What Epitaph Do You Want on Your Gravestone?
My students are used to this type of question. It’s a favorite activity whenever we have a few moments left after winding up a lesson. Questions range from What natural disaster do you fear the most? to What birthday gift would you give the person on your right if you had all the money and power in the world? The kids love the game. I love asking the questions, but I find many of them hard to answer – especially the epitaph question. My husband and I spend a lot of time in cemeteries. Subsequently, I’ve read many epitaphs – from the silly (“I told you my feet were killing me”) to the serious (“I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race”). This is thoughtful business. I’ve always stumbled a bit when asked if I have a life verse or motto, a succinct statement of my passions, longings, and goals. People tell me it can be clarifying in moments when I’m having a hard time finding the North Star. Along the same lines, a counselor once stumped me (it is not that hard to do) with this simple question: What do you want? The first words out of my mouth were – “in what area of life?” She wasn’t about to let me make it more manageable. I knew what she was driving at. She wanted me to reflect on my longings. She wanted me to name the desires that drive me. Now, I’ve been a Christian since the age of 16, so I sort of knew what my answer should be. Consequently, I mumbled through some scriptures and catechisms that talk about being rooted in God and living for His glory but I knew deep down that I was not yet able to name this as the deepest desire of my heart. I began to pray that God would deal with me at the desire level and that, one day, there would be no discrepancy between what I should want and what I do want. God’s responses are often slow, silent and invisible, but I believe that He took that prayer and went to work.
Fast forward many years later. I am reading Whittaker Chambers’ foreward to his book Witness with my senior class as we study the Cold War. Chambers writes, “A man is not primarily a witness against something. That is only incidental to the fact that he is a witness for something.” My spirit quickened. That’s it! That’s what I want – I want to be a witness. I want my life to be a witness to the beauty and worth of Jesus Christ. My soul soared at the proclamation. I could say it and mean it. Hallelujah!
Please note that I didn’t say that my life IS an attestation of the beauty and worth of Jesus Christ. I said I want it to be and that realization is nothing short of a Holy Spirit miracle. I want to stand with Habakkuk saying “though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will take joy in the God of my salvation.” I want my witness to Jesus’ worth to remain intact when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death because He alone is enough. I want to be able, like John the Baptist, who at the height of his own popularity, pointed others to the worth of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, to Him whose sandals he was not worthy to untie. I want to be able to say that there is nothing I won’t do, nothing I won’t give up, nothing I won’t endure for the sake of His name and know it is so. I want this to be true of me, and God willing, it will be more and more, but for now I exist in a place of longing and that longing evokes a mysterious mixture of joy and sadness – joy from feeling that this is what I was made for and sadness because I know how far off the mark I still am.
Veritas Juniors read a beautiful little book about Christian education called Engaging God’s World. In it, the author, Cornelius Plantinga, writes that one of the purposes of education is to excite our longings, noting that the object of our longings will determine the course of our lives. Here at Veritas, we believe that part of our job as teachers is to cultivate our students’ affections, to teach them to love what they ought to love, to hope for what they ought to hope, to long for what they should long for. Education can and does shape a person’s moral imagination but only the Holy Spirit can change a heart of stone into a heart of flesh and breathe life into dry bones. Only the Holy Spirit can make us thirsty for the water of life and give us eyes to see the incomparable beauty of the cross of Jesus Christ.
This is why, while we work with all our might and imagination in the classroom, we must also continue to wrestle in prayer that God would work in our own hearts and the hearts of our students to awaken and continually refresh a longing for Him. Whittaker Chambers ends his foreward by saying to his children that there will be many dark and frightening places in their life’s’ journey, but in the end, if he has led them aright, they will make out three crosses. He will have brought them to Golgotha and here they will find the meaning of the journey. If Veritas has lead our students aright, this is where they will find the meaning of their journey too.