Just for a minute, imagine walking down a cobblestone path older than the United States, hearing dainty British women speak about the unusually hot weather (75 degrees!), standing in a cathedral that stretches so high you have to crane your neck to take it all in, fish and chips, tea and scones, and green – lush green – everywhere. Welcome to England!
I was able to spend almost a month in the U.K. as part of Southwestern Seminary’s Oxford Study Program this summer. And one of my favorite places where we visited was a cemetery called Bunhill Fields. I know, it seems odd that a field full of tombstones would have been a favorite, but it was incredible.
Many “dissenters” of the Church of England are buried there, including John Bunyan, Susanna Wesley, Isaac Watts, John Owen and Daniel Defoe Watts. Dissenters were those who, at different periods, refused to conform to the Church of England. After their death, they were placed in graves at Bunhill Fields on London’s east side.
On the day our group visited there, the field of tombstones was quiet, filled with pigeons flying about and people reading on benches. There is a walkway through the middle on which people passed by the tombstones with an almost casual familiarity.
As a first-time visitor, I was mesmerized, surrounded by some of the most preeminent authors, leaders and religious figures England has ever produced. I had stepped out of my nation, my life’s routine, and it felt like I had stepped back in time.
Reflecting on my short time among those graves, here are two of the lessons that are sticking with me.
1. Life is short, so live it to the fullest.
The beauty of the fields, although a bit morbid, is the reminder that one day all of us will lie in the grave – still, silent, alone. Thinking upon the lives of those in the grave challenged me to remember the brevity of life. Those who surrounded me were there because they dissented against the corruption and error they saw in the state church. I had to ask whether I would stand as boldly as some of these in the face of ridicule, persecution and imprisonment.
The choices we make, the words we speak, the truth we proclaim, the people we disciple, and our devotion to the Word of God will live on after we are gone.
How we spend our days, hours and minutes matters, and there will be a day when we meet “the Great Equalizer.” Bunhill Fields was a poignant reminder to receive every day as a gift from the Father of Lights and to live it to the fullest.
2. Even in the toughest circumstances, we can live full and beautiful lives of faithfulness.
Perhaps the most famous tombstone at the graveyard, residing clearly in the middle of the field, is that of John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress. Except for the Bible, this work is the most printed book in the world. What I didn’t realize the first time I read it was that he wrote it during his 12-year imprisonment. The work for which he is best known was written during the most difficult time in his life, separated from his family, in chains for preaching the Word.
Bunyan is now memorialized in this graveyard for his life and works, and yet the facts of his life point everyone who walks by his tombstone to a greater reality – faithfulness to the Word and truth of God, no matter the consequences. Many of those who have given their lives for the gospel (whether in martyrdom or other consequences for obedience to Christ) will never be memorialized as Bunyan is. Yet his solemn tomb beckons all of us to trust the Lord in every circumstance, knowing that He brings beauty from ashes, and can carry the pilgrim all throughout the progress of her sojourn on this earth.
Next time you visit a cemetery, I hope you will remember both the brevity of your life and the immense hope of your life as a believer in and follower of Jesus Christ.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Courtney McLean is a master of theology student in philosophy at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Reprinted from Baptist Press, baptistpress.com, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.)