I was reading an obituary and the words "He died unexpectedly" grabbed my attention in a way that they never have before. Sure, I knew what they meant...the person had no known serious illnesses that would cause anyone to think that they were going to die soon. Yet this one thought kept making its way to the forefront of my mind. Is death ever really unexpected?
Death is one of the only guarantees we have in life. We will all die...so how is it that we live as though it is unexpected? The obituary I was reading belonged to my neighbor. He died "unexpectedly" a little over a week ago. On Sunday, I attended his funeral. The place was so packed that it was standing room only! There were no shortage of people who had something to share about how this man had touched their lives. As I listened all I could think about was, did he know? Did he know that all of the little things he did for others were the very things that meant the most to them? Did he know how much he was loved? Did he know that they thought his jokes were funny? Did he know that the way he loved his wife challenged other men to be better husbands?
Funerals provide an opportunity to share the things we most remember and appreciate about others. I gained a better sense of who the man was in the various roles he had in life, through the words of others. We often call that a person's legacy. Many times I've heard pastors use this type of example in a sermon. They ask what will your tombstone say or what will your legacy be? I left the funeral thinking...what would I want people to say about me? What would I want them to remember most? That's the problem with funerals...they make you think and for me, thinking leads to questions! I think the real question is this: Why wait until someone dies to share what they mean to us?
Think about it for a moment. The person isn't even there to be encouraged by what we are sharing. Why does it seem easier to share a specific remembrance of how that person touched our lives when they are dead, than it is to share it with them when they are living? There could be many reasons for this. We get busy, we worry about not having the right words to express ourselves, or we get hung up on how we think they might respond. Perhaps it's as simple as just not thinking to express our thoughts out loud...but our words are a gift. You can't open a gift if you're dead. You can't be encouraged by the words of others when you're no longer able to hear them. You can't feel the love in the words once you're gone. Perhaps this is the real tragedy at funerals...not that someone is dead but that they may have died not knowing how their life touched the lives of others.
Author Ann Voskamp once wrote that we should "Only speak words that make souls stronger." The words that were spoken at my neighbor's funeral surely would have made him stronger...if he had been able to hear them. What if instead of asking ourselves what our legacy will be or what others will say about us when we die, we ask ourselves a different question? We could ask: What soul strengthening words can I gift someone with today?
My neighbor was only fifty four years old. Life is too short to leave soul strengthening words unsaid. I'm sure there were moments in his life when he needed to hear how much it meant to someone that he mowed their lawn without them asking, plowed their driveway for free, or that he was the best of listeners. We're only six days into this new year, and I find myself asking God to make it a year where I regularly ask: What can I say? What can I say to make souls stronger...so they have the gift of knowing how loved they are and how much they matter while they are living?
I don't want the gift of my soul strengthening words to be left unopened by the recipient, because I waited until their funeral to bring it. Do you? This year, let's make it a point to let people know the impact they've had on us.