After I’m Gone

By

Remember the movie “Big Fish” from 2003?  I recall sitting in my living room as the credits rolled, being struck by a thought I had never considered: my mom and dad had lives before I was born that were rich, complex and virtually unknown to me except for some basic details like where they lived, went to school, what they drove, etc.

big-fish-movie.jpgThen another thought came storming right in behind that one: they also then must have had rich, complex lives virtually unknown to me even as I was living under their roof.  What did I really know about who they esteemed as “best friends?”  What did they fight over? (In our house, I never knew.)  What kept them up at night?  Did they ever get certain songs stuck in their heads?  Did their hearts break like mine when a pet died?  Did I know them or just their stories?

The other day I was asked to be the speaker at a men’s breakfast at our church.  The format was “Ask the Pastor,” so I didn’t prepare anything, but just presented myself for interrogation.  It was fun.  My friend who hosts these events introduced me by way of asking the first question: “When you’re gone from this world, what do you hope people will say about your life?”

Much of my professional life right now is devoted to a pretty detailed study of the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  So as soon as he asked, the words of the apostle Paul welled up within me and I replied, “That I was a pastor who knew nothing but Christ and Him crucified.”  Then I thought about it a bit more and said something about my relationship with my wife (which I’ll keep out of cyber space) and added, “That my kids will be able to say, by the grace of God, that they never wondered where they stood with their dad.”

Since then, the question has been nagging at me.  I’ve been thinking about “Big Fish” and the more existential questions of what makes a life and how we’re known.

The film, if you haven’t seen it, is about a son coming to terms with his father’s final days and the fact that all he feels he ever got from his dad were tall tales, exaggerations and in many cases, out and out lies.  Tim Burton did a masterful job of keeping me in the dark about where all this was headed.  But by the time it ended, I wanted to call my parents and apologize for what–I didn’t really know.  Maybe for not paying closer attention.  Maybe for presuming it was my world and they were only living in it.  Maybe for failing to appreciate that their lives were dense, complex worlds of wonder, passion, faith, fear, hope, resolve and tenacity.

When we’re young and thinking about what we want to be when we grow up, most of us think of things like a fireman, or a famous singer.  But then, for example, you go over to Jill Phillips’ blog (she’s a famous singer, right?) and there are pictures of her with her husband and kids, and they’re at the zoo so she can run a 5K (faster than Andy Osenga, though no one’s gloating.)  You’re probably at her blog as a fan.  But she’s more than a famous singer.  She’s also a mom, wife and friend.  She runs.  She writes.  She cooks.  She cleans.  She disciplines her kids.  She serves in her church.

I ask you, is there a chance that the best parts of her life that people will remember are going to relate mainly to her music?  What about for her husband Andy?  For her kids?  For her closest friends?

Then I see Andrew Peterson’s boys in Ecuador meeting the Compassion Kid they sponsor.  Or I hear Pete tell the story about trying to tow his motorcycle from Florida to Nashville while in the middle of relocating his entire world.  Or I hear stories about friends standing in the smoldering ruins of each other’s lives as they sift through the rubble to see what might be salvaged.  And I think about that question my friend asked and wonder, how will the true answers to that question materialize?

I believe the answers won’t come down to just one or two things.  I am not living a life populated by only one or two things.  It’s a full plate.  There’s the work, the family, the marriage, the hobbies, the failures, the epiphanies, the transitions, the fears, the hurts, the quirks, the lies, the baggage, the resolutions, the faith, the prayers, the needing and the giving.  And the sanctification.  Thank God for the sanctification! And they’re all happening in real space and real time this very moment.

I used to lead a college Bible Study, and I cannot tell you how many students (mostly guys–so if this is you, listen up and repent) who were spending their parents’ money for college courses, skipping class and homework only to withdraw before their GPA took a hit, though still forfeiting their parent’s money and a semester’s worth of progress.

I’d get on these guys about this, not so much because of the money, but because of the fact that they had wasted a year of their lives that they couldn’t get back.  It was gone.  Poof.  And they had nothing to show for it.  And they were no closer to graduating.  I’d tell them if they were going to live to be 70, now it might as well be 69– and the year they lost was during their physical prime too.

Tragic.

I mean, come on!  If you’re not going to pay attention to your own life, why would anyone else?

Our lives are happening now, and they only happen once.  This is it.

These are the days when the stories people will tell about me after I’m gone are being lived out.  And they stack, one upon another, to tell a bigger story in relief–one that will take many voice to tell well and true.  Some will tell more about what I withheld, others about what I gave.

