Thursday, June 17, 2010

Bird in the Grill

My late teacher, affectionately known as Dr. George, never tired of telling stories about his grandsons, Ben and Luke. They were the joy of his life. And among the stories he liked to tell was this one.

When Ben was about four and Luke two, their parents were returning from a trip with the boys when, during the drive home, a bird flew out in front of the car and the car hit it, killing it. They did not know it at the time, but the bird got stuck in the car grill. When they arrived home, they found the bird stuck in the grill, and Ben, being a sensitive and soft-hearted sort, was grief-stricken at the sight of the bird. He insisted that they had to bury the bird and have a funeral for him right on the spot.

So his dad went into the garage, got a shovel, and dug a grave for the bird in the backyard. Ben very respectfully took the lifeless little bird and placed its body in the hole, and then slowly filled the hole with dirt mounding it over the grave. When he finished, with tears in his eyes, he patted the mound of dirt and began to pray: “Dear God,” he said, “We’re sorry we killed this bird. We didn’t mean to; he just flew right into the car. He was a good bird, and I know he’s in heaven with you. Amen.”

When he finished, his dad asked little Luke if he wanted to say anything, and Luke thought for a minute, patted the ground, and said: “And that’s that.”

For some people, that is precisely what life is – just a series of events and circumstances through which we live, good or bad, and then when it is over, “That’s that.” We’re like a bird in the grill, a victim of dumb luck or bad judgment; but mercifully it comes to an end and “that’s that.”

Of course, when put that way, no one wants to believe that about themselves, but they live as though it were true. They either slog through life without ever having a serious thought about anything, meeting life as it races at them as just a series of meaningless events, or else they try to live a “happy little life” in which life is good, the kids are safe, the job secure, the marriage uneventful if not fulfilling, and the test results came back “normal.” But sooner or later both kinds of people will “hit the wall,” and when they do, no one…no one wants to believe that “that’s that.”

Tommy, a CPA who lived his life as though it were “one big party,” called me when he lay on his deathbed terrified that despite how he had lived his life “that most certainly was not that.”

“I want to be okay when I meet my maker,” he told me. “Is it too late to make it right?” Death is the great simplifier. There was precious little chitchat between us that day. Tommy didn’t have time for chitchat. He had work to do, and he wanted me to get to it. He needed to make his peace with God. We talked, Tommy and I, about dying, about faith, about life and death and resurrection. We talked about the fact that we’re all terminal. The mortality rate is 100%. Tommy just had the advantage of having a more precise “delivery date” than most. We talked, and then we prayed, and Tommy opened himself up in faith to God. And on that day, February 1, 2006, Tommy professed faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior of his life and claimed his promise of eternal life on the other side of the grave. And so, I baptized him. He was much too sick to do what we Baptists usually do. We dunk you, you know. And so, I improvised. We Baptists can do that. His wife brought me a chalice of water to serve as a makeshift baptistry. I looked at Tommy and said: “Tommy, do you now openly and publicly, in the presence of God and in the company of fellow believers, profess your faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.” And he looked at me with level gaze and said: “I do.” And I dipped my finger in the water, raised my right hand heavenward, and said: “As a confession of your faith in Jesus Christ as Lord, I baptize you my brother in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Sprit,” and I made a watery cruciform on his pale, weak forehead.

Less than a week later they gathered, his family and friends, to say “goodbye” to Tommy. They remembered the Tommy I never knew – happy-go-lucky Tommy, fun-loving Tommy, not-a-serious-bone-in-his-body Tommy. “Life was one big party for Tommy,” they said. But when I saw Tommy, “the party was over” and he desperately wanted to know, needed to know, had to know, that “that was most certainly not that!”

We all have a date with the dirt. What it means to be Christian is to live on this side of the dirt as though you will live on that side of the dirt, and as if “that is most certainly not that.”

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