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.
Then 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.
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.
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).