Funeral Clothes: Thoughts on Truth

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G.K. Chesterton said, “If I am asked, as a purely intellectual question, why I believe in Christianity, I can only answer… I believe in it quite rationally upon the evidence. But the evidence in my case is not really in this or that alleged demonstration; it is in an enormous accumulation of small but unanimous facts.”

These small but unanimous facts are those moments in your life which come by and show you glimpses of what is going on beneath the surface of your life, when all of the sudden life becomes infused with great meaning, and you believe you have encountered a truth that you feel was meant to change you.

Have you ever experienced a “moment of truth” in your life which just seemed to scream above the noise, telling you that life is just absolutely filled with meaning?

The burglars had more or less trashed my dad’s office.

I remember sitting in the old one room school house which stood at the end of the gravel road I grew up on, which my dad had recently begun leasing as office space for his struggling computer business.

That school house was something of a southern bookend on the boundaries of my childhood—my grandpa’s house being the northern limit. Between that school house and my grandpa’s house, my childhood took place.

My grandpa lived like a farmer, though he had made his living selling cars. His property surrounded ours, and his hay mow, woods and creek were more than enough to fill summer after summer with adventure.

He was a quirky man, set in patterns which included keeping hens, growing bamboo, eating at the same diner for lunch and every so often giving my parents a sum of money so that they could purchase “funeral clothes” for my brother and me—which usually constituted twill pants, a sport coat and a clip-on tie. These were the clothes we were to wear to Grandpa’s upcoming funeral, whenever that would be.

Mom and dad would dress us up in our “funeral clothes,” get a Polaroid of us with our dog Zombie, whom my grandpa loved dearly, and take the picture to over to grandpa. He would regard it for a while as a look of pride spread across his weathered face, and he’d say something like, “Those are fine looking boys.”

A year or two would pass and we’d do it all over again. New clothes, new Polaroid, same expression.

The burglary took place during the Christmas break of my senior year in college. I had just returned from a semester of study in Jerusalem. Lisa and I were engaged to be married later that summer. Dad and I stood among a mess of scattered papers, jumbled wires and up-ended furniture—all of which seemed to have a light covering of the dusting powder the police had used to try to recover fingerprints.

The mood was light, really, especially since dad was in the process of closing the business down. So we were doing more talking than anything else. I had just a few minutes before I needed to head home to clean up for my shift delivering pizza. As I was getting ready to leave, the phone rang. It was the nursing home at the hospital where my grandpa had been living for the past year or so. They told dad that grandpa was ailing, and he had better come on out. I told dad I’d meet him there after I changed my clothes.

I arrived no more than five minutes after dad, and found my dad standing beside my grandpa, holding his hand. Dad looked at me and said it wasn’t more than a minute earlier that Grandpa had breathed his last breath.

There we were. It was all at once more than a hospital room on the nursing home wing. It was a room of fathers and sons. Three generations of Ramsey men gathered in one room, two seeing the third off.

And it was a room drenched with meaning. Busy lives had ground to a halt.

I remember how that moment carried for me so much meaning. It was a moment of truth. Three generations, each gathered there shaping the life of the others in lasting and powerful ways.

One last time we would set out to buy new “funeral clothes.”

This was a huge moments of truth for me, because I was given an intense picture of where I had come from, as my dad and I stood there at Grandpa’s bedside. I was part of a family—a line of men known for respectable successes and sometimes pretty definitive failures.

I had a heritage. I had a history. I had come from somewhere. And a big part of that had just died. It was one of the first times I really recognized that I was no longer a kid—but a man, a Ramsey. And life was moving along quickly.

Winston Churchill once said “Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing has happened.” Somewhere between birth and death we hurry off as if nothing has happened and get ever so busy or self-important that we forget certain truths we once stumbled over as we reduce the significance of our lives down to such unimportant things as productivity, revenue and prestige.

But sometimes the truth won’t let us hurry off. Sometimes the truth reaches up and stops us dead in our tracks. It holds up a mirror and we catch a glimpse of our reflection.

Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever seen yourself making the same parenting mistakes your parents made—mistakes you just knew, when you were younger, you would never replicate. Such mistakes were so obvious to you then, yet so natural to you now.

Or maybe you catch a glimpse of a look in your spouse’s eye who is regarding you as something of a stranger who has gotten too consumed with your professional life to have much of a personal one. Or maybe there is this “one thing” you have hungered for all your life, swearing to yourself that if you could just have that “one thing” you would be happy, but you realize, even if just for a fleeting moment, that there is no way that thing you want so desperately could really satisfy you.

