Stories in Stone
In December 1876, Martin Hobbins left home near Uarbry to go droving. Out of touch with his family for about five months, he returned home to discover that, during his absence, four of his children had succumbed to diphtheria. What is more, his wife had died while giving birth to twins, who also failed to survive. Over the next several months, grieving Martin made and inscribed five large headstones with his own hands. He then carried each of them by horse and dray to Uarbry cemetery and erected them over the graves of his family. These five distinctive tombstones still stand in a row as silent testimony to a family tragedy.
At Goulburn cemetery, a monument marks the spot where a young couple is buried. It was their wedding day - a happy family occasion, a time of giving and receiving love and making pledges, followed by a reception with their friends and family and a great send-off on their honeymoon. But only a few miles out of Goulburn, their car left the road and they were both killed.
As Jean and I have recorded the details of tens of thousands of cemetery inscriptions, I have often thought about the circumstances of the lives and deaths that they record, as well as the lives left behind.
"... my beloved wife"
"... our dear son, accidentally killed, aged 18 years"
"... leaving a wife and four children to mourn their loss."
"... killed in a mining accident"
Someone has suggested that, when you need to make an important decision, you should make it in a cemetery. I guess that's because it is a place where the differences between the important and trivial issues of life fall into sharper focus; it's a place where the clamour of the world dies away and the fact of death is most obvious.
A friend waved his hand as we drove past the local cemetery one day. "They've all had their chance," he said, "I wonder what they did with it."
Their chance at what? He was referring, of course, to their chance at life. What did they do with the life they lived, whether long or short?
You could say that life is all about choices. Every day we have to make trivial choices - what will we wear? where will we shop? what will we have for lunch? The answers to those questions are really of little consequence.
Then there are others - where will I live? what career path shall I choose? whom will I marry? They are more important because the decisions we make about them have long term significance. If we make the wrong decision, we can live long to regret it.
However, there is just one question we all have to face that has eternal consequences. The question: What will I do about Jesus?
The creator of life has had compassion on all of us facing the inevitability of eternal death because of sin. He made it possible for us to receive new life - eternal life - where death will cease to be within our experience. He did this by dying in our place. He died our death and offers us his life in exchange.
What an offer! However, it needs to be accepted. It's never forced on anyone.
If we make the right choice about Jesus, we can't lose. If we make the wrong choice about Jesus, we've blown it – for eternity!
I liked this inscription on one headstone we found: "Waiting for resurrection day". Now there's someone who made the right choice.
Are You Ready Yet?
You’ve seen the ads – asking if you’ve got medical insurance cover just in case you get sick or injured.
You’ve watched as the cameras panned over the devastation – of bushfires, or storms, or floods, or war, or earthquakes, or tsunamis, or extreme poverty, or terrorist bombings, or motor vehicle accidents.
You feel for the victims and I guess you feel thankful it’s not happening to you or your family or your mates. So, how are we to respond to all this stuff happening every day?
Well, you could get angry and bitter, or because you think how hopeless it all is, you just give up. But the simple answer and the best answer is, get ready!
Already, after the fires and flood disasters the arguments are starting all over again: Is it best for people to stay with their property, or to evacuate them to safety? Most authorities will reckon it’s still best to stay as long as you’re ready; as long as you’ve made proper precautions to enable you to cope with the possible danger.
And people ask, Why? Why did all these innocent and good people have to suffer hell on earth like this?
These aren’t new questions. Years ago some people threw the same sorts of questions at Jesus because they wanted some answers as to why people suffer from disasters or government brutality.
Jesus told them not to worry about it. Why? Just get ready in case you’re next! And you get ready by turning to the Lord God Almighty by turning away from your own way of thinking; your own way of living life; by believing in Jesus Christ alone and then, by living for him his way every day.
Then you’ll be ready no matter what happens, whenever!
Are you ready yet?
Why Me? Why Us?
On the night of 24 July 1979, a violent explosion ripped through a portion of the Appin Colliery, south of Sydney. Fourteen miners died. Fourteen women were left widowed. Thirty eight children were left fatherless.
One of the dead was the mine deputy. It was his birthday. On the following day, he was to celebrate his 23rd wedding anniversary. Interviewed subsequently on the ABC programme Encounter, his widow said: “The strongest reaction to being widowed on that night was Why me? Why us? Why should God choose to devastate so many lives when they were happy lives? You come to the very bitter thought that God was very cruel to have done it.”
That poor lady echoes the thoughts and cries of many people whose lives have been touched by tragedy - a road accident perhaps.
When all is going well, God may be shelved like an unread book. Many regard God like a pilot regards his parachute – it’s there for emergencies but he hopes he’ll never have to use it.
But when tragedy does hit us, it causes a dramatic change to our comfortable lifestyle. It is at such times that we are forced to reconsider our attitude to God and to react to Him – one way or another.
The first reaction is often to blame God. Why has God done this to me? What have I done to deserve this? God is cruel! Is God really cruel? Some visualise God as sitting in heaven with a big club and, every now and then, capriciously reaching down “to dong us”, as a friend of mine puts it.
Well, if we are going to play the blame game, let us at least put the blame where it belongs. Jesus said, “The thief (i.e. Satan) comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:10-11).
Tragedy is always a turning point. If we continue to blame God for it, we will end up turning right away from Him. On the other hand, if we face up to the realities of life and death in a sinful world and turn to God for the answers, we inevitably find the Good Shepherd – Jesus – who laid down His life for us.
It's just so easy in this affluent society, with its hectic lifestyle, to lose focus. It is so easy to allow all sorts of activities and the desire for possessions to overcome us and push God into the background of our lives.
It may well take a tragedy to focus our attention where it belongs – on the author and giver of life Himself, on God our Creator and Saviour.
Life is often painful, sometimes tragic, but if we know and trust our Good Shepherd, we will also learn that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28).