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The Way of All the Earth
January 06, 2011
A few weeks ago Aileen’s grandmother passed away. Two or three decades ago I’m sure the cause of death would have been listed simply as old age—a shorthand doctors used to say that her body simply gave out after many long illnesses; she just did not have the strength to fight anymore. She was the last of our grandparents, the last of that generation.
In the time since then the family has been wrapping up her affairs, dealing with the estate, emptying the house and preparing it for sale. Each of the kids and grandkids has gone through the house, staking claim to certain special items, little things that often have little monetary value but great emotional significance—clocks, dolls, pictures and things of that nature—the things that they associate with the person they loved. And having done that, they are now left with a house full of stuff. It’s a house full of furniture and boxes and pots and pans and junk drawers and appliances and everything else that a person uses and accumulates over a lifetime.
And so they are now sorting through that stuff, throwing much of it in the trash, donating other things to Salvation Army, and keeping the occasional thing that they just can’t bring themselves to throw out. Aileen’s grandmother was no pack rat—she kept a careful and clean home and had moved enough times that she had not accumulated as many possessions as some people do. And yet there is still a lot of stuff—as much as you would expect to find in a good-sized home. There is nothing in the home that she did not keep for one reason or another. Some she kept because it was practical and she thought she would need it; some she kept because it was sentimental, having been given to her by someone she loved. And now other people—her children and children-in-law, are sorting through all of that stuff, keeping some but discarding most.
Aileen’s grandma was not a person who was particularly drawn to stuff. What was important to her was not the things that filled her home, but the people who filled her life. And here is a lesson I’m seeing in the boxes, in the leftovers, in the things that were part of her life. The most important things in life can’t be put in boxes. The most important things we accumulate in a lifetime are not the things that our children will some day sort through, label, and either keep or give away.
There are lots of good things we can leave behind us when we “go the way of all the earth” (to borrow a particularly effective biblical phrase). We can leave our children items that are practical, items that are sentimental and remind them of us or remind them of their own childhood, we can leave our children money to help establish them in life or (now that lifespans are increasing) to provide comfort and security for their own retirement. This is all good. But all of those things are fleeting. And none of it can be taken with you. As an old friend used to be fond of saying, you can’t hitch up a U-Haul on the way to heaven. Whether you have a lot or little, whether you cared deeply for your stuff or were apathetic about it, the fact remains that some day it will all go to someone else; it will be passed around, thrown away, sold off for pennies. Even your most treasured possessions will be lost.
The only thing you can take with you is people. And here is the hope of the gospel; here is the joy of sharing the gospel with others. As the gospel goes forth, as it penetrates the hearts of those we love, we know that we will see them again, that they will be with Christ for all eternity and, therefore, they will be with us.
As my wife and my in-laws have been wrestling through the piles of stuff, the leftovers of a life well-lived, I find myself reflecting on what is important to me. Am I storing up treasures here on earth, investing my time and effort in things that will some day be tossed away and discarded? Am I filling my home with stuff, or am I filling my life with people, in the only thing that has any hope of lasting to eternity?