As a younger man I remember vividly reading a scene from Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People in which the reader is asked to pause what they’re doing, close their eyes, and imagine being at a funeral. We notice the smell of the flowers and the sound of the soft organ playing some forgotten hymn. We see the faces of the sympathetic mourners and of the family who has lost someone dear. We feel the pain of loss and remember happier days. We walk down the center aisle toward the casket and suddenly come face to face with ourselves in the casket.
This is our funeral, some years from now. The people have come to pay their respects to us.
We’re asked to consider what the speakers will say at our funeral. What stories will they reflect on? What examples will they use to illustrate the happy times? How will they explain what mattered to us? Will they call us a leader? A servant? A friend? A good parent? A strong sibling? A helpful neighbor?
Covey goes on to quote Joseph Addison:
“When I look upon the tombs of the great, every emotion of envy dies in me; when I read the epitaphs of the beautiful, every inordinate desire goes out; when I meet with the grief of parents upon a tombstone, my heart melts with compassion; when I see the tomb of the parents themselves, I consider the vanity of grieving for those whom we must quickly follow; when I see kings lying by those who deposed them, when I consider rival wits placed side by side, or the holy men that divided the world with their contests and disputes, I reflect with sorrow and astonishment on the little competitions, factions, and debates of mankind. When I read the several dates of the tombs, of some that died yesterday, and some six hundred years ago, I consider that great Day when we shall all of us be Contemporaries, and make our appearance together.”
Covey is bringing us to a critical point with the second of his 7 Habits: Begin with the End in Mind.
King Solomon made a similar observation in Ecclesiastes chapter 7, where he tells us that a wise man is better off going to a funeral than a party. He says that the end of a thing is better than the beginning, and the day of our death is better than the day of our birth. He doesn’t offer any explanations for these ideas, but I think we can safely make some educated guesses as to what this wisdom literature is telling us.
New beginnings are great, aren’t they? New love. Moving into a first house. Birth of a child. Graduation day. First day at a new job. That new car smell. Kicking off a new project. In each of these we see optimism, new chances to grow, anticipation for the future. Great beginnings are full of new life and the chance to turn a corner. But they are only beginnings. Pretty soon the polish on the car isn’t so shiny. Diapers have to be changed. School bills have to be paid, as does that new mortgage. Workers start to grumble. Someone has to do the dishes, again. New beginnings are great, but we don’t ever really look at them as the beginning of an end. During those first moments we don’t often consider what this situation is going to look like in five or ten years. When the reality hits us that something will have an end, that’s when we can start considering what influence we have over how that end turns out. And the earlier we think about it, the more opportunity we have to change that outcome.
I think this gets us in a good mindset to consider Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes. Thinking about the outcome helps us make better decisions now. If we want a happy marriage, we take time to nurture that relationship. If we consider the magnitude of college debt, maybe we consider a plan to pay off the loans before we take them out, or consider alternatives to taking on that debt. Maybe we take better care of that vehicle, changing the fluids regularly and giving it an occasional wash and wax, so it’ll last longer than the payments. We know how we want the kid to turn out, so we teach them the right lessons and put them in the right situations with the right friends and teachers so they can grow up to be productive and caring citizens. A vision for the future compels us to make a plan to get there. I think this is the genius of Solomon’s wisdom in this chapter – asking us to think about the future and telling us that we have a choice to help create the outcome.
Happiness teaches us nothing. Parties can give us a temporary good feeling, but nothing comes of them. We learn little to nothing from talking. It’s in the times of sadness, heartbreak, and listening that we change – that we understand that God is good, and He has put people in our path to encourage us and to remind us that He is always walking with us. We learn to trust Him in the tough times, not the easy ones. Don’t get me wrong. I like the mountaintops. I prefer them. I don’t look forward to the valleys. But I do appreciate the growth I’ve had in walking through them. Diamonds can only be formed under pressure.
We have a short time on this earth. In the blink of an eye, we are born, live, love, and die. We have things to accomplish while we’re here. We have relationships to build, arts to create, generations to educate, buildings to erect, people to encourage, and hope to spread. At the end of all this doing, we must remind ourselves that there will come a time when we equally stand before God to give an account. Did we accept God’s free gift of salvation? What did we do with the time and gifts we were given? That’s the end of the story. We have opportunity now to see that end and to alter course if necessary. We can make a plan and take actions that get us to a better outcome if the road we’re on isn’t getting us to where we want to be.
Take Solomon’s words to heart from Ecclesiastes 7:
1 A good name is better than a good ointment, and the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth.
2 It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, because that is the end of every man, and the living takes it to heart.
3 Sorrow is better than laughter, for when a face is sad a heart may be happy.
4 The mind of the wise is in the house of mourning, while the mind of fools is in the house of pleasure.
8 The end of a matter is better than its beginning;
19 Wisdom strengthens a wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city.
I encourage you to consider your future today. Assess where you want to be, plan for that future, and take steps today to get there. Make today a new beginning to change your ending, to change the course of your history. Stand over your own casket.
Kevin Dow loves being a project manager and photographer, and has been using his gifts to support Hope for about four years now on the Production Team and leading small groups. You can follow him @firstcreationphoto.