see if the preacher would really sell out.
The preacher began the service, with the brother sitting front and center near the casket. Soon it was time for the eulogy. The preacher said, “Today we have come to remember this man for who he was: a ruthless, lying, drunken, criminal, who contributed nothing but shame and vitriol to society.”
Then for the next twenty minutes the preacher aired all the misdeeds of the man with everyone sitting in stunned silence— the brother seething with anger and clinched fists.
Then, in conclusion, the preacher said, “Indeed this man was a terrible person…” and then, after a dramatic pause, proclaimed loudly and directly, “But compared to his brother he was a saint!”
One moral of this story is…never try to manipulate or hustle the preacher who is going to deliver your eulogy.
Another moral is, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
Tom Vartabedian worked as a local newspaper reporter for 50 years. Over the course of his career, he wrote thousands of obituaries. Then one day he wrote one about himself.
You’d think this would be a downer, since “obituary” comes from the Latin word meaning “report of death,” but you’d be wrong. After finishing a draft, Vartabedian felt a sense of relief. He said, “I have written probably the most important story of my life.”
Obituaries mean a lot. Deeper than death notices, they reveal the core of a person’s life. So what should be included?
Vartabedian says, “Anything that is important to who you are as a person. Family. Career. Philanthropic endeavors. Hobbies. Maybe bowling trophies. Write the essence of you. Don’t leave anything to chance.”
In his obituary, Vartabedian wrote that his death followed a “courageous battle” with stage-four gastrointestinal cancer. At least he hoped it would be courageous. Still, he wasn’t afraid of dying, and was “really curious as to what’s on the other side.” He wondered about heaven, saying, “Hopefully, I’ll end up there.”
Vartabedian wrote his obit in May 2016. That November, he died.
A story in a neighboring paper said four words come to mind when Tom Vartabedian is mentioned: Family, church, heritage, Haverhill—Haverhill being Vaterabedian’s hometown. Not a bad core for a person’s life.
So, how would you write your obituary? What would you consider to be your essence? Family, church, heritage… What are your bowling trophies?
In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul has instructions on how Christians can lead meaningful lives, ones that lead to inspirational obituaries. He challenges us to act in ways that fulfill the law of God by loving our neighbors as ourselves. According to Paul all the commandments, from “you shall not commit adultery” to “you shall not covet” can be summed up in the word “love.” Love is so important that it is the only debt Paul permits. “Owe no one anything,” he insists, “except to love one another.”
Tom Vartabedian knew his time on earth was short, so he got busy writing his obituary. But in truth, he had been writing it his whole life. We may not have stage-four cancer, but our time to love is nonetheless running out. Paul tells us that “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers,” so we better jump on every opportunity to love our neighbors as ourselves. “Lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light,” urges Paul. “Live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.”
In other words, live your life so the preacher won’t have to turn a phrase at your funeral. Live your life with love in your heart and in your actions.
In his final column, Vartabedian wrote, “What you do for yourself invariably dies with you. What you do for others’ lives on and forms legacies.”
“Do for others,” said Vartabedian. “Love one another,” said Jesus, and the apostle Paul. However you phrase it, that’s the core of the Christian life.
What, then, are we doing today to write our obituary?
Every choice we make is adding a line to the story of our life. Whether we perform “works of darkness” or “put on the armor of light,” we are revealing the core of ourselves in ways that will eventually be reported. So we must write our story in the way we want to be remembered.
Jesus and Paul want us to be remembered for loving our neighbors as ourselves. To have this kind of obituary we don’t have to climb the corporate ladder, achieve impressive political victories, reach a high rank in the military, or invent a life-saving technology. We simply have to love.
Eddie Allen was born in South Carolina, the youngest of seven children. After completing high school, he migrated north to Connecticut. There he spent years working in local factories. He married Beverly and together they had four daughters, 11 grandchildren and one great-grandson.
Eddie’s resume was ordinary, but his obituary was extraordinary, reading, “The motto he lived by was ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Eddie would do whatever he could to help another. No task too big or too small to lend a helping hand. Known as ‘the Fish Man’ Eddie had a passion for deep sea fishing and frying his catch. One of his greatest loves was to provide a hot batch of fried fish for any occasion, or no occasion at all.”
Was Eddie Allen successful? Absolutely. His obituary said so, stating, “Eddie led a successful life because he loved everyone.”
Eddie Allen put on the armor of light because he loved everyone.
