Years ago I was driving through a rural area of west Tennessee, on my way to a little cottage on the Pickwick Dam in north Mississippi, where I’d take a couple of days away to write. Much was on my mind. I had large decisions in front of me—decisions that would shape the whole course of my future. My immediate problem wasn’t the course of my future, but the course of my actual journey at the time. I was lost.
Every turn I took seemed to get me farther out into the woods and farther away from any recognizable landmark. This was before the advent of global positioning technology, and even if it were now, such technology would have done me little good, since my phone couldn’t access a signal. I turned into the first driveway I saw to tinker with my phone long enough to get a cell signal to call someone who might give me directions. It took a moment or two for me to realize that I was in a church graveyard, and my phone was still the deadest thing there.
Sometimes, not often enough, I feel a strong prompting to stop everything and pray. Sometimes, far too often, I ignore that prompting, and conclude that I’m too busy to stop. This time I had no choice but to stop. I had nowhere to go. I stopped and walked around that graveyard, and churchyard, praying for God to grant me some wisdom and discernment about the large life decision I had in front of me. As I wandered in front of the little Baptist church building, I was still praying, but my eyes were lazily scanning the red brick in front of me.
I stopped as I read the cornerstone, engraved sometime in the years before I was born. The date was there, and right beneath it: “Herman Russell Moore, pastor.” I stopped praying, startled. Herman Russell Moore was the name of my paternal grandfather, who died when I was 5 years old. And my grandfather was a pastor, serving many churches in Mississippi and Tennessee. When my phone finally had cell service, my first call wasn’t to my office, but to my grandmother. I gave her the name of the church and asked if she’d ever heard of it. “Of course,” she said. “Your grandfather was pastor there.”
Your life is worth living, precisely because it isn’t your life at all.
I was stunned speechless, and just kept repeating to myself, “What are the odds?” But I didn’t want to waste the sign, whatever it was that in God’s providence had directed me there. So I kept praying, walking around the graves. I wondered about the people there, in the ground beneath me. How many of them had heard my grandfather preach the gospel? How many found Jesus in the church behind me? How many had prayed with my grandfather to receive Christ, or at the funeral of a loved one, or maybe even, like I was then, as they were facing a major life decision. They were gone now.
But I then thought about who in the ground beneath me might have been a thorn in the flesh to my grandfather. How many had criticized his preaching or questioned whether he did hospital visits often enough? Maybe someone had even, as is sadly all-too-regular practice in some churches, started an anonymous letter campaign to oppose the building of that sanctuary. They were gone too.
In that moment, I came to realize that maybe, as Tolkien put it, “not all who wander are lost.” Perhaps I was there for just this reason, to contemplate that whatever it was that had filled my grandfather with joy during his time here, and whatever had kept him up worrying at night, much of it was buried beneath me. The building, where the gospel was, I presumed, still preached, was still there. But even that wouldn’t be permanent, but would one day be swept aside by time, replaced by—who knows?—a restaurant chain or a Buddhist meditation clinic. All of that would also be swept away in the trillions of years of cosmic time stretching out ahead of us.
The decision I was mulling seemed so important to me at the moment. It seemed to be of existential importance. And yet, as I stood on cemetery grounds, I was reminded that I would die. I, like this church, and like my ancestor who served it, would pass away as a vapor (James 4:14), as a forgotten stalk of grass (Ps. 103:15–16). My decision seemed, on the one hand, even more important. After all, my grandfather’s ministry here was part of a chain of decisions, without which I wouldn’t even exist to contemplate that place.
I was reminded, despite the fact that I was . . . just a dying creature, who would one day be forgotten, along with all my big plans and my fears and anxieties.
On the other hand, my decision seemed much less important. I was reminded, despite the fact that I was, at the time, a young man in the whirl of the prime of my career, that I was just a dying creature, who would one day be forgotten, along with all my big plans and my fears and anxieties. At that moment, the thought of my mortality didn’t leave me with a sense of futility or dread. The thought was strangely liberating, freeing me, if just for a second, to reflect on what really matters—to give thanks to God for giving me a gospel to believe and people to love.
That’s what I pray Matt McCullough’s Remember Death does for you. I pray that you come away from a book on mortality with a sense of clarity about what really matters—about who really matters. I pray that this book, as it leads you to reflect on your own coming demise, gives you a sense of joy, of gratitude, of longing to be part of that great cloud of witnesses in heaven. I pray that this book is useful to you, but I pray more that this book turns out to be a waste of your time. I pray that you and I don’t ever actually succumb to death, but that, instead, we are part of the generation that sees the eastern skies explode with the glory of the returning King of Israel, the Lord Jesus Christ.
But, even if so, the lessons of this book will be worth your time, to call you away from seeing yourself as a messiah or as a devil, as a Caesar or as a Judas. Your life is worth living, precisely because it isn’t your life at all. Your life—at least in this moral frame—has a beginning and an end. But your life—your real life—is hidden with Christ (Col. 3:3). That then gives you the freedom to lose your life in sacrifice to others, in obedience to God, in order to save it.
I wish that I could say that my accidental visit to that church graveyard permanently changed my life. I wish I could write that I don’t still grapple with an illusion of immortality or with worry about tomorrow. I can’t say that. What I can say, though, is that sometimes God will let us get a little bit lost, so that we might look about and realize that we aren’t phoenixes rising from our own ashes but we’re sheep, following the voice of a shepherd, even through the valley of the shadow of death. Maybe such a moment of clarity will come for you as you find yourself lost in the truths of this book. If so, you might realize that you aren’t as lost as you think, but that you’re instead being led through the graveyard of your own fallen life, onward toward home.
This is an adaptation of the foreword to Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living Hope (Crossway, 2018).
- To Grow Spiritually, Start Thinking About Death (Collin Hansen and Matt McCullough)
- Remember Death. Enjoy a Life of Hope. (Phil Letizia)
- 20 Quotes from a Profound New Book on Death (Ivan Mesa)
- Momento Mori: What It Means and Why It Should Matter to You (Matt McCullough)
- I’m Dying. You’re Dying. Jesus Lives. (Matt McCullough)
- The Spiritual Benefits of Dying (Phil Letizia)