“When times are good, be happy; but when times are hard, consider this: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, no one can discover anything about their future.” – Ecclesiastes 7:14
In less than twenty-four hours I will be lying unconscious on an operating table. My wrists and ankles will be in restraints and I’ll have a breathing tube down my throat. My chest will be open and a machine on a cart beside me will perform the work of my heart and lungs while a surgeon and his team attempt to repair, or if that’s not possible, replace my heart’s mitral valve.
Mitral valve repair is a relatively safe surgery, especially for a guy my age—major for me but routine for my surgeon, I’m told. I am confident everything will go according to plan, and I’ll emerge from the anesthesia sore but ready and eager to rehabilitate. Nevertheless, I have agreed to let a team of highly trained medical professionals stop my heart tomorrow in order to remove a part of it, and then sew it back up and start it again. So in light of that reality, I’ve spent the past couple of weeks writing letters.
Ten years ago I met a woman named Alice. She was in the late stages of a very aggressive cancer. She moved to the Kansas City area so she could spend the last weeks of her life close to her daughters. One Sunday Alice and her girls visited our church. She wore a floral print bandana on her head because the chemotherapy and radiation had taken her hair. I introduced myself after the service and she asked if I could meet her for a cup of coffee.
We met the next day and Alice told me some of her story. She had experienced more pain, loss, and grief in her fifty-one years than anyone I could recall, and that was all before she found out she had cancer. Somewhere in all her Job-like suffering Christ had taken a hold of her and, as she said with the joyful sincerity of a child, had promised not to let her go.
I asked what brought her to our church.
She said, “I want you to bury me.”
In 1 Corinthians 4:1-5, the apostle Paul argues that what other people think about you doesn’t matter. He goes on to say that what you think about yourself doesn’t really matter either. All that matters is what God thinks about you because He is the only One who sees you as you truly are. I believe this is true.
One of the sad burdens many of us carry in this life is accepting the lie that our worth is determined by what other people think about us. It is an incredible power we hand over to others—many never knowing we’ve done so. Whether it’s the young man trying to win the affection of the pretty girl, or the middle-aged man sinking into depression because he believes he has failed to accomplish anything anyone would ever regard as a legacy, or any one of us choosing our spending habits or clothing or words in order to be accepted into someone else’s tribe, we all want to belong, and we go to great lengths to establish our worthiness. The burden here is that we often lose ourselves in this process.
Conversely, one of the great joys in this life is found in those rare relationships where neither person is trying to prove anything because they know, with confidence and a clear conscience, who they are to each other before God. Picture one of your most complicated relationships as a desk filled with all the clutter of your combined fears, ambitions, smoke, and mirrors. How freeing would it be if someone swept their arm across that surface, clearing away everything until all that remained was just the two of you as you really were—no distractions, no props, no clutter? Few things sweep away the clutter of our fears like coming face to face with our own mortality. Life gets simple in a hurry.
“I want you to bury me.” Those six words swept across the table between Alice and me at our first meeting so that from the start we knew who we were to each other. She was a woman about to die and I was the minister who would hold her hand and speak words of truth until she did, after which I would commend her body to the earth and her soul to the Lord she loved and trusted so deeply, and comfort her family.
At that coffee shop I told Alice I had never performed a funeral before. She told me not to worry. She’d been thinking about what she wanted and that we could plan it together. So we did, down to the songs, the scripture readings, and the balloons we released at her gravesite. I have always counted it a gift from God Himself that my friend Alice, the woman in the casket, helped me compose the first funeral I officiated as a young pastor.
What does any of this have to do with my heart surgery? One of the things Alice asked me to help her do during the last week of her life was to compose letters to her children, letters I would give to them at her graveside.
What goes into a letter from a dying mother to her weary, angry, grieving adult children? Intimate things I will not spell out in detail here, except to say that along with those intimate things, she also wanted to talk about ultimate things. What did she want for their lives? What prayers rose to her lips when she thought about them moving into their mid-twenties?
“I want them to know Jesus,” she said. “Tell them I know this hurts. I know life has been hard lately. I know they’re confused and possibly angry with God. But tell them my deepest desire is that my children would walk with Jesus and know the comfort of His love, just as I have.”
Alice knew she wasn’t long for this world. As far as I know, I have no reason to think such things about myself in my present situation. A lot would have to go wrong for me to be in any sort of mortal danger. But still, “no one can discover anything about their future.” Knowing what I know about what my doctors are going to do to me tomorrow, I’ve written some letters to my wife and my children about intimate and ultimate things.
What Alice wanted for her children is essentially what I want for mine. I want them to receive what Job said—“Shall we receive good from God and not receive sorrow as well?” (Job 2:10)—as words of comfort and not bitterness. They will know good times but they will also certainly know sorrow. This life is filled with sorrow. When sorrow comes I pray they will have the humility to remember that God is still with them, though they see through a glass darkly. I pray they would see that all of history points to a gracious, loving God whose ways are higher than ours, but are nonetheless filled with unmatched mercy and grace. I pray that when calamity befalls them, they would not stand shaking their fists at the heavens demanding God give an account of himself. I pray they would trust him to be their Man of Sorrows, the one who has borne their grief and carried their sadness. (Isa 53:4) I want them to need Christ more than they need anything or anyone else in this world—even their dad. I want them to know that the cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ are God’s inscrutable manifesto concerning what he thinks about them. I want that to be the truth in which they live and move and have their being. And I want the same for myself.
I can be an impatient man. I can get lost in my work, my ambition, and my agenda. But these are the days where my Maker has used a blood-borne bacteria and a damaged mitral valve to sweep away the clutter and silence the noise, even if only for a while, so that I might put pen to paper to express my ultimate prayers and intimate hopes for my family’s lives.
So for this congenital malformed heart valve I bless the name of the Lord, come what may. (Job 1:21)
A dear friend is holding these letters for me and I look forward to getting them back so that I might deliver them in person.
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).