Distilling Life

I slipped quietly onto the back pew in the corner of the small narrow whitewashed church sanctuary and settled in for the duration. I came because it was my job; we demonstrate respect by attending memorial services of deceased donors, especially for those we’ve never met. In this case, we received notice just four days before that a certain woman had sold some property thirty odd years ago, and that she had set aside a portion of the proceeds to benefit my university upon her death. She did not graduate from our school, and no one on our staff had so much as heard her name, so you can imagine our surprise when we learned of her generous prearrangement.

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much. The service began on time with the playing of the southern anthem “Beulah Land,” so familiar that it allowed me to read emails on my phone while feigning interest with an occasional glance up. The pastor stood to speak at the close of the song, and something about the tone of his voice led me to set aside my phone and read the obit printed on the backside of the program handout. The country preacher masterfully breathed life into the obituary, followed artfully by strains of…. “Go rest high upon that mountain. Your work on earth is done….” I’ve heard the recorded voice of Vince Gill at countless funerals through the years, yet it still touches something in me I can’t quite define. I looked up and across at the sea of white, grey, and pinkish balding glare, and wondered if the others were thinking about their own nearness to the Summit, as was I.

Following the song, her pastor extolled the legacy of the deceased, and with each description I wished increasingly that I had known her. He spoke of her love of books, her love for the Lord, her children and grandchildren, her church, and nature. He related how that when her health began to fail, she started crocheting coats and hats for the homeless, praying over every item of clothing. The preacher said, “Somewhere in Dallas today, there is a homeless person who is warmed by wearing the last hat she ever made.” To the earthly end of her ninety years, she lived as one indebted to her gracious Lord.

Dying is a distilling of sorts, getting to the root of a life. We think and speak of the essence of a man or woman; details become hazy and memories take the form of mental snapshots, emotional images frozen in time. What we then live with is the overall impression a person leaves behind, often heralding or dismissing a lifetime with single adjectives: Good. Bad. Kind. Loving. Harsh. Generous. The words used at holiday gatherings to recall the missing family member. It seemed to me that this woman’s word would be “faithful”, and I couldn’t help but wonder what will be used to summarize my life when I’m a yellowing memory.

“For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and living.” (‭Romans‬ ‭14‬:‭7-9‬ KJV)

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