I suspect we’re fools if we think there will be one moment that will define our lives.  Or one success.  Or even one failure.  I guess it is possible to have defining moments, but even still it will be the rest of our lives that will provide the context for understanding.

After I’m gone, I don’t know what people will have to say about me.  Will they say, “He died too young?” or “Man, I thought he’d never get his ticket punched.”  God only knows.  And He does know.  And that is unspeakably comforting to me.

Here’s what I know.  I’m working on the answer right now.  My kids will have a say.  So will my wife.  And my friends.  And the congregation I serve.  And countless others– maybe even grandkids one day.  If they’re paying attention, am I giving them more than just my stories?  Am I shooting straight?

The final scenes of Big Fish tore a hole in my heart.  As a great cloud of witnesses emerges literally out of the woodwork, the truth is told.  Maybe the thing about my friends’ question that still nags at me is that regardless of what I hope people say of me after I’m gone, they will say something, regardless.  God be merciful.

Profile photo of Russ Ramsey

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.


19 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Curt McLey

    Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    Thanks for a great read, Russ. The first family epiphany for me came during chapel time at Camp Merrill in Fullerton, Nebraska, the summer church camp I attended for many years. Something the camp preacher said inspired me to think of my parents as people—human beings—rather than parental units. I remember having a conversation about that message with my buddy Bill after chapel. It had convicted him similarly. I had to get the “it’s all about me” idea out of my head before I could start the process of maturing. The extent of the power of that message is evidenced by the vivid memory I have of it, despite the fact that it occured over 30 years ago.

    Big Fish wasn’t a favorite of the critics, but I list it as one of my all-time personal favorites. This was one movie in which Tim Burton’s story telling was top shelf. I remember crying as much during that final scene as any movie I’ve ever seen. Tim Burton can get by with an average script (not that Big Fish was average), because his sense of fable and imagination is so advanced, and Danny Elfman’s music elevates and evokes without words.

    I like Big Fish and other films that successfully compress the emotion of an entire life into two hours on the big screen. It’s a weighty reminder of the beauty and power of each moment. And as we discover great meaning in the temporal span of our lives, how much more incomprehensible meaning and joy do we have waiting around the bend?

  2. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Russ – large thoughts. We are going to leave a legacy behind, good or bad. And thank God for sanctification; I’d be a dead duck without it.

    Curt – your chapel epiphany was spot-on. Real growth starts only when we begin to see our parents as human. As long as we are looking at our childhood with idyllic longing, or condemning our parents for the wrongs they did to us, or seeing them as “parental units,” we’re not going to grow. It takes a good hard look at our childhood, and the recognition that our parents are just people, like us, who learn as they go along. In the eyes of a child, the parent is a god, good or bad. That illusion has to be broken in us to truly grow up, and the god has to be replaced by the one true God, who enters into all things to work His good. Having kids has kicked much of what was left of my damaging illusions to tatters.

    What I’m finding as I continue to “believe unto the saving of the psyche” is that a core “Me” is emerging which is independent from all the various influences upon me, past or present. It is really unassailable; not that I am not tempted or tried anymore, but that there is this thing in me – Christ in me, through me, as me, which is the real me, his personhood through my personality – which is really beginning to stand up and be himself regardless of the circumstance. What a long process it sometimes is to begin to break free of gravity!

    But it begins with recognizing our parents as human, with loves, hopes, fears, dreams that crashed, besetting sins – and that if a man is not growing towards Heaven he is degenerating towards Hell; there isn’t a static no-man’s-land. Divine wisdom begins to propagate herself, if we allow her to – and she doesn’t if we forbid it, and without vision the people perish. Right seeing is essential to a Christ-driven life.

  3. Wes Roberts

    Russ…

    …a bit unnerving reading your post today 🙂

    …though I wasn’t thinking about life/death though the metaphor of that excellent film “Big Fish” (…also a favorite of this olde man…)

    …the essence of the thoughts you shared was ramming through my soul yesterday

    …well expressed…and thank you!

    …just curious, what church do you pastor?

    …Wes

  4. Loren Eaton

    I really wanted to see Big Fish, but it came out around the same time my dad was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. It’s still a little too close to home.

  5. gina smith

    When my husband and I got married, his father challenged us to “do a little better” than he and his wife did. He has said it often, and I just feel like it is a pretty gracious way to speak to your children. Anyone who is a parent knows that it brings out all sorts of imperfection on a daily basis and often makes a person question whether or not he is making good decisions for his family. It’s difficult to own up to our mistakes, especially to our children, but humility is certainly one thing for which we hope to be remembered.

