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Funeral Clothes: Thoughts on Truth

G.K. Chesterton said, “If I am asked, as a purely intellectual question, why I believe in Christianity, I can only answer… I believe in it quite rationally upon the evidence. But the evidence in my case is not really in this or that alleged demonstration; it is in an enormous accumulation of small but unanimous facts.”

These small but unanimous facts are those moments in your life which come by and show you glimpses of what is going on beneath the surface of your life, when all of the sudden life becomes infused with great meaning, and you believe you have encountered a truth that you feel was meant to change you.

Have you ever experienced a “moment of truth” in your life which just seemed to scream above the noise, telling you that life is just absolutely filled with meaning?

The burglars had more or less trashed my dad’s office.

I remember sitting in the old one room school house which stood at the end of the gravel road I grew up on, which my dad had recently begun leasing as office space for his struggling computer business.

That school house was something of a southern bookend on the boundaries of my childhood—my grandpa’s house being the northern limit. Between that school house and my grandpa’s house, my childhood took place.

My grandpa lived like a farmer, though he had made his living selling cars. His property surrounded ours, and his hay mow, woods and creek were more than enough to fill summer after summer with adventure.

He was a quirky man, set in patterns which included keeping hens, growing bamboo, eating at the same diner for lunch and every so often giving my parents a sum of money so that they could purchase “funeral clothes” for my brother and me—which usually constituted twill pants, a sport coat and a clip-on tie. These were the clothes we were to wear to Grandpa’s upcoming funeral, whenever that would be.

Mom and dad would dress us up in our “funeral clothes,” get a Polaroid of us with our dog Zombie, whom my grandpa loved dearly, and take the picture to over to grandpa. He would regard it for a while as a look of pride spread across his weathered face, and he’d say something like, “Those are fine looking boys.”

A year or two would pass and we’d do it all over again. New clothes, new Polaroid, same expression.

The burglary took place during the Christmas break of my senior year in college. I had just returned from a semester of study in Jerusalem. Lisa and I were engaged to be married later that summer. Dad and I stood among a mess of scattered papers, jumbled wires and up-ended furniture—all of which seemed to have a light covering of the dusting powder the police had used to try to recover fingerprints.

The mood was light, really, especially since dad was in the process of closing the business down. So we were doing more talking than anything else. I had just a few minutes before I needed to head home to clean up for my shift delivering pizza. As I was getting ready to leave, the phone rang. It was the nursing home at the hospital where my grandpa had been living for the past year or so. They told dad that grandpa was ailing, and he had better come on out. I told dad I’d meet him there after I changed my clothes.

I arrived no more than five minutes after dad, and found my dad standing beside my grandpa, holding his hand. Dad looked at me and said it wasn’t more than a minute earlier that Grandpa had breathed his last breath.

There we were. It was all at once more than a hospital room on the nursing home wing. It was a room of fathers and sons. Three generations of Ramsey men gathered in one room, two seeing the third off.

And it was a room drenched with meaning. Busy lives had ground to a halt.

I remember how that moment carried for me so much meaning. It was a moment of truth. Three generations, each gathered there shaping the life of the others in lasting and powerful ways.

One last time we would set out to buy new “funeral clothes.”

This was a huge moments of truth for me, because I was given an intense picture of where I had come from, as my dad and I stood there at Grandpa’s bedside. I was part of a family—a line of men known for respectable successes and sometimes pretty definitive failures.

I had a heritage. I had a history. I had come from somewhere. And a big part of that had just died. It was one of the first times I really recognized that I was no longer a kid—but a man, a Ramsey. And life was moving along quickly.

Winston Churchill once said “Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing has happened.” Somewhere between birth and death we hurry off as if nothing has happened and get ever so busy or self-important that we forget certain truths we once stumbled over as we reduce the significance of our lives down to such unimportant things as productivity, revenue and prestige.

But sometimes the truth won’t let us hurry off. Sometimes the truth reaches up and stops us dead in our tracks. It holds up a mirror and we catch a glimpse of our reflection.

Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever seen yourself making the same parenting mistakes your parents made—mistakes you just knew, when you were younger, you would never replicate. Such mistakes were so obvious to you then, yet so natural to you now.

Or maybe you catch a glimpse of a look in your spouse’s eye who is regarding you as something of a stranger who has gotten too consumed with your professional life to have much of a personal one. Or maybe there is this “one thing” you have hungered for all your life, swearing to yourself that if you could just have that “one thing” you would be happy, but you realize, even if just for a fleeting moment, that there is no way that thing you want so desperately could really satisfy you.

No, you’re much too complex for that.

I believe God has fashioned truth to be something we stumble over and stumble onto. Truth is a divine corrective, a force to be reckoned with—showing us the wonder and terror of our fragile lives, awakening in us an insatiable hunger to know why we are here and what we are worth. Moments of truth constantly testify to the wildness of life.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “It seems to me that one can hardly say anything either bad enough or good enough about life.” (Letters of C.S. Lewis) Moments of truth can overcome us with fear—like when a father stands in the delivery room as the urgent, focused faces of medical staff attend to the woman and baby he’d give his very life to protect. They can overwhelm us with joy—like when a young woman leaves her wedding reception, gets in the car covered in shoe polish exclamations and realizes for the first time that the wedding planning is over and the marriage has begun—that he is her husband and she is his wife.

We don’t ask for these moments of truth to shape us into the people we are becoming. They just do.

Why do we regard these moments of truth with such reverence? Because as people made in the image of God we understand, no matter how subdued and repressed the truth may be to us, that if something is true, it is like an anchor holding our lives in place in the cosmos. Truth beckon us: “Come and see that life has meaning and that it is of enormous importance.”


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