Mark Witas 

One of the most disturbing experiences of my 33 years working for the church happened several years ago. I received a phone call from a person who, without emotion, told me that her father was about to pass away and that he was a church member of mine.

I didn’t recognize the name so I asked, “Do I know him?”

“No, he’s not been in church since he was in his twenties. He thinks the whole place is filled with hypocrites.”

I didn’t quite know how to respond to that. So I asked, “Would he like a visit?”

She answered, “I’m not sure.”

“Have you asked him if he’d like a visit?”

“No, I haven’t spoken to my dad in over 10 years. The nursing home just called me, so I thought I’d call you.”

I was kind of stunned. “Do you want me to meet you there?”

“No, I don’t want to see him. I just figured he was one of your church members, so you ought to know.” And she hung up.

I went to visit the elderly man. He was of sound mind, but his body was failing him. After I introduced myself I asked him if he wanted me to try and gather his family around him for some support before he passed away.

“No. Why would I want to see them?”

I asked, “Frank, did something happen that created this breach between you and your family?”

“Not really. We just never really clicked, that’s all.”

Frank let me pray with him and I left my number at the nurse’s station to contact me when he passed. A few days later that I received the call.

I contacted his family that afternoon. I asked, “Would you like me to help arrange some sort of memorial service for your father?”

The answer they gave made me sick: “Why would we do that? Nobody would show up.”

Of course, they did ask the church (that they never attended) for some financial help to bury him. And on his little tiny grave plaque is inscribed his name, birth date, and death date. That’s it. Nothing else. Here lies Frank.

I spent as little time with Frank’s family as I could and found that Frank was a selfish little man who lived a selfish little life. He lived 10 minutes from his family but saw them an average of once a year. And when they did visit, he was sure to criticize and belittle them. Frank, as far as I could tell, lived a meaningless and insignificant life.

When I taught academy Bible, I would give each student a piece of Styrofoam shaped like a tombstone, spray-painted gray. The “stone” was blank. Their assignment was to take a big black marker and write five words that would sum up their life as they looked back on their 99 years. They could choose any five words, but the words that they chose had to represent the kind of life they wanted to look back and see after 99 years. They were not to show anyone else their tombstone. They were to do this in secret and hand them in without anyone else knowing what they had written.

When all the tombstones were handed in, I would take them out to the center of campus, prop them up on the grass, and spread them out like it was an actual cemetery.

Then, during class, we would all go out, like people sometimes do, and see what kinds of lives that particular class wanted to live. We’d also try to guess who wrote what. It was a great exercise in visioning the kinds of lives we wanted to live. Then I’d take them to an actual cemetery to see what was written on other people’s real tombstones.

Here are some words that never appear on tombstones:

  • I wish I had spent more time at the office.
  • I wish I had spent more money on stuff I kept in storage.
  • I wish I had spent less time making the world a better place and more time on things I wanted to do.
  • I wish I had watched more TV.
  • I had too many friends.
  • I should have given less.
  • I spent too much time with my children.
  • I’m glad I didn’t have a bunch of family surrounding me on my deathbed.

My class inevitably asked me what my five words would be on my tombstone. I chose these: Followed, Risked, Loved, Overjoyed, and Different.

Which five words would you want to describe you on your tombstone? I truly believe that as we follow Jesus, He makes our lives into what we have always dreamed they would be. Let’s strive to live the kinds of lives that will be marked by these more important words, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).

Mark Witas is lead teaching pastor at Pacific Union College Church in Angwin, California.