When There Is Nothing

I was a young boy of six or seven when “Grandpa Al” died. No relation of ours. Ironically, a same-aged friend of my parents who my brothers and I endearingly nicknamed Grandpa. It was my first funeral. My mom told me it was ok when I asked if I could touch him in his casket stillness and the memory of how cold his face felt under my chubby boy hand still resonates. His was the only funeral I ever attended until I was almost twenty. Then my paternal grandparents with our wedding taking place between them. Both sets of my wife’s grandparents would pass away and we made it to three out of those four funerals. I stood beside two of my brothers as they each buried sons who never made it to 18 months of age — intussusception for one and leukemia for the other. I led the song service when our pastor’s wife suddenly passed away a few years ago and last year we grieved together at the funeral of an acquaintance who succumbed to breast cancer: the mother of one of my eldest son’s best friends. Ten funerals in not quite forty years of life. More then some have seen, but probably much less than most.

This next week brings another. A friend I have known for twenty years. His wife and I share memories of high school from twenty-three years ago. Their children, friends with mine since they were very young and now he is gone –taken away in an auto accident.

In the empty feelings of loss, in the speechless “can’t believe it’s true” reality of imagining a family suddenly facing life without a husband, friend, father, guide, and counselor there is the overwhelming motivation to do. To care for them. To provide. Meals to make. Plans to plan. Comfort to somehow give. The impulse to make it right, yet — while all these are good and should be done — I have found myself thinking of what good the doing actually does. Yes, people need to eat, and there are plans to be made, and gifts given that will be used, but in the face of mountainous grief does the doing matter? While our community actions show love and care, and I don’t mean to minimize that at all, the reality is that our doing can do nothing to bring him back. All of the casserole dishes in the world will probably do very little if anything to stem the actual mourning of this family. Why is it that our first impulse when death knocks is to do? Yes, we respond out of love for our friends. Yes, our affections compel us to grieve and weep with them. Yet my mind is pulled past all of that to what our doing means in the weight of eternity.

I am prompted by God to remember my own mortality. That someday — at His providential beckoning — my lungs will stop breathing. What then? In death, when there is nothing left to do,  what then? Called to stand before my Maker and give an account of what I’ve done? Yes. To stand and take the minuscule moments of my life that compared against eternity show them to be as worthless as they are? Yes. For arms to clutch onto earthly treasures and good deeds and favor I’ve somehow earned from men and try make all of that count for something before a Holy God? Yes. To all of these I could say, yes. Or, I could answer what the Bible teaches and what is my Hope in life and death. That when the day comes when my heart ceases to beat and in a moment I am called into eternity, my hands will be empty. Called before the Judge Himself to give an account — my life’s work as filthy rags before His holiness — I will come holding nothing. And when He asks me to plead my case, my lips will utter nothing. Nothing except the blood of Jesus Christ. God demands perfect righteousness. Christ, in His substitutionary  death on the cross, provides His righteousness for those who believe in Him. II Corinthians 5:21 says, “For our sake he (God) made him (Jesus) to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him (Jesus) we might become the righteousness of God.” My rags for His riches. My ashes for His beauty. My sorrow for His joy. My nothing for His everything.

In a moment of scraping steel and broken glass my friend passed into eternity. I am saddened at his death. I am grieved beyond words for his wife, his kids, and his family. I am, however, convinced that in an instant he stood before God almighty with nothing in his hands. Clinging to nothing, save Christ alone. Sola Christus. I know this because it was the confession of his mouth. I know this because his life was patterned and lived out on the basis of his faith. Jim Elliot once said, “When it comes time to die, make sure that all you have to do is die.” That isn’t a new twist on the phrase carpe diem. Rather it points us to confront our own feeble mortality. What will you do with Jesus here? What will you do with Him now? To reject Him now is to reject Him for eternity. Don’t wait until eternity is a half-breath away to make the decision.

God has brought me full circle. We comfort those who mourn. We weep with those who weep. We do, not out of obligation of doing, but in directing our hearts to Him. Reminded that just as our doing in this moment will actually do nothing to lessen their grief of this season, so also our doing in life will do nothing to lessen our judgement and grief in eternity. Nothing, that is, except Jesus Christ. In Christ alone we come along side those who are broken. In Christ alone we will stand before God. No guilt in life, no fear in death, this is the power of Christ in me.

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