The Man in the Box

I officiated a funeral recently. I did not know Ben, the man who had died, nor the family until I met them a week before to hear about the husband, father who had died at 82 after a long, fulfilling life. The family could hardly speak to tell stories of Ben as we met. He’d been gone only a week. It was too close in time. The daughter-in-law did say this of Ben, “He was the kindest man I have ever met. Always kind. Always loving.” With this, I got a glimpse into his character.

The family members promised they would write down some memories and send them. But, that week, I did not receive anything from any of them, except for a beautiful, two-page testimony from one of Ben’s daughters, who lived in Germany. Due to the COVID restrictions, she would not be allowed back into Germany, if she tried to come. So, would need to watch the livestream of her dad’s funeral from there. Her letter confirmed what the daughter-in-law had said of Ben. This man had lived a life to bless others.

The slideshow was running when I arrived at the Funeral chapel. I wondered, How can a life be reduced to so few pictures? Wedding photos, family meals, helping a daughter at the piano, helping another ride a bike, cooking in the kitchen, laughing, on airplanes with his wife en route to Tennessee or Germany to visit their daughters. There may have been 25 – 35 slides, but, they told the story of this guy’s 82 years of being engaged, in love, married, with others, laughing and now dead, all in a few moments. I pondered, This must be what it is like when we get a life review with Jesus after death — our lives told in pictures in a moment! It takes so little to summarize a life, even a life lived to love others and God well!

The family arrived. They laughed and talked together watching the pictures of Ben’s life. It was beautiful to hear their words, “Oh, remember that?” “Where we in that picture?” “Oh, that meal!”

The daughter from Tennessee came up to me apologetically, “I have been writing and re-writing all week. Paragraphs produced and erased again. I just could not bring the words into focus.” I told her, “No worries. I understand. Whatever you share or do not share, all is well.” Then, after I had read her sister’s words and she had heard her brother speak during the service, she stood and without notes, shared from her heart:

“I agree with everything my sister and brother have said, and I remember this saying as well. Dad always told me, ‘Others may think you a fool if you keep your mouth shut, so don’t open it and remove all doubt.'” She laughed. “I’ve remembered and gone back to that saying so often when I have been tempted to speak into a situation.” She told many beautiful memories and ended with, “Dad was a good man with girls, and that is saying something. He helped me day after day with my hair so I could learn to use a curling iron. He was super patient.”

I sat there listening, experiencing life at the end. I thought of my own role with our four daughters. I was the hair guy for all of them morning after morning. “Dad, would you do a dutch braid today?” I became quite skilled. The body of the man they spoke of was there in the box, but he was not there. He was gone. As the Apostle Peter alluded to in his second letter the body is like a tent lived in for a season and then put off (1 Peter 1:14). At the end, life appears to hit such an abrupt stop. From the perspective of those left behind, every death happens too soon.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Here’s some of the letter written by the daughter living in Germany:

It’s probably the sign of a good parent, when you can hear their words often echoing in your mind as an adult. Especially, if you find yourself quoting them.

And when I think back, my father’s quotes are the most prominent memories I have of him – the quotes imparted his wisdom. 

When he wanted to make a point about how important it is to assess your surroundings, before blindly moving forward, he would say:

“God gave you two ears, two eyes and one mouth. That means you should watch and listen twice as much as you speak.” 

Another one he liked that went along the same lines was:

“The first person to speak, loses.”

There were two more that I distinctly remember. He used them and meant them literally when we were building or fixing something together with our hands, but he also used them at other times metaphorically as lessons for life. 

One was:

“Use two nails when the instruction manual says you just need one.” 

The other one was: 

“If you have to force it, something’s not right.”

He was the sum of his wise words, and even more. He was the man who taught me how to swing a softball bat and keep my eye on the ball. How to putt and properly swing a golf club. How to bowl a strike. How to drive stick shift.

That last skill, by the way, driving a stick shift, is apparently the easiest of all. The others you can practice a lifetime, but after about 45 minutes of driving figure-eights at various speeds in the high school parking lot, my father said, “Well, I think you’re ready to hit the Interstate on your own now” which I did, because I wanted to make him proud – even if it meant arriving back at my dorm drenched in sweat with a heart rate of about 190. 

