I would like to tell you a sad story, the story of a single man, solitary and secular. We were playmates at school together when I was young, both of us being the only children of our respective parents. We got on well enough in the early days of public school. In high school, our paths diverged: he continued in his secular path, while I became caught up in the Jesus People Movement. After sowing the usual wild oats of his day, he settled down to a respectable job, working in the school system as a janitor like his father. He had work mates, of course, but no real friends. After his father died, he continued to live at home with his aging mother. But even so he lived a solitary life, and would go straight from work into his little basement apartment, taking his meal and spending the evening alone, while his mother ate her meal upstairs by herself. She was lonely, and concerned about him, of course, and would’ve liked his company. She was concerned that he was depressed, and that he said that he couldn’t see any reason why he continued living. She pointed out to him his good job, and his nice car, but to no avail. He had no friends, no girl friend or wife, no “significant other”, and of course no children. When he died, he died alone in his basement apartment, and was buried by his mother, his funeral attended by her. Later, after several years, his mother also died. He lived and died, leaving no footprints; it is now as if he never existed.
Such a life is a tremendous tragedy. Most people leave footprints—people who will remember us after we die and will bless our memory. Children will remember their parents, pupils remember teachers who taught them wisdom, people remember friends whose love and laughter enriched their life. The poor bless, even if just or a moment, those whose help and financial aid they receive. But my old playmate never had children. He never served as mentor to other younger men, never lit up the life another friend with the warmth of his love. He attended no church or social group. As far as I know, he never gave money to the poor or to any charity. His refusal or inability to reach out means that his death effectively deleted every trace of his life from the world.
The tragedy of such a life finds its echoes in the Scriptures. One psalm laments that such men, even though they “name lands their own” and call their property after themselves in an effort to ensure some sort of immortality, still cannot abide, despite all their pomp. They are “like the beasts that perish” (Ps. 49:11-12). And by “beasts” the Psalmist does not refer to animals like our modern pets, named and loved their owners, but to the wild beasts, unnamed and unknown, who die unnoticed and unlamented, their bodies lying as carrion in the wilderness.
While we yet live, we retain the ability to leave footprints. Whether we are married or unmarried, single or divorced, whether we live alone or with others, we can reach out to those around us. We can speak words of comfort to those in need; we can support a child through charitable agencies; we can cultivate friendship; we can learn the names of those asking for spare change as we put the money into their hand and ask them to pray for us in return. Ultimately, of course, it is not about how many people remember us after we are gone, but whether God remembers us, making our memory to be eternal in His Kingdom. But God asks us even now to reach out to others, and give ourselves according to ability and opportunity to the people He puts across our path and in our life. There are many opportunities; we walk through soft sand. In such sand, we can, if we choose, leave many footprints.
One last thing: I invite you to light a candle and say a prayer for my old playmate, for he has no one else to do so. His name is Rick.