Posted on December 28, 2023 by Rev. Jonathan Conner
Headstones are sobering. Living next to a cemetery, Rebecca and I often find ourselves considering the names engraved on the stones. After being in Manning for 13 years, I know many of the names and the stories represented by the dash between the dates. But, there are many more I do not. The same goes for you. You know certain names and the lives hidden behind the dash. Still, there are more about which you know nothing but the name, the dates, and the dash.
In a generation or two, fewer and fewer will know the stories that lie behind those dashes. If we had not a loving God, this sobering reality could be incredibly discouraging. Lives lived, love shared, triumph, defeat, celebrations, laments – all reduced to the dash between the dates.
The day the mother welcomed her newborn baby, snuggling her close to her chest, feeling her warmth and marveling over her tiny, beautiful, infant body. The elation she experienced in celebrating that baby’s first steps. The surge of emotions he experienced when he saw his bride-to-be processing down the aisle, radiating joy and beauty and anticipation. The satisfaction he felt when he finished building the barn. The wave of feelings that overcame him as he walked his daughter down the aisle. The fear that gripped her spirit when her son was late getting home. The laughter that filled her heart as she watched her grandson score a goal for the wrong team.
All reduced to the dash between the dates as time relentlessly erases the memory of the beautiful and meaningful, even ugly and pockmarked, lives of those who came before us. These realities raise sobering questions about our existence. Are our lives reducible to the dash between the dates? Is that what they come down to?
Scripture emphatically answers No! In fact, not only does God know the life and the story behind the dash between the dates, but He promises to honor it, even to reward it in eternity. It’s really quite a staggering promise.
Consider Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians:
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:10-15)
In other words, God knows and cares about the lives we live. He knows the crosses we’ve borne, the sacrifices we’ve made, the good we’ve done in His name for the benefit of our neighbor. And He’s going to reward it in eternity. He doesn’t look at a headstone and see nothing but a dash between the dates; He sees people. He sees their stories. He sees their lives. And He places great value on them. Though we may forget, though our memory and the memories of those who have gone before us may be lost to future generations, they are not lost to God.
I deeply appreciate the way Paul puts it in Colossians 3: “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). What powerful words! Paul is describing our life, as the baptized, with God. In baptism we die with Christ and are raised with Him, joined so closely to Him that our lives are hidden with Him in God. And here’s what’s so amazing: This reality continues beyond the grave so that our lives and our stories are inextricably connected to Christ and bound up in God. If the only visible remnant of our lives on earth is the dash between the dates, our full stories are preserved in Christ.
C.S. Lewis masterfully captures this idea in his imaginative novel on Heaven, The Great Divorce. In it he imagines souls in Hell being given a daytrip to Heaven. They are met by a spirit being who serves as their tour guide. In the scene below, Lewis describes the protagonist encountering one of the great ones in heaven, someone nearly no one on earth noticed. Someone, however, who lived a beautiful life of service that God noticed and honored in Heaven with great glory. The scene picks up with the protagonist noticing an approaching parade that is clearly in honor of this great person.
“First came bright Spirits, not the Spirits of men, who danced and scattered flowers. Then, on the left and right, at each side of the forest avenue, came youthful shapes, boys upon one hand, and girls upon the other. If I could remember their singing and write down the notes, no man who read that score would ever grow sick or old. Between them went musicians: and after these a lady in whose honour all this was being done.
“I cannot now remember whether she was naked or clothed. If she were naked, then it must have been the almost visible penumbra of her courtesy and joy which produces in my memory the illusion of a great and shining train that followed her across the happy grass. If she were clothed, then the illusion of nakedness is doubtless due to the clarity with which her inmost spirit shone through the clothes. For clothes in that country are not a disguise: the spiritual body lives along each thread and turns them into living organs. A robe or a crown is there as much one of the wearer’s features as a lip or an eye.
“But I have forgotten. And only partly do I remember the unbearable beauty of her face.”
“Is it?…is it?” I whispered to my guide.
“Not at all,” said he. “It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.”
“She seems to be…well, a person of particular importance?”
“Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.”
“And who are these gigantic people…look! They’re like emeralds…who are dancing and throwing flowers before her?”
“Haven’t ye read your Milton? A thousand liveried angels lackey her.”
“And who are all these young men and women on each side?”
“They are her sons and daughters.”
“She must have had a very large family, Sir.”
“Every young man or boy that met her became her son – even if it was only the boy that brought the meat to her back door. Every girl that met her was her daughter.”
“Isn’t that a bit hard on their own parents?”
“No. There are those that steal other people’s children. But her motherhood was of a different kind. Those on whom it fell went back to their natural parents loving them more. Few men looked on her without becoming, in a certain fashion, her lovers. But it was the kind of love that made them not less true, but truer, to their own wives.”
“And how…but hullo! What are all these animals? A cat-two cats-dozens of cats. And all those dogs…why, I can’t count them. And the birds. And the horses.”
“They are her beasts.”
“Did she keep a sort of zoo? I mean, this is a bit too much.”
“Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love. In her they became themselves. And now the abundance of life she has in Christ from the Father flows over into them.”
No doubt her tombstone stood on earth with a dash between the dates. And perhaps for a season some remembered the life represented by that dash, but seasons come and go and they slowly diminish memories. But time doesn’t diminish God’s memory! He knows. He sees. He cares. And He honors lives lived in faithfulness to Him. In fact, His honor glorifies our lives and makes them bigger and more than they ever were on earth. Or, maybe we should say, His honor reveals what our lives were to Him.
This takes us back to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 3 where he spoke about lives and works of wood, hay, and straw or gold, silver, and precious stones. Heaven (as in the New Earth) reveals the true nature of the lives we’ve lived in Christ. Lives lived in honor of Christ and in love of neighbor will be revealed as the gold, silver, and precious stones that they are. So back to that dash on our headstones. It’s merely a place marker until Jesus reveals the life behind it – even more, until He honors and glorifies it. That’s the astonishing promise of Jesus.
 The Lutheran Confessions make this point repeatedly. Here’s one example: “For as it is God’s will and express command that the faithful should do good works, which the Holy Spirit effects in the faithful, so God allows these works to please Him for Christ’s sake and promises a glorious reward for them in this life and in the life to come.” Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration IV: 38 (pg. 580-581 Kolb)
 This is a reference to a work by John Milton published in 1637 entitled Comus. A full exploration of Milton’s work lies beyond the reach of this article, but in his book Milton describes the virtues of chastity, personified throughout as a lady. The text quoted comes from this line:
So dear to heaven is saintly Chastity,
That when a soul is found sincerely so,
A thousand liveried angels lackey her.
The idea is that smartly uniformed (liveried) angels accompany and surround (lackey) Chastity, not only protecting her from sin and temptation, but aiding her in her transformation from the inside out. So as her internal character is transformed, the resultant beauty begins to shine through and beyond her. This is what the protagonist in Lewis’ novel is witnessing as he sees Sarah Smith parading through heaven, a woman transformed by the love of Christ that is now radiating through and out of her.
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