No, you’re much too complex for that.

I believe God has fashioned truth to be something we stumble over and stumble onto. Truth is a divine corrective, a force to be reckoned with—showing us the wonder and terror of our fragile lives, awakening in us an insatiable hunger to know why we are here and what we are worth. Moments of truth constantly testify to the wildness of life.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “It seems to me that one can hardly say anything either bad enough or good enough about life.” (Letters of C.S. Lewis) Moments of truth can overcome us with fear—like when a father stands in the delivery room as the urgent, focused faces of medical staff attend to the woman and baby he’d give his very life to protect. They can overwhelm us with joy—like when a young woman leaves her wedding reception, gets in the car covered in shoe polish exclamations and realizes for the first time that the wedding planning is over and the marriage has begun—that he is her husband and she is his wife.

We don’t ask for these moments of truth to shape us into the people we are becoming. They just do.

Why do we regard these moments of truth with such reverence? Because as people made in the image of God we understand, no matter how subdued and repressed the truth may be to us, that if something is true, it is like an anchor holding our lives in place in the cosmos. Truth beckon us: “Come and see that life has meaning and that it is of enormous importance.”

Russ Ramsey and his wife and four children make their home in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian's Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative (Rabbit Room Press, 2011) and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Crossway, 2015). He is a graduate of Taylor University (1991) and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv – 2000, ThM – 2003). Follow Russ on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.


7 Comments

  1. Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    Great thoughts, thanks so much Russ. A great reminder to stay alert and intentionally make myself present to these moments of truth. I’m increasingly aware of how demands and realities in my life right now would numb or inure me to such moments of truth. We need to be aware of them and follow where they are leading us.

    Thanks so much for taking the time to share this with us.

    JGray

  2. Joy C.

    Russ, This’ll sound whacked but yesterday I went to the funeral of a family member of a woman I’d had in Bible study at the prison a few years ago. I hadn’t known for sure if the Lord had wanted me to go but from her response when I was there I knew I’d been on the beam. Then I went directly to the prison to do another Bible study… the women in each group talked about my nice clothes, so I told each group that they were my “funeral clothes.” Yeah. Then I pulled up the Rabbit Room this morning and got another confirmation…

  3. Andrew C

    Wow. You have said, in a different way, from a different perspective, something that Jesus is constantly working into my life. He is continuously speaking to us and bringing us into amazing (yet seemingly simple) encounters with Himself, with truth. But because our perspective and our culture is intently focused in another direction (intentionally or unintentionally?), many times we are unaware of His voice, or left unaffected by the encounter we could have had with truth.

    But what He has been working into me is the reality that He is my Father, and that would mean that I am His child. The way He has made this very real to me is through the situations in the Gospels when Jesus tells us to have faith like a child, and that the kingdom of heaven consists of children. What is this about? Children have an amazing trust in their father. When he says he will do something, they know he will do it. Sometimes as their father is doing whatever it is he does, they will just sit there and watch him, and soak in the experience of being with him. It’s an amazingly simple, yet deeply profound way of looking at life.

    And it’s through all the moments such as these that He is constantly giving us encounters with Him, the Truth, and forming us.

    I think it’s so cool how God communicates the same truth to our hearts in different perspectives, giving us still more opportunity to recognize Him. Thanks for sharing this, Russ.

  4. Easton Crow

    Paying attention can be so hard to do. Like Jason was saying, it is so easy to get numb with the daily grind. My wife and I have been married 11 years. We just did a time line of our history together from meeting in 1991 to the present. THe first years of college and early marriage were really easy to recapture and get on paper. It is the last few years that are hzay and unclear. Why? They are full of the sameness of work, kids, home, and doing it all again.The first years had constantly changing events, focus, and projects. Marriage and adulthood becomes very predictable. it really was a shock to me to see how littel I have paid attention to the years, how undeliberately they have been lived. That needs to change.

  5. Jim A

    Thanks again Russ. Well stated. I must remember to stop reading this at work as the possibility of red puffy eye disease could occur (which of course i could blame on the whiteout). I remember distinctly now, and I hadn’t in a while, losing my own “pawpaw” many years ago and crying outloud in the hallway of the hospital as an awkward teenager. It was one of many truths that I tripped on and often turned around to kick or curse at it for tripping me. Over the years with many thanks to writers like you’ve listed, musicians like those in the rabbit room, writers/pastors like yourself, and a room full of Godly men on Friday mornings, I rever the truth moments more and more. And with a couple of pre-schoolers in my house, tripping over stuff is something i’m getting pretty good at.

    Peace….

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