I wrote most of this blog with tears in my eyes.
See, just yesterday Mrs. Billie Smith died, and she was one of the senior saints I’d come to love at Highland.
After I heard the news I started reading through some of the funerals of the people I’ve buried at Highland, including her husband, Bro. Larry.
That may sound creepy but, for me, one of my favorite parts of being the preacher at Highland for the past 8 years has been doing these funerals.
Let me tell you why.
In his book, The Road to Character, New York Times Columnist David Brooks writes about how there are two different kinds of virtues. What he terms “resume virtues” vs. “eulogy virtues”
The resume virtues are the kinds of accomplishments that make others pay attention to you. There the high test scores or the tremendous job you did fundraising, or the nice house and growing IRA. Those are resume virtues. But, Brooks, suggests, what we really need, what the world really needs is men and women who have spent a life developing eulogy virtues while holding the resume virtues lightly.
I couldn’t agree more. As someone who actually does a lot of eulogies, I think Brooks’ point is spot on. No one has ever asked me to mention in a funeral about the tremendous salary that their father had, or what a nice car their mother drove. In other words, what often seems so important when we’re alive becomes just a footnote in our death.
And that brings me to one of the greatest things I’m going to miss when I’m leaving Highland.
I’ve come to realize, in my 8 years in Abilene, that the greatest thing about Abilene really is the people. It sounds cliche because people say it all the time in response to the jokes about life in Abilene. (West Texas: Where God ran out of ideas. Or Fall: The time in Abilene when the leaf changes its color).
But it’s true. The best part of Abilene are the people who live here.
And I think I know why.
Because a lot of the people who live in Abilene have chosen to live here for a very specific reason.
There are three Christian Universities in this small city and a regular influx of 18-22 year olds who move here from all over the world to study here.
Christian higher education is one of the major economies of Abilene, Texas, and probably the reason most of the people reading this blog know about Abilene.
And along with that comes a lot of unique joys and challenges that everyone who has lived in Abilene can immediately bear witness to.
I’ll bet you can guess the challenges easily enough. But what I will tell you is that the joys far outweigh them, and I will forever miss living in Abilene because of this one thing…
The best part of people of so many people who live in Abilene is that what they really, really care about…is the next generation. Underneath everything is a strong calling to pass on the Gospel from one generation to the next.
And let me tell you, that’s something noble and rare.
I think so much of the Church problems that we have today can be summed up by the fact that we have generational divides that are being addressed, not by working through problems together and reconciling, but through just creating different churches.
One of the by-products of the individualistic society that we have created is that we have carved up the world so many distinctive ways that we no longer have to share life with people who are different from us. This is true racially, economically, educationally, and generationally.
This is the great tragedy of modern American Churches.
Growing up, the people who made the biggest difference in my life were much older than I was. They taught me how to preach, and how to be kind to one other when we disagreed, they taught me how to be married, how to be a widow(er), and how to die.
I taught them how to program their VCR’s.
But this isn’t the case anymore. The common assumption is that for a church to grow they must specialize in one slice of the human pie.
Over the past few years, I’ve read and heard some church consultants giving the advice that, in order to grow numerically, a church needs to pick between targeting people of under 40, or over 40. I think that’s a tragedy. And the sad truth is that it’s exactly what churches today are doing in one form or another.
Andy Crouch once said something that has haunted me for years. His words have been the single greatest reason why I personally never decided to plant a church:
“One of the great tragedies of the church in America is now many of our most creative leaders poured their energies into creating forms of church life that served just a single generation. Even when these efforts were built around something larger than a single personality, they were doomed to seem dated and “irrelevant” even to the children of their founders.”
In other words, eventually…as impossible as it sounds, Hillsong is going to one day become the Gaithers. And No Longer Slaves is going to be Just as I Am. And your grandkids will see something that today seems so fresh and cutting edge as quaint and irrelevant.
And I hope you belong to a church that will sing it anyway.
For the Ages to Come
I have a hunch this is what’s behind most of the church fights/arguments/splits we’ve seen. It’s not really the issues or causes we’re talking about, it’s our inability to be a church that passes off the Gospel from one generation to the next.
That can look a lot of ways, and every church will do it differently. But I believe each church has a mandate from God to do it.
So back to Highland. Our philosophy for years has been “Something for everyone not everything for someone.” And that’s been hard and easy. It’s hard because we’re trying to be a community of reconciliation and for the first time in human history the Church is being faced with the challenge of trying to be a church of five different generations. (Neither Paul nor my great grandparents never had to deal with that).
But it’s also been easy at Highland, because this is in our DNA. We call it being generationally generous. It’s in the air, people have moved here from all over the world to pass off the Gospel to the next generation, some have trained for years for it, others are just natural mentors, and some are working to get better, but just about everyone cares about this here.
And that brings me back to doing funerals at Highland.
The reason that doing eulogies at Highland has been one of the best parts of being here is because its in the funerals you find out what really, really mattered to people in their lives. And I have had a higher concentrated dose of senior saints than any preacher I know.
I’m thinking of Cecil Allen or Ralph Crazer or Joan Jones or Ruby Guy or Audi Conner or Larry Smith or Virginia Terry or Bob Allen or the dozens of other funerals over the past 8 years where I’ve been reminded of what it means to be Faithful unto death.
Every Christian I know is trying to be faithful and every one of us is eventually dying, but have you ever considered what that really means? It doesn’t just mean keep going to church, or make sure you don’t slip into heresy before you die. It means to actively try to honor God with all of your life, even the end, maybe especially the end.
That’s what I’ve had a front row seat to for the past 8 years.
I’m thinking about how many people came back, sometimes from all over the world, to be there for these funerals because of how they had poured into them while they were younger.
These are men and women who gave their lives to passing off the Gospel to the next generation, and so when things happened at church that weren’t their preference, when the songs we sang weren’t just their style, they did the very counter-cultural thing of learning how to find joy in watching the Gospel bring all kinds of ages together.
Just this past week, I got a call from one of our oldest living members. He’s had been the voice for the Herald of Truth for years, and has been at Highland for decades. He was calling to tell me goodbye, and at one point the subject of worship songs came up.
He told me that he missed not singing as many of the older songs that we used to. He shared fond memories about hearing his grandparents singing “I come to the Garden Alone.” But then he said, “But if we just sang the songs that I heard my grandparents sing, I reckon my grandkids wouldn’t have decided to stay and sing them too.”
From Generation to Generation, For the Ages to Come. For the Glory of God.
Thanks for teaching me that Highland.