I attended three memorial services this past week, which is a lot, even for me. It’s a normal part of what I do for a living, yet I’m honored to attend them. I realize that it’s important to those who are grieving. It is a difficult, inconvenient, yet critical act of love for any of us to step away from our daily lives and enter into another’s grief, peering into the void of death we spend so much of our lives trying to avoid, and expressing to those grieving that they and their loved ones matter enough to us to enter with them into this act of courage and love.
Funerals are also good medicine for me. I’ve seen some done better than others, and some are certainly sadder than others, given the circumstances. Yet, I learn something almost every time, not only about the lives of those I’m honoring, but about life itself. God almost always uses these events to capture my attention. Whether people “die well” or not, they always teach me something about living well.
Like my friend George, whose memorial service I attended the other day. George passed away in his 90s, after a full life. By all accounts, George was quite an accomplished man: a father of four, a great doctor, president of the UT Tyler Hospital for years, an elder in his church, having served on many boards. He had a very impressive resume. You would have expected these many accomplishments to have figured heavily into his memorial service.
Yet, here’s the thing: other than one mention of his service at UT Tyler and a couple representatives there, you would never know any of those things about him. George had lots of speakers say lots of wonderful things about him: our pastor, his children, and his grandchildren. It’s just that all of it had to do with how he had lived his life in the last 25 years or so, long after he had made his professional mark.
This hit me pretty hard. Because most of us, statistically speaking, will live into our late 70s, early 80s, or longer. Which means that most of what will be said at our funerals, most of what will matter to people when we die, most of what will be our legacy and last beyond our passing, has nothing to do with what most of us do most of our waking hours right now. Most of it, for me included, are probably things we haven’t even done yet. Stop and think about that for a minute.
I’m not saying it that our work isn’t important. It is a invention of the Lord and, at its best, intended as a way to bring Him glory and make much of His Name. I’m not even saying we can’t or shouldn’t take satisfaction in doing a job well, or that providing for our families isn’t necessary and a vital part of our responsibilities as parents, husbands, and wives.
But often what we do with work isn’t about any of these things. Instead, we regularly make it about identity, defining who I am: I am the great salesman, or the strong leader, or the creative guy or gal that has the answers when the team needs me. Or, it becomes how we get our worth: our value reflected in the eyes of others- Does my boss or do my coworkers think I’m good at my job or valuable to this firm? Sometimes, how much money we make becomes the scorecard- whether I make more than the other guy defines whether I matter more than he.
And, none of these things really matter at all. This is the illusion that death unmasks for us.
I have been thinking about this a lot lately as I have rolled off of several Christian school leadership board positions. I’ve served in these various capacities at the state and national level for about a decade and a half now, and I sense this season of my life may be coming to an end. To be honest, at the end of 2023, I really struggled with relevance: now that I’m no longer in these leadership positions, am I still relevant in the Christian school movement?
Over Christmas, I had some time to reflect in God’s Word, and, as always was gracious to reveal truth. The reality is that “relevance” is almost always the wrong question; “am I relevant,” is a people-driven question, reflecting a people-driven standard. Relevance, like currency, or popularity, or how much you matter at work, is always guided by what other people think about you. The obvious danger here is that this becomes your focus, your reason for being: how much am I making, how many “likes” am I getting, when was the last time someone told me I did a good job, or gave me the best opportunity? This is a rathole, and it’s never going to be enough.
God followed up this insight for me by giving me Galatians 1:10 in my quiet time the other day: “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of God.” Jesus said essentially the same thing, “you can’t serve two masters.” Which means, if you’re chasing relevance or notoriety, or money as a measure of your worth, or affirmation on social media, or anything like that which requires wanting people to validate you and give you worth, you may be serving someone, but it’s not God.
Somewhere along the way (and I think it was a long way back) George figured that out. He worked hard and accomplished some things professionally, but I think deep down he knew that wasn’t really going to matter in the long run, that he wasn’t taking any of that into eternity with him. At the memorial service, George’s son said that he didn’t really have any hobbies. But he was wrong. God was George’s hobby. People were his hobby. He loved them both, and went all in on them.
George learned what God is very slowly teaching me: that although this work and ministry matters (as does yours) it really matters only to the extent that God uses us to lead other people into a relationship with Jesus Christ, and to disciple them, teaching them all God commanded. Our work is beautiful when it points other people to God’s story, to the greater work that He is doing in and among us in the world. Our work, our play, our life is mission when we realize that we are deeply, deeply loved by God, that we are profoundly His, and how much that fullness of His love spills over into loving others and pointing them to Him.
That’s what people spent all their time saying about George last week: he loved God, loved others, and pointed people to Jesus. His kids wanted to be like him, and he left many disciples of Jesus in his wake.
I don’t have many trophies or awards in my office; I don’t really like to keep them. But I had this one professional award that was particularly meaningful to me on my bookshelf, kind of a glass plaque that I was the first among my peers to receive. Last week, I was reaching for a book on my shelf and I accidentally knocked it to the floor, shattering it in a dozen pieces.
At first, I was shocked. Then, I thought of all that God has been teaching me lately, and I just started laughing. Because I realized that this trophy was just a silly piece of glass. My real trophies are walking the halls of our school, working in Dallas and attending university in Waco, those that I’ve married and buried, the ones meeting me for breakfast weekly, and those serving as great moms and dads and lovers of Jesus. At times, these trophies may shatter, too, but they never break, because they are eternal sons and daughters of the living God, profoundly His. To God be the glory.