The coffin was set center stage, draped in beautiful flowers, just at the foot of the altar rails of the old Waxhaw United Methodist Church. The music began to play, “Precious Lord, take my hand…lead me on to the light, take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.” I had sat many times on the old wooden pews in this sanctuary. For many years growing up, this sanctuary served as the centerpiece of my spirituality and ever-growing faith. The wooden floors still creaked the same as they did when I walked across them in my childhood, teen, and young-adult years.
I forced myself to look around and absorb the moment. Many of the faces were familiar, only more wrinkled and lined with the passing years. The setting flooded my mind with pleasant memories. I prayed and took communion while kneeling at that altar. I sang my first solo in church at that stand. I preached my first public sermon at the other stand. I had crawled underneath those pews and been corrected for it, many times. Christmas plays, Christmas Eve services, weddings, funerals, and the weekly worship services that became the center of my life, all moments which seemed so mundane and ritualistic at the time, but later proved to be part of the epic experiences that are part of the story of God’s faithfulness in my life.
The family entered from the rear. We all stood to our feet. Some of those around me needed extra help to stand, but they still stood in respect. The family marched solemnly to the front, where all the grieving families sat during the funerals of their loved ones who had just passed into the arms of Jesus. As we sat, the crushing reality hit me with force. We’re burying the people who raised us. All of us kids who grew up here, learned the fundamentals of our faith here, played together, did life together…we’re burying the people who brought us up in this faith.
The people who once served as the example (or some not), who once seemed so strong and so quick, are growing ever more frail as life passes by all too quickly. One by one, we are watching them leave the earth for an eternal home. All of us kids…we entered adulthood so quickly, and now we have grown kids of our own, and we’re watching the generation who raised us pass on. We were raised to know life turns this way. The book of Ecclesiastes tells us there is “a time for everything under the sun.” According to the third chapter of this book, we know there is “a time to be born, a time to die…a time to cry and a time to laugh, a time to grieve and a time to dance.” But even when it happens, we seem unprepared to meet it.
We exited the sanctuary and drove to the cemetery for the graveside service. Each time I am in town for any duration, I try to walk or run through this cemetery. I salute the graves of my family members who have gone on, I take in the memories of the lives I’ve known through the pronouncement of their tombstone markers, and I am humbled by the brevity of life.
As the service ends, childhood friends on one side say to me, “Who is that over there, they seem so familiar, but I can’t place their name. I feel like I should know them.” Childhood friends on the other side of me say the same thing. I reintroduce them again. “Oh yes! I remember now!” they say. They were once so close, but time and space has made them distant. Moments like this are those precious few, which serve to reunite them, no matter how far they have been separated.
When it ends, many embrace. It’s been a while. Many walk now with canes and much more measured and careful steps these days. My parents are among them. I am struck by how fleeting the times seem to be. It just seemed like yesterday they were tying my ties and getting me ready for church service. It just seemed like yesterday that all my middle-aged friends and I were playing football in the churchyard as kids and teens. And now, we’re burying the people who raised us.
The town of Waxhaw, NC seemed much smaller back then. No, it was smaller back then. It is hardly recognizable now due to the growth. Things seemed much slower then and the days seemed to pleasantly drag on rather than rush through, the way they do now. For a moment, I am saddened. But the centerpieces of my faith, learned from this generation that raised us, won’t let me stay there. Death is not the end. We weren’t made for here. We’re only passing through. All of these moments prepare and lead us to the great reunion in glory.
I could linger on and lament what I have lost and what I am losing. But the substance of my faith won’t allow it. The small town is gone. The people who once served as its pillars are passing into glory. Few of their children are left here, and many have sadly moved away.
But as I stand in the middle of this cemetery, shaking hands with and hugging old friends, while sharing memories, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. I was raised in a small town, with a family who stuck it out and stuck together. I was raised in the church, and faith was instilled in me at a young age. I had the opportunity to build lasting relationships here. I laughed, I cried, I won, I lost, I learned, and I was forged and changed by my experiences here. Blessed are the few who find such a thing in this life.
I get back into my car and prepare to leave. Somber and divine moments like these are among those that point us to Psalm 90:12,“Teach us to realize the brevity of life, that we may grow in wisdom.” I must be in every moment and make the most of it, even the most mundane of them. Every moment matters and is full of life and points to eternity. The ones we’re burying taught us in life, and they are still teaching us in death, beyond the grave. I must do the same for those coming behind me. I can only be grateful for it all.