We’re All Writing An Epitaph
by Patrick Lafferty
I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the Gospel of the grace of God.
On the tombstone of Sir Winston Churchill the inscription reads,
I am ready to meet my Maker.
Whether my Maker is prepared
for the great ordeal of meeting me
is another matter.
Churchill posthumously speaks to visitors to his grave in the idiom of epitaph. Originally coined in the Greek to refer to a funeral oration, the word came to be associated with a succinct—though sometimes lengthy—encapsulation of the deceased’s life.
Like Sir Winston’s, some epitaphs appeal to humor. The British comedian and poet, Spike Milligan, has upon his grave, “I told you I was ill.” While Stan Laurel, of Laurel and Hardy fame, had inscribed, “If anyone at my funeral has a long face, I'll never speak to him again.”
Others prefer a more sober tone, offering a pithy reminder to the living of this life’s ephemerality. One anonymous Scottish epitaph reads, “Consider, friend, as you pass by: As you are now, so once was I. As I am now, you too shall be. Prepare, therefore, to follow me.”
Epitaphs honor the dead as they serve to comfort the living. But I suppose the Apostle Paul would’ve demurred at the offer of an epitaph upon his burial spot. His life had spoken enough. That death would be gain, and the Gospel strong enough to save in the mouths of the living, made a final word inscribed in stone unnecessary.
Yet if we were to encapsulate Paul’s life in an epitaphic fashion, his words above to the Ephesian elders during their ostensibly final meeting would suffice. Paul had much more to say in those parting words in Acts 20. But no other utterance summarized as aptly his purpose.
This will be my last contribution to the Every Thought Captive column as a pastor at PCPC. As many of you may have already heard, I’m transitioning in the coming weeks to be the organizing pastor for a young church in southwest Dallas named Christ the King. A new iteration of this column will emerge soon, but for now, I bid you farewell.
Words prove elusive to express my gratitude to my friend and pastor, Mark Davis, for his vision and encouragement for this weekly offering. The intensity of gratitude parallels my sense of privilege at having been given the opportunity to speak into your lives—though I suppose what most motivated me to write was the need to preach into my own life.
So as I navigated these bittersweet waters of transition, my mind went to Paul’s epitaph-like words. They enunciate perhaps the two hardest things to believe deeply, and therefore they represent the two greatest burdens for this column to communicate: that we do not belong to ourselves, and that this life can only be lived well by grace.
Until we see Him face-to-face, we shall wrestle with the seductive voice that says we are the masters of our fate. Every sin is premised upon that notion. Until we see Him face-to-face we shall be tempted to think our most animating and sustaining glory shall be found by our own effort (more on that this Sunday). Our deepest and most abiding fears find their source there.
But if the Gospel, which Paul spoke and incarnated, teaches us anything, it is that we shall never be most defined by our parentage, our peers, or our practice. For as Paul elsewhere says, “if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”
And since He is our greatest authority, the depth of our sins and the feebleness of our aptitudes leave us no alternative to find abiding hope and life apart from the One who spilled eternal blood for us.
Every Thought Captive may have said nothing more than that, over and over, each and every week. But I, and all those who contributed to this column, could insert no greater comment into your week. If that is our collective epitaph we will not be ashamed.
So from this man of Irish descent I commend you to God with an Indian blessing known as the Christaraksha (HT: Alan Jacobs):
May the cross of the Son of God,
which is mightier than all the hosts of Satan
and more glorious than all the hosts of heaven,
abide with you in your going out and your coming in.
By day and night, at morning and at evening,
at all times and in all places,
may it protect and defend you.
From the wrath of evildoers,
from the assaults of evil spirits,
from foes visible and invisible,
from the snares of the devil,
from all passions that beguile the soul and body:
may it guard, protect and deliver you.