  6. m a t t

    Thanks for the reminder, Russ. A friend and I were just discussing this movie a few days ago.

    As a young man just about to leave the comfort of college life for whatever it is that we call “the real world” it’s been wonderful to experience the maturation of the relationship between my parents and I. So see Dad as father become coach, become mentor, become friend, all still with the love and authority of Dad. I am blessed to have parents who continue to share more and more of their lives with me, in different ways, even as their authority over my own life and decisions dwindles.

  7. Profile photo of Stephen Lamb

    Stephen Lamb

    @stephen-lamb

    Dan Haseltine wrote a line in a song Dead Man (Carry me) on the last Jars of Clay album, Good Monsters, that says, “I woke up from a dream about an empty funeral, but it was better than a party full of people I don’t really know.” It’s hard work to really get to know others, our parents and our friends, but, like Dan sings, I’d rather be alone than with people who don’t really know me, or me them.

  8. Aaron Roughton

    I remember when I realized my dad was human. It was when my AP English teacher in 11th grade told me that if I didn’t understand what we were reading (The Stranger by Camus) I should just ask my dad. I had a lot of respect for my teacher, but didn’t understand why she had respect for my dad. She informed me that as a minister who had a masters degree in theology, he could probably explain it to me better than she could. WHAT??? I nearly fell out of my chair. If it had been on film, it would have been one of those shots where the camera is moving back and zooming in at the same time on my look of horror.

    This wasn’t the breaking point for me, but it was an important realization for maturity to happen. I’m 36 now and it’s still happening. Three kids help a lot. I’ll look forward to seeing Big Fish. And as always, I appreciate the post Russ.

  9. Stacy Grubb

    My dad is a very nostalgic, very sentimental man. For as long as I can remember, one of his favorite things to do was take me on a trip down memory lane with him as he recalled stories from his childhood; the kind of people his dad, mom, sisters and brother were; the kind of child he was; the songs that affected him; the first time he saw my mom; being a jerk to her to go play his music; the good, the bad, and the ugly. In my own little brain, I can figure out who shaped his life, where he got his sense of humor, how he came to enjoy music so, just how deep his love runs for my mom, when the Lord started moving through his life, and all of those things I think of when I think “Dad.” It’s a pleasure to know the manifestations of all those things, but I’ve often wondered what it would’ve been like to have known my parents when they were being influenced. I’ve read through their old yearbooks at the things people wrote and, by in large, the people they are now are the people they were then (or at least the early versions of those people). Things like, “Alan, you always make me laugh. Keep singing!” make sense to me. I know that Alan. Same with my mom: “Wilma, you’re a sweet and pretty girl,” lives up to that image I have of my mom and I think she was in high school.

    Like my husband and me, my parents were very young when they began dating. It makes me reckon that we probably all have a lot in common with one another. I remember vividly who I was, what I was up to, what I planned for, who I became, and I think of who I’m becoming. One thing I’m learning is that we’re not nearly as unique as we like to think we are. So, my relationship with my husband may be strikingly similar to the relationship my parents had way back when. I’ve got a young friend I’ve known since she was a toddler and she’s now 16 and in a very serious relationship. I see so many similarities between them and my husband and myself when we our love was much younger than it is today. As the “old folks” did when we were young, my husband and I try to “guide” my friend and her boyfriend so that maybe they’ll avoid the pitfalls and hearbreaking despair that snagged us over the years. But just as we scoffed at the “old folks,” they scoff at us, so sure that what they have is special and unique – a love like this world has never known. It’s overwhelmingly sad and frustrating to me to look at them and kind of know what their future holds. It’s even sadder to me to know that someone, once upon a time, looked at me and likely felt the same way. And I reckon that once upon a time, long, long ago, someone looked upon my parents and felt it, as well.

    All that to say, one of the biggest blessings God has given me in my life has been the ability to finally recognize what’s real about my parents, and even my grandparents, because their stories are much like mine. What I feel, I know they’ve felt. My tears were once theirs. My fears are ones they’ve had to conquer. My love is their love. Their present is my future. If I’m getting as smart as I hope I am, I’ll go on ahead and cross that bridge someone else has built instead of immediately dismissing their wisdom as being N/A to my life.

    Stacy

  10. Nathan Bubna

    This brought this thought to me: i bet my story will be a lot more storied if i make it a point to know that every person i see has a story. That would make a lot of change in how i live, if i can do that.

