This is normally the time of year that college students start heading home and or start working summer jobs. But – given the addition of COVID-19 to our lives – a lot of students are either home already or well into their summer break already. My son, Baker, and I were talking about exams, grades, and summer jobs the other day – which reminded me of the summer just after my freshman year of college.
As it happens, my older brother – Dennis – owns and operates a masonry/construction company, and from time to time people who needed small repairs done on their homes would call him (they still do). That particular summer, there were several older people who needed some work done and Dennis thought that I would be able to do the work. I have to say it was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had – mostly because of the people I met and what I learned from them. In fact, just the other day I was thinking about one man I worked for and the valuable lesson I learned from him.
Mr. Buckholtz was standing in his driveway waiting on me to arrive. As I parked, I could tell that he was in a hurry to get started. After short introductions, he began showing the different jobs he needed to be done around his property. We moved around the place somewhere between a trot and a jog. That pace should have tipped me off about the speed with which the projects were to be done. After that initial trip around the place, I was off to work and work I did.
Over the next few days, I cut down trees and trimmed branches; I pulled up old shrubs and planted new ones; I carried stone and railroad ties (yes railroad ties). I painted and did a little masonry work. I plumbed and planted and shoveled at a quick step pace. He kept me working from the time I got there until the second I turned to leave. I didn’t mind the pace. I just didn’t understand it until a few days into the job.
Every day Mr. Buckholtz would get me started on a project and then he would head inside for a bit. He must have been watching me from a window because as soon as I finished one project, he was at my side inspecting my work. He would hand me a glass of water or tea or a sandwich and then inspect my work. He was always kind and complimentary about my work – even as he encouraged me to redo something or do something a bit better or a little different. As I rested for a few minutes, he’d ask about me – what my plans were – what I wanted to do with my life – that sort of things – and he sometimes shared little bits about his own life. Sometime during that first week, during one of those inspection breaks, Mr. Buckholtz said something to me that I’ve never forgotten.
Mr. Buckholtz explained that he was a man on a mission because his time was running out. He was dying and he had a lot of things that he wanted to get done around his house so that his wife and family didn’t have to worry about them after he was gone. In fact, everything he had me doing was for them. Then he said that time eventually runs out for everyone but he’d been given a gift of sorts. Due to the nature of his illness, he had a pretty good idea of what the future held for him and an idea of how much time he had left. He planned to take advantage of every minute in order to get things done for his family. He knew he had a short time left, which gave him time to do what he needed to do and say what he needed to say to those he loved.
I wasn’t the sharpest 19-year-old guy in the world but I was smart enough to know that I’d been given a gift of sorts, too. I was just at the beginning of my adult life and I was working for someone who was at the end of theirs. Granted, my own dad died when I was 14, but his death was unexpected and that sort of tragic end cuts a deep gash but it often only allows for grief rather than introspection. I was fortunate enough in the fact that my father’s last words to me were “I love you” and I’ve carried those words around like gold ever since. But, with Mr. Buckholtz it was different; he had time to say and do things for those he loved. He had time to think about his life and his death and what he wanted to do at the very end.
Okay, I know. I get it. Our own death isn’t something that we like to think about let alone talk about. Truth is, I’m taking a gamble here and hoping a few folks may allow themselves to read about it. For lots of reasons, we try to avoid the subject. We try to delay it. We try to deny it. We make jokes about it. We try to play it off like its no big thing. And then along comes a pandemic and we are suddenly reminded over and over of our mortality – and even then – some people try to play it off by saying – if it’s my time then it’s my time – but I always wonder when folks say that if they’ve ever actually given the notion of dying much thought.
Recently I was listening to an awesome podcast called Noble Blood. If you haven’t checked it out – and you are into history at all – if you love stories about nobility – you need to tune into Noble Blood. At any rate, on a recent show Dana Schwartz – the creator/host – pointed out the Henry VIII actually designed his own tomb. It was to be a shrine to how awesome he was (or thought he was). However, he never got around to actually having it built during his lifetime probably because he, like most other folks, don’t like to think about their own mortality. So, Henry still lays in a temporary tomb in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle under a simple black stone.
