It's hard to believe that it's been thirty years. I can still remember getting out of the family car at the cemetery. I don't remember much else. I can't tell you about the casket or the spray of flowers we had purchased for my father's funeral. I just remember the dirt, the hole, the tree, and the question.
The dirt was piled in clods and put under that green carpet to hide the reality that we all knew was taking place dust to dust. The hole sat there ready to take the physical presence of my father away from me forever. The tree, a live oak, furnished a bit of shade and made the location of this hard moment a little more bearable on the hot, September day.
Yet what loomed largest for me was the question. I had asked myself the question all the way from the church building to the graveside: "Do I really believe this stuff?" Do I really believe the stuff I've preached? Do I believe the stuff I've confessed? Do I believe this stuff I've sung? Do I believe this stuff that I had said to others facing their own dirt, hole, tree, and question?
Ironically, as I looked back recently at the gritty-sweet telling of Abraham's burial of his wife Sarah (Genesis 23:1-20), I was struck by the eerie parallels. Abraham had to bargain for a place to bury his wife in the land God promised to give him. And if you put yourself in the story, you see the dirt, the hole, the trees, and the question!
We view Abraham from this side of thousands of years of history that has proven his faith was well invested in God's promise. The Bible repeatedly proclaims Abraham's faith as an example we should follow. Yet when Abraham had to pay for this plot of ground (the dirt) with the cave at Macpelah (the hole) and the Oaks of Mamre (the tree), he still had to face the question: "Do I really believe this stuff?"
We know he did believe, but think how tough it must have been. As he negotiated for a place to bury his dead wife, Abraham didn't have descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and grains of sand on the seashore (Genesis 22:17). He wasn't the father of a great nation in the Promised Land (Genesis 12:1-3). He only had two boys. They didn't get along. They were from two different mothers, one a concubine.
Abraham never owned property in the land promised to him, except for this plot of ground to bury his wife. He was old and alone. He had taken his wife and they had left everything we count as home land, family, culture, language, business, respect, and familiarity and wandered in tents all of their lives. And when it came time to bury his wife, Abraham had to buy the dirt, the hole, and the trees, and was left with the question!
Do you see the light on the dark side of this mountain? Abraham's story of faith is a pre-glimpse of what later happened in Jesus. Of course Jesus would have his own battle with the dirt (hill of Golgotha), the hole (the borrowed tomb where his lifeless body was placed), the tree (the cross of Calvary), and the question (Is this really the Son of God?).
Abraham had believed that God could bring life where there was death, and he believed that God would keep his promises (Romans 4:17; Hebrews 11:11-12). So did Jesus as he said, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" (Luke 22:37). And the faith of both was right ... despite all appearances to the contrary.
Their faith on the dark side of the mountain reminds us that our faith can furnish the light for us as we wall through our own darkest valley, facing the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4) whether that death is our own or the death of someone we love.
The undeniable reality of life is that we will all face the dirt, the hole, the tree, and the question. How we have answered the faith question before we get to the dirt, the tree, and the hole, will determine how we walk away from that moment and face the tomorrows that follow.
Oh, in case you didn't know, I answered that question thirty years ago and shared these words of faith in the face of great heartbreak:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 NASB).
This is still my light on the dark side of my mountains. How about you?