Thomas Lane Butts: Glad to Be Alive

Three or four years ago in late November I received an interesting telephone call from a clergy friend. Hilda answered the phone and after they had chatted for a few minutes he tentatively asked, "How is Tom?". Hilda said, "He is fine. Would you like to speak to him?". After he and I exchanged greetings he said, "I cannot tell you how glad I am to hear your voice!". I said I was glad to hear his voice also. He said, "I have a special reason for being glad to hear your voice. I got a phone call from someone a few minutes ago who said that you were dead." I could not resist the temptation to borrow a line from Mark Twain, "You can quote me as saying that the report of my death is greatly exaggerated." We never did find out how the rumor of my demise got started. I only hoped it was not the result of wishful thinking.

It reminded me of a similar experience I had more than 30 years ago while I was Pastor of First United Methodist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. I prepared and preached a sermon entitled, "A Christian Faces Death and Burial", in which I spoke of the meaning of death, and gave what I considered some sage advice on how we should prepare for our demise. It was a pretty good sermon! I came up with the clever idea to write an obituary for myself, describing the date and manner of my imagined death, which I used as the introduction to the sermon. Our worship services were broadcast on radio at 8:30 and telecast at 11:00. I gave a disclaimer at the beginning and the end of the obituary, but I did not take into consideration that some people would tune in late, or that some would be so taken by the fine obituary that they would ignore my disclaimer at the end in which I clearly said: "None of what you have just heard really happened, but it will happen some day."

We got phone calls and letters of condolence of weeks!! I thought we would never get through explaining that I had NOT died. I have used that sermon two times since, but not when the sermon was being broadcast.

Having people think you are dead is an interesting experience. Among other things, it is a timely reminder that some day you WILL die. And, of course, one always wonders, "How the world can possibly get on without me!?". But, trust me, it will!!

As we begin this new year it may be a helpful spiritual exercise to confront the brevity and frailty of life -- particularly our own. There may be some important things we would like to say and do before we die. If so, we had better get on with it, for we are not here to stay. Contrary to the common illusion that the world cannot possibly get on without us, we WILL be leaving, perhaps sooner than we think, and the world will be fine.

An out-of-state car stopped at a crossroads store in South Alabama. A man got out of the car and walked up to the proprietor of the store, who was sitting on the store porch whittling. He said that he and his wife were planning to retire in a few years and that they were looking for a nice rural area in which to retire. He proceeded to ask some questions of the proprietor about that particular area. Finally he asked the old storekeeper, "What is the death rate here?", to which the storekeeper replied, "Well, I reckon it is about like everywhere else -- one per person." And, so it is.

By the way, I have saved that fine obituary I wrote about myself -- in the event it is ever needed.