  11. Profile photo of Russ Ramsey

    Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    Hey Posters, I want you all to know I am really enjoying this thread very much. It feels like there is a whole lot of godly honor in the words you all are sharing about your mentors and parents. Well said, all of you.

    For those of you out there who might be struggling with having mainly painful or negative thoughts about your own parents or mentors– without invalidating that pain, let me just say this– they were raised by folks who had stories of their own– some of which were unthinkably brutal.

    No one has a simple story.

  12. sd smith

    Thanks, Russ. Great words.

    As I grow older I feel as though my life has been a progression toward a far-off mirror, and the distance is diminishing everyday. In the mirror is my father, and I am learning who I am by my identification with him.

    Thanks to the mercy of God, I am pleased by the diminishing distance. My father is a giant, a beautiful man, full of grace.

  13. Profile photo of Stephen Lamb

    Stephen Lamb

    @stephen-lamb

    Russ, re: your last comment, that is the underlying message of the Ralph Fiennes / Kate Winslet movie The Reader (it is not primarily a film about the Holocaust, as some have claimed). The very last scene, a conversation between Fiennes and the actress playing his daughter, is crucial to understanding the movie, even more so because the film plays up their relationship more than the book on which it was based did, I’ve been told. The central question of the film, I think, is, “to what extent does our past have on our present actions – and the same for those around us – and how does that play into the grace we extend to our friends and enemies, when we know more of their stories?”

  14. Tony Heringer

    “No one has a simple story.” – love that line Russ!

    My wife and I were chatting about this topic on Sunday. Parenting has a way of giving one perspective that not many, if any, other processes in life do. That’s not to say, if you are not a parent you can’t achieve this level of understanding — I hesitate using the word maturity because I know me :-). But, most of us, like the Israelites, are “stiff-necked” and need a little prodding to get that head to drop in recognition of parents whether they were/are good ones or bad ones. Having little mirrors of my own running around does that for me if I have the guts to really see myself in them 🙂

    God commands you and me to honor the father and mother He gave us. I know from experience that is not always easy or, in my mind, fair — for me or my kids (again, I know me). But isn’t that what grace is all about?

    There is a lot to unpack here and for people coming out of abusive relationships a whole lot more than my tiny mind can take in. But no matter how our parents treated us whether better or worse than we deserved, we have a Father in Heaven that is both caring and capable of treating us in a way that no human parents ever could or ever will.

    Movie note: Tim Burton and I just don’t jibe. I thought the visual technique used in “Big Fish” was much better employed in “Finding Neverland”. He always seems to push effects a bit too much in his films. As Randy Jackson would say, this film didn’t do it for me dog. 🙂

  15. Bill Burns

    I’m late to the party here, but I wanted to chime in because back in 2003, I was intrigued and entertained by “Big Fish,” but wasn’t sure what to take away from it. I think you (Russ) _may_ or may not have picked up on at least a portion of what Dan Wallace (the author of the novel on which it is based and/or John August, the screenwriter) tried to communicate with it. Your reaction may be positive or negative sort of in the same vein as a recent 22 Words post on knowing the story behind a song’s lyrics or behind some work of art, but neither Wallace or August seem particularly rosy on either subject.

    While I was watching it, and prior to reading anything on either author, I took away from it a certain existentialist/postmodern cynicism about parents and about truth itself. If you read Wallace’s Wiki, you’ll note that he seems to have been working out some issues with his parents in the narrative of Big Fish. In the film, (I haven’t read the book), the story certainly seems to leave open, but dance around the notion of forgiveness, but it’s pretty ephemeral at best. That’s good, but it’s still unresolved, which makes for dramatic tension, I guess…

    From my own personal theological perspective, there’s no denying that truth is hard to come by, but it’s not so much because it’s not accessible, but primarily because of our human condition, because we are perspectival by our very nature (i.e. we are not God), and more importantly because of the Fall. Honesty and forgiveness do not come easy to any of us outside of God’s grace.

    I’m not saying I think the fact that Tim Burton produced it makes it any darker. In fact, one of the things I find kind of interesting in its own right is Burton doesn’t seem to be the one pushing the envelope here. It just seems appropriate that he’d be the one putting it on screen. Originally, if the Wiki can be believed, it was planned to have Spielberg do it, which would definitely seem an odd choice for this film.

    I don’t know what you can do with that info. For me, it was a little more of the Zeitgeist than a lesson in understanding our parents were real people. I can’t think of a vehicle right off the top of my head that would be better at it, but give me another week, or another post and I’d bet some of you could.

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