But he knew I could do it. And because of him I knew I could, too.

He always had faith in me and always gave me the support I needed. …

He always seemed to have a plan for everything and understand how every single thing worked – whether it be catching a fish, driving a boat, repairing a roof, building a garden fence, playing the trumpet, leading a marching band in a parade, singing in a choir, teaching a dog how to sit, teaching us how to sit, moving house, running an ice cream store, appreciating the fine arts, holding intelligent conversation, calculating returns with compounded interest… or how best to show love. He knew how do it all. And so much more. He was a true Renaissance Man without any ounce of arrogance.

10-10-20-20. Even the date he died reflected how he lived. Even, balanced, structured, harmonious, ascending.   

And since we started with quotes by my father, I’d like to end with one about my father. By me. One that I hope everyone remembers. 

“The world is less wonderful without you, Dad.”   

A Letter to Dad, by K.E.

What a great word! I told the family I was the most impoverished of them all, since I never met Ben while he lived. Yet through their words, I did get a glimpse of this towering man, one of God’s saints, after his death.

The one saying, “If you have to force it, something’s not right,” spoke to me regarding the rioting abounding today ostensibly about race. The denigrating of all that is good, praiseworthy, and hopeful by Antifa radicals is not about healing a nation of racism. Indeed, of those who riot in such a manner, who in Portland pulled down the statue of Abraham Lincoln, the emancipator of slaves, along with other statues as well, it could be said with Ben, “They are trying to force it, so, something’s not right.”

Known by his moniker “Gentle Ben,” he embodied the beauty of Jesus for others to see.

Sitting there, I had the chance to ponder life. Birth to death. The people sitting there to the man in the box. We live this quickly passing life. Children are born, grow, move away, marry, and have their own families. Suddenly, a person once just a guy is a husband, a dad, then a grandpa. Like our youngest, Gabri, who was five years old when she said of her own grandma: “First the cane, then the walker, then the wheel chair, and then she will die.” We were surprised and astonished at her matter-of-fact viewpoint.

But here’s the strangest thing about aging — you don’t feel older on the inside even as you age on the outside. I remember asking my then 98-year-old friend Willa about this. She said, “I feel no older today than when a teen. I’m still young inside. Always being renewed within while aging on the outside.” Although I could not fathom that much then, in my 30s, today, I get it.

Our oldest granddaughter, Antonia, on her fifth birthday was lolling around on the floor, out of sorts, and her Auntie Grace asked, “So, how are you doing five year old?”

“I don’t feel any different! I don’t feel five at all! Only like a rolling-around on the carpet four!” she complained.

Here’s the same girl, nearing 8. She’s learning the outside and inside don’t always match.

I don’t feel any different … at all. What a statement.

Because we don’t feel different, we seek ways to feel younger. Older men marry younger women to prolong the myth. It becomes harder to face death. Yet, the box awaits us all. “I don’t have a will,” a friend, nearly 70, told me a day ago. “I just haven’t wanted to face death.”

In this season of a created pandemic to build fear of death into our thinking and living, and a fear of others too, perhaps it is a good time to face this fact:

We will all die.

No matter how many ways you and I might seek to avoid it or try to stay looking young, still, you and I both will end our lives like this man — in a box. We might die of COVID-19, or walking across the street, or from cancer like Chadwick Boseman, or in our beds at home, however, we will all die.

Even though a funeral occurs because of death, at the event itself, we speak of life. Like the one described, all share how the one life had impacted their lives. But also, we speak of Jesus, the One who gives life, expands how one lives life, and pours life through our lives to impact others. The biggest question is not how will we remember the one who has passed, for this will happen. The biggest question is this: how shall we go on and live our lives, after saying goodbye.

Will we live allowing ourselves to be impacted by death in order to make the most of the days given? Or will we forget the experience at the threshold of life and death, and walk away unchanged seeking the numb out. Then, our lives might resemble a stick carried randomly by a stream as it bobs and twists and turns at the whim of the current.

We are called to so much more!

Friends, like Ben, the man in the box, who had lived a life which had impacted those around him dramatically, we are called to live on purpose.

Live intentionally to love those you meet.

Live in service of the God who died and rose again, to grant you the ability to live.

Live life fully alive all your days.

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