In the spring of 2015, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote an opinion article called “The Moral Bucket List.” Brooks wrote on the difference between resume virtues, what he calls “the skills you bring to the marketplace,” and “eulogy virtues,” “the ones that are talked about at your funeral.” Like most of Brooks’ work, it’s insightful, useful, and clarifying. It sounds and feels a bit like a preacher writing a devotional or sermon. You may have heard the idea, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” That’s the core of what Brooks is getting at.
Brooks spells out how our culture and world push us to focus on resume virtues and skills to the exclusion of the eulogy or character virtues that are most important. We all sense the truth of this. Building spiritual and moral character is, of course, more important than developing career skills. The persistent enticement is that resume skills are more quickly rewarded in our daily lives here on earth. If ignored long enough and taken to an extreme, the resume pursuit will choke out much of anything in the eulogy virtue quest. Jesus talked about just such temptation in places like Mark 4:1–20, the parable of the soils (especially verses 18–19).
When I first read Brook’s article several years ago, the idea of eulogy virtues stuck with me. Having led many funerals, I sometimes wonder how mine will go. Who will show up? Will the room be full or empty? Will I outlive most of my friends and colleagues? Will they recount my best sermons? What music will they sing?
Maybe it’s the Holy Spirit stirring up those thoughts again.
The link from one prayer to today
This month is my spiritual birth month. Sometime in March of 1980, I made my initial turn toward and commitment to Christ Jesus. One friend had given me a bible through which Jesus became a real and bigger-than-life person to me. Another friend engaged me in conversations that made the gospel and the choice to be a Christ follower accessible to me. The first prayer I ever prayed with another person was with that friend in my backyard as a junior in high school. As I see it now, that was my conversion to Christ as my forgiver and Lord. There’s a direct link from that day to this one and the words I’m writing now.
When I read Brooks’ article, I instinctively grabbed a post-it note and scribbled down three words that then became five. I lodged the note in the sun visor of my truck and later into one of my many Bibles. The note resurfaced this week.
Once again, I’m turning these five eulogy traits into prayers for how God might work in my life. When I die, I hope my funeral would be a “FUN-eral” recounting of these five Christ-honoring virtues that only he can plant and bloom in my soul.
Five prayers for five “eulogy virtues”
From Proverbs 3:34 to 1 Peter 5:5, the bible makes this defining statement, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humility is the starting place of prayer and, therefore, the seed of faith. Here’s my working definition of humility: knowing, relaxing, and rejoicing in who I am (identity) in relation to God and others. This is applying God’s command in Romans 12:3: “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (italics added) Pride is our core depravity. It is subtle, resilient, and persuasive. A friend of mine likes to remind me, “humility is the one quality you can’t claim and still retain.” Pride is likely influencing me even as I write these words about pursuing humility.
I’m praying for a deep heart appreciation and constant awareness that God, people, and life owe me nothing. God said through James 1:16-18, “Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. By his own choice, he gave us birth by the word of truth so that we would be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” (CSB translation) Life is about the redemption of our expectations—a battle with disappointment and the temptation of resentment. Thankfulness is the underappreciated, underutilized spiritual discipline missing in many souls. We think gratitude appears and disappears as a mysterious feeling. Instead, gratitude is commanded and must be chosen and cultivated. I want my appreciation to consume my complaints. Gratitude is too rare. (cf. Luke 17:15-19)
I believe Christianity works. At least, I believe that most of the time. Like many, one of my regular prayers echoes the desperate father who said to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24) I want to live and be remembered for confidence in God and his promises and plans for us. I believe Christ-centered faith is the bedrock of optimism. We must claim his promises of a bright and fully redeemed future. Romans 8:28 was the first bible verse I ever learned and memorized. “ROM828” was my license plate for several years. I don’t believe God “causes” everything. I don’t believe everything that happens is necessarily good. I don’t believe everything works out well in the end for everyone. I do believe that “God redeems for good all he allows or sends” for those who put their trust in Christ. Eternity will fully reveal that his will and way are truly “good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2) Until then, all our evaluations are preliminary and partial at best.
Every preacher and church leader I know seems to set their eyes and ears on Jesus’ words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” (Matthew 25:21, 23) Those are great words and a great mantra to live by. I hope to hear them too, but I wonder what other words may precede them. Words like “welcome home” or “I’ve been expecting and preparing for you.” (John 14:2-3) It seems to me that “faithful” is a popular church word not used often in general conversation. But believers and unbelievers appreciate and value those who are reliable, dependable, or responsible. This may not be the most flashy eulogy virtue unless you’ve lived or worked closely with someone who lacked it. Spirit-germinated reliability is trusting God to the depth of obedience. It is seeking daily to love God and love others fully, even when it costs or hurts. Being reliable connects to being courageous. I think we should study the past so we can better anticipate and prepare for the future. If fact, we are commanded to in 1 Corinthians 10:11. Courageous faithfulness inspires us. Christianity Today’s “Today in Christian History” marked this moment, “March 9, 320 (traditional date): Roman soldiers leave Christian soldiers naked on the ice of a frozen pond in Sebaste, Armenia. They placed baths of hot water around them to tempt them to renounce their faith. When one did so, a pagan guard—inspired by the fortitude of the remaining Christians—converted and joined the freezing Christians. They were all killed and made famous by Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa.”
Joy is my last eulogy virtue. It means being content in the circumstances and conditions that God allows or sends. It means living by faith so that John 10:10 becomes fleshed out in us—to have “life and have it abundantly.” Paul was good at piling up lists of both sins and holiness. To the Thessalonians, he said, “ See to it that no one repays evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good for one another and for all. Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in everything; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:15-18, italics added, CSB translation) Joy is a command, not just a feeling or a state of mind and heart. In Philippians 4:10-14, Paul testified he had learned the secret of being content living with an awareness of the presence of the power and purpose of God. It will be great to hear in full detail how God worked this into Paul’s life. Then it will be our turn to share with Paul and others how God did it in ours. God’s will is that we imitate him. (Ephesians. 5:1) That is, we emulate God and not just his heroic Apostles. Clearly, only God’s Spirit has the power to create in us supernatural joy that is beyond the happiness of pleasant circumstances. This joy comes through us and satisfies us as we learn to live as Jesus did, who said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” (John 4:34, CSB translation)
What will be said?
Our goal at Denison Forum is to ignite a movement of culture-changing Christians who use their influence as salt and light to redeem the culture for Christ. That movement will happen more because of who we are than what we do or say. Eulogy virtues are the work of God in and through his church.
When all is said and done, what will be said at your FUN-earl?