Bearing Witness

Tonight, Janet and I watched a video recording of the memorial service of a friend… the wife in a couple I’ve known and served as donors for over 30 years. She died at home in upstate New York though her memorial was in Chicago, where they’d lived for many years. There was a beautiful diversity in the music and speakers. Yet the themes of the presenters were amazingly similar: Sabra loved expansively; she cared about every person; she asked thoughtful questions; she supported visions; she arranged sabbaticals for those burning out. Within half an hour, it was very clear what her life stood for.

At the end of the service, Pastor Laura Truax stood to give the benediction. She began by quoting a Jewish rabbi that “The measure of a person isn’t in whether Life was good to you, but whether you were good to Life.” It was the perfect title to place under the artwork we had all just watched being painted through those testimonies of Sabra’s life.

Somewhere during the service, it struck me that a memorial service powerfully “bears witness” to the life has one lived.  The main themes or imprints keep appearing in speaker after speaker, like telltale fingerprints on the canvas of one’s life portrait. The people, places and events were all unique of course, but the underlying themes were visible within a few minutes, such that each subsequent testimony was unwittingly simply providing corroborating evidence.

To ask myself what I’d want written on my tombstone is not a futile brainteaser. Be assured, it will be written, in stories and words, by those memorializing me. Perhaps a better question is: What stories will be told about me after I’m gone?

We recently attended another memorial service, and recurrent themes kept surfacing there as well: wine, sports, adventures, that he was a good friend and was crazy about his wife.  The witnesses filed onto the docket one by one and gave their testimony.  There were tears and laughs and toasts, and in their midst a clear picture emerged with stunning speed and clarity. The conclusion any jury would reach: Life was good to him.

Sabra’s memorial included video greetings from around the world, from people of various socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds whom she’d touched, encouraged, known deeply, treated as precious, supported with her time, talents and treasure. The verdict any jury would return: she was good to Life.

For each of these two recently-deceased souls, their choices were clear, their courses were set, their paths were trod, how they spent themselves was plain to all.

Memorials bear witness to a life. There will be no rebuttals, no appeals. The deceased cannot take the stand to provide high-minded motives that never materialized into action.

It’s daunting to consider, isn’t it? Not the idea that other people get to pass final judgment on me and therefore I must somehow live for their approval. No, instead I find it daunting to remember that it’s only my actions that will finally matter.

Others will faithfully and graciously take the stand and tell their best stories of me. Their stories and words will swiftly and convincingly weave a portrait of the entire sweep of my life in just a few moments.  Not only can those decades of life be distilled down to 90 minutes, but within less than half that time what mattered most to me will be clear to all.

I won’t get to choose their stories, to massage their message, or spin them to explain what I “really” intended with my life. By then, my choosing will be over.

And when my choosing is complete and my life’s testimony is plain to all, I hope that the same sentiment we heard at the end of Sabra’s memorial is a fitting conclusion to my own: that it isn’t whether Life was good to me, but whether I was good to Life.


February 2016

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