As a seventeen-year-old boy, my excitement was boundless as I boarded an old constellation airliner for a flight to Tokyo and an opportunity to preach one night of the revival during the dedication of Tokyo Baptist Church in Japan. My first international journey, and in many ways the most memorable, would include Rome and a trip along the Appian Way, down which Paul walked, as well as a side trip to the catacombs.
You should visit these miles of tunnels beneath the “Eternal City,” which were fashioned and hallowed by early Christians who needed a safe burial ground for their martyred dead. The martyrdom of early believers became so frequent that the word “witness” (Greek mártus) soon was transliterated into our English word “martyr.” Names mostly lost, or never even known, why would anyone want to visit a dismal, gloomy cemetery? Come to think of it, why would anyone want to attend a funeral service anytime?
And what macabre delusion has grasped the mind of my wife Dorothy, who all of her life has attended every funeral she possibly could? Fifty-seven years of marriage ought to be among the premier learning experiences of life, and my float on this marital barge has been rewarded with more lessons learned from the mortician’s daughter that I married than I have the right to have shared. Given the Covid-19 scare and the general chronic dislike of attending funerals in this generation, the “Dottie-wisdom,” as I like to call it, suggested itself again this week. And this is a wisdom much in need of discovery by the contemporary church.
On Friday, my wife and I found ourselves in Austin sitting in the beautiful Austin Baptist Church for the memorial service of Mary Louise McDonald, age 81. Married to former professional baseball player Wayne McDonald, the two had spent almost sixty, triumphant years together. Two children, a flock of grandkids and great grandchildren gathered in her honor. Multiple witnesses bore eloquent testimony to Mary Louise’s selfless life. Few women in all of history have poured their lives into others as did this contemporary “saint.” Because she was an invalid and a cancer victim, one could easily miss the fact that she was a victim if you listened to the testimonies about her Bible teaching ministry, sacrificial service to others, and counseling sessions.
Oh, I was going to speak of why my Dottie wanted to go to a funeral, was I not? Yes, Mary Louise McDonald’s life is an inspiration par excellence! The inspiration of the otherwise largely unreported experiences of the common woman in her service to Christ and to others, as was true of this godly woman, constitutes one important reason why every believer should attend memorial services. A better reason is that in so doing we have occasion to express to a grieving family our gratitude for the impact of the life of the one transferred to glory.
But above all else, such a gathering is the time to remind ourselves of the brevity of this life and the certainty of its conclusion. But death is so depressing! “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Ps 116:15). Why? Because of the nature of the coming world. Because of the jettisoning of sin. Because of the presence of God. David Procter skillfully reminded every participant in Mary Louise McDonald’s coronation service of those truths. And I am never weary from hearing the rehearsal of those truths.
A week earlier, my wife and I attended a memorial service at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Farmersville, Texas. Pastor David Meeks, assisted by his son, officiated at this service of his wife. How could Pastor Meeks do that? Treasuring his wife above all other realities, David wanted to tell everyone of the grace of God active in the life of his wife. And like Procter, he gave the opportunity for any who did not know Christ to receive Him and to join his wife someday in God’s presence. Every follower of Christ should attend such a service minimally five or six times per year in order to keep foremost in his mind all that ultimately matters in life and eternity.
Now I recall why my folks desired me to accompany them to the deep, furrowed caves beneath the ruins of ancient Rome. There was no fascination with death or preoccupation with pessimism. Just the opposite was true. Mom and Dad wanted their seventeen-year-old son to live with a constant reminder that however long I lived, “Every man at his best state is but vapor” (Ps 39:5). A cogent coaxing of the eternal sensitivities of the human heart is a good thing, and a journey to the catacombs worth the time.