But maybe your obit will say you laid aside “the works of darkness.”
Cathryn Thomsen spent most of her 93 years in Oregon, where she was very close to friends and family. For more than 50 years she was active with a YMCA group that met for potlucks, card games, camping trips and performing philanthropic deeds. Her obituary described her as “an exceptional mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.”
But Thomsen’s story involves both light and darkness. Her obituary read, “Cathryn was proud of her 39 years of sobriety. She was a mentor for many men and women with the story of how she turned her life around. She was an inspiration for so many and will continue to be so.”
Not every aspect of our obituary is going to be easy to talk about. Along with loving actions and honorable deeds, there may be reveling, drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness, quarreling and jealousy. Our challenge is not to pretend we are perfect, but instead to “lay aside the works of darkness.”
The story of Thomsen, a woman who turned her life around, is every bit as inspirational as the obituary of a person who never stumbled and fell— maybe even more so.
The greatest challenge for each of us, as we write our own obituary, is to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” This means seeing the world through the eyes of Jesus, and trying to be the hands and feet of Jesus. No one does this perfectly, but Henri Nouwen came pretty close.
After Nouwen died of a heart attack in 1996, spiritual writer Philip Yancey reflected on his life. Trained as a psychologist and theologian, and writing numerous books (many of which I have benefited from) Nouwen spent his early years teaching at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard, writing books and traveling widely as a conference speaker.
But then Nouwen realized his own spirituality was being suffocated. So to change things he moved into a home for the seriously disabled to help a young man named Adam, who Nouwen would spend the next ten years caring for.
Every day, Nouwen spent hours working with Adam—bathing and shaving him, brushing his teeth, combing his hair, and helping him eat.
You might think this would be a big sacrifice for Nouwen, but he would tell you it wasn’t because Nouwen “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” and made a commitment to “owe no one anything, except to love one another.”
Yancey, however, wondered if this was the best use of this brilliant man’s time, and asked Nouwne if there was someone else who could take over.
Nouwen informed Yancey he was not sacrificing anything, insisting rather, “It is I, not Adam, who gets the main benefit from our friendship.”
The same is true for anyone who is willing to “put on the Lord Jesus.”
Putting on Jesus doesn’t mean we have to live full-time in a home for the disabled, but we can put on Jesus by being the eyes, hands and feet of Jesus in our own homes, schools, workplaces, and communities.
For when we do, we discover we get benefits from the friendships we develop; from the love we give and receive.
This Wednesday we begin the season of Lent, and our thematic focus for this season is Putting On Jesus. It encompasses the call to lay aside the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light; to owe no one anything, except to love one another.
It is a theme to help us aim to fulfill the words of Jesus to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Each of us is writing our own obituary with the choices we make each day. Let’s not leave anything to chance, and focus on loving our neighbors as ourselves, laying aside the works of darkness and putting on the Lord Jesus. Such choices will create the core of a life worth living, and an obituary worth reading.
So may we, this Lent and beyond, strive to put on Jesus and love one another, as we love ourselves, and as Christ loves us. Amen.
Pastoral Prayer, March 3, 2019
Loving God, in the stillness of these moments, we remember with thanksgiving the times in our lives when your love has enabled us to rise to our better selves. We thank you for the gift of your Son, who came that we might know what perfect love looks like.
We remember, too, when we have acted in anger rather than in love; we recall with remorse when our patience has been less than perfect and our behavior has been childish and surly.
Forgive us for the occasions when we have loved things and used people and when we have failed to make love a priority.
Breathe in us new life, instilling us with enthusiasm for the opportunities we have to begin again.
Empowered by your love for us, let us unite ourselves with all of life in the example of Jesus.
Help us to be intentional in the way we interact with one another, so that there can be no doubt as to whom we serve.
God of new life, as we set ourselves to begin the season of Lent, help us focus on what this time is all about, and what it is intended for us to do.
Remind us of the wilderness Jesus himself went into, where he was tempted to turn away from you. Remind us how he refused to give in, and remained faithful to you alone.
We are far from perfect like Jesus, but the season of Lent implores us to walk in his ways, to face that which seeks to steal us away from you, and take back control through our commitment to draw closer to you.
We know how to do this. We need only to put on Jesus.
So may that be what you help us do—put on Jesus, doing so first and foremost through our love.
Hear now the prayers of our hearts as offer them in this time of Holy Silence.
All this we pray in the name of Christ Jesus who taught us to pray, saying, “Our…”