A lot of folks are like Henry VIII. They don’t really want to think about their own deaths but perhaps they should and perhaps they ought to prepare for it and do and say what needs to be done now rather than hope for the time and presence of mind later one. But there was at least one king who not only thought a lot about His own death, he talked about it with his closest friends. He too, however, didn’t prepare a tomb. Turns out he wouldn’t need one for very long anyway – so why bother?
At the risk of sounding preachy (which comes with the territory), I think Jesus is a good model for living and – as it were – dying as well. I say that because if you’ve ever read much of the Gospels in the New Testament you may have discovered that Jesus repeatedly told his closest friends that His death was imminent and at the same time he didn’t hold back or wait to do what needed to be done or say what needed to be said.
Without getting overly theological, Jesus kept His death at the forefront of his attention. He knew it was coming and He was prepared for it and he prepared His friends for it as well. Of course, they didn’t seem to catch on but He tried to talk to them and prepare them all along. Granted, His death and resurrection are the cornerstone of Christianity – without which Christians are, as Paul said, fools. But I think that there is an additional lesson to be learned or perhaps a model for how Christian folks ought to live; I mean if Jesus was prepared and didn’t shy away from talking about his death perhaps we shouldn’t either.
If Jesus bore death in mind it’s probably not a bad idea for we mortals to do the same. That’s not to advocate being morbid or overly obsessed with death. But sometimes we spend a lot of time planning for retirement or going to extremes to deny or delay death or aging without even factoring in the end or worse, not being prepared for it. As a pastor, I’ve sat with folks who – at the end of their days – were sort of surprised that death was upon them but I don’t think that’s what Jesus would have us do.
Again, Jesus not only talked to His closest friends about the end, but also didn’t hold back or wait to do what needed to be done or said. In fact, reading through the Gospels you’ll discover how often Jesus spoke into the lives of His friends. In fact, he did that so often that when it came to the end, the things Jesus said and did in essence just summed things up and affirmed what He’d been saying all along.
For instance, if you’ve ever had the chance to read John 13-17 you’ll recall that text shows the scene just hours before Jesus suffered abuse and then was crucified. From John’s text (and others) it is clear that Jesus knew that his end was near. During His last hours, he turned his attention – not to himself – but to his closest friends/disciples and even to those who would turn to Him throughout the ages. The things that He said confirmed what He’d been saying and doing all along.
Believe me, you need to read John 13-17 to get the full picture of all that Jesus said and did that night. I just want to point out one thing from among the many things. After Jesus had served his friends an incredible meal – a meal that the church still tastes – Jesus told His disciples that He loved them and He told them they ought to love one another – because truth be told they were gonna need one another (John 13:34-35).
As I mentioned earlier, my dad’s last words to me were, “I love you.” What I didn’t tell you was that my Dad was in ICU at the time. I’m pretty sure that He knew he wasn’t long for the world. In those last moments, my dad wanted me to know that I was loved. I can’t tell you what a gift those words are to me.
In the final hours of Jesus’ life among us, He wanted to convey His deep and abiding love to His friends – both then and now. Imagine that. Jesus knew that He wasn’t long for the world and in the midst of that – He wanted to make sure that His disciples – his friends – that and you and me – knew He loves us. That’s a pretty amazing model that Jesus gives us.
I know we don’t like to talk about our own mortality. But I think Jesus gives us a great model where He not only talked about His death he made sure to do what needed to be done and said what needed to be said. He made sure to do what God would have Him to do in the world (which thankfully as God’s Son means that we can have the security of eternal life through faith Christ alone). But He also made sure to convey the important things to His friends – then and now. It is a powerful lesson to a culture that is being reminded at this very hour of our mortality.
A few days ago I was out in my yard and had to move a railroad tie – much like the one I moved when I was working for Mr. Buckholtz. I thought about him doing all that he could in the time that he had to do what needed to be done and say what needed to be said as a man who was running out of time. And then I thought about what I knew of Jesus and I hope in the time that I have left that I’ll do what needs to be done now and say what needs to be said now rather than later. I hope I’ll live like a man on a mission, like a man running out of time. I hope you do as well.