My wife and I recently celebrated our thirtieth wedding anniversary. We took the day off and spent it together taking long walks, sharing long talks and leisurely meals. But do you know where we spent our most memorable and meaningful moments? In a graveyard. And that graveyard, surprisingly, prepared us for another major life event three days later.
Would you celebrate an anniversary with a visit to a graveyard? I highly recommend it. To be honest, we didn’t plan it — God did. We actually were headed to the coffee shop where our son works. But as we drove past Lakewood Cemetery, my wife suggested we stop so she could show me the beautiful little chapel on its grounds. The chapel appeared occupied, so we decided first to visit Joseph’s grave.
Thousands of Stories in Stones
Joe was a dear friend of ours who died twenty years ago. Twenty years. How can so much time have passed so quickly? I can see him vividly in my memory. I can hear his endearing sarcastic jabs and favorite jokes.
I can hear his powerful, beautiful singing voice booming several blocks away as he walked to our house. I remember his infectious faith, his worshipful heart, his desire to see others freed by Jesus as he had been. I remember our long, meaningful talks. He bestowed on me the honor of best man when he married Nancy. He was only 37 when he died. Now he’s been gone for a generation.
My wife and I wandered for a while in that quiet green field with thousands of stones inscribed with names and dates. Each one memorializing someone, like Joe, once full of life. Each person a real story that had once been told in real time — beautiful, painful, sinful, incomprehensibly complex, and eternally significant.
Each a very personal, living story that was woven with other living stories for better or for worse until death tore the earthly living fabric. And now quiet stones mark the stories’ earthly endings. We thought of our own intertwined story and noted how many stones bore the names of husbands and wives.
Lyrics in a Graveyard
When we returned to the now-empty chapel, I sang my wife the song I wrote her for our wedding, which included these lines:
Arise, my Lover, and walk beside me.
For winter is past and the rain is gone,
Flowers appear and vines are in blossom.
Arise, my Lover, and come along.
And we will not dwell on or ponder the past
For behold our God is doing something new.
After thirty years of being woven together into a living story and taking time to ponder our earthly end, these lyrics carried a deeper meaning than they did when I first sang them. We keenly felt the momentary nature of our marriage. As beautiful as it is, it’s a parable of something far more permanent, far more beautiful: our long-awaited union with our Bridegroom. And we strained our heart-eyes to see it again.
When we left the cemetery, hand in hand and teary-eyed, the truth of this verse was coursing through us:
It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. (Ecclesiastes 7:2)
Prepared for the House of Feasting
“The wise lay to heart our coming end and look beyond our end to our real beginning.”
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The best things are planned by God. And his purpose for our graveyard visit was about more than our wedding anniversary. Three days later, our first grandchild was born, and we walked into the house of feasting.
God, speaking through the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, is in no way saying the house of feasting is evil or foolish. No, “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). “He has made everything beautiful in its time” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). There is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:4).
But there is a reason why God lists weeping before laughing and mourning before dancing. Why? Because “sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad” (Ecclesiastes 7:3).
In the cemetery, my wife and I experienced advanced mourning as we contemplated the earthly ending of something precious to us beyond words. But it was hope-filled mourning (1 Thessalonians 4:13). While still living, we laid to heart our end and looked beyond our end to our real beginning. With grieving tears streaming down our cheeks, we felt the gladness of the living hope we share in Christ (1 Peter 1:3).
And this uniquely and unexpectedly prepared us to receive into our arms our beautiful granddaughter, who looks so much like her mother did as a newborn. Fresh from weeping, we could laugh from a deeper well of joy; fresh from mourning, we could dance in hope of something far more solid than the mist of earthly life (James 4:14). With the end in view, we could understand the significance of this beautiful, wonderful beginning.
“The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth” (Ecclesiastes 7:4). Why? Because the wise do not build their house on sand, but on the rock (Matthew 7:24–27). Mirth uninformed by or ignoring mourning leads to houses built on sand, destined to be swept away. The wise perceive their end and therefore build on the eternally enduring rock of the Redeemer’s word.
Only when seasoned by mourning are we ready to receive a wonderful earthly joy that God makes beautiful in its time.