When the phone rings at 7:30 am on a Sunday morning, it is supposed to be someone calling to tell me they won’t be at church to make coffee, or to teach their class, or to play an instrument. Those things I can fix. It’ll be inconvenient, but I can deal with those.
That phone call is not supposed to be the brother of one of my best friends telling me bad news. That I can’t fix.
I was totally unprepared. Stunned. Speechless. It never crossed my mind until the moment I heard the words.
It seems so innocuous when you say it that way.
But it’s not. It’s death. It’s final. And it seems so premature.
Forty-two years old. Yes, sick, for a decade. Violently sick at times. But only forty-two.
Surely I had misunderstood. After all, the tearful, breaking voice on the other end was hard to understand and my mind was in another world, getting ready to sing and preach, to lead worship for our local body of Christ. Perhaps it was a dream that I would wake up from. Perhaps a clarifying phone call would come soon.
As Sunday wore on, the comments piled up on Facebook and the phone remained silent, and it became clear there was no misunderstanding to be clarified, no dream from which to be awakened. There were no more phone calls.
It was death.
People I know don’t die at forty-two. Those stories are someone else’s. You read about them in a newspaper. And when you read of a forty-two year old husband and father dying, it is sad; it is sobering.
When it is your friend, there are no words for it. There’s just a dull fog. There’s numbness. There are tears that come of their own accord.
I am forty-two. We hurt sometimes. But we don’t die. Not yet.
We are in the prime of life. We are stable. We have lives. We have houses. We have families. We have careers. We have a future.
Now, all we have are memories. And there are a lot of them, to be sure.
Years ago, it was sports, band, classes, girls. (Not necessarily in that order, mind you, and that should ease the minds of both the girls and the teachers.)
We used to play tennis until midnight. We played golf until we couldn’t walk anymore or at least until we couldn’t see anymore. We shot hoops on the rim over the garage door. We played duets at church. We double dated. We worked at camp together. We ministered in church together.
They are filled with laughter and joy. Sometimes tears and frustrations. Now and then, sorrow and pain. We walked through some dark days back then. But far more good than bad.
More recently, separated by seven hundred miles, we were reduced to phone conversations. But they were regular, though not as often as I would have liked in retrospect. I just thought we had more time.
We talked about family, church, school, theology, people, ministry, houses, cars, kids, discipline. Then more theology, preaching, church philosophy, pastoral leadership, youth group, teenagers. Then more theology. And round and round we went.
You name it, we talked about it.
Right up until that last Tuesday night. Just five days before Sunday.
When we hung up after more than an hour and a half, I had no idea it would be the last time.
It wasn’t supposed to be. We had more to say to each other. We had more problems to solve. We had more messages to prepare and run by each other. We had more stories to tell about the kids.
We also had Wednesday morning that we had to get up for, and it was late, so we said, “Goodbye.”
We said, “Talk to you later.”
We should have said, “If the Lord wills, we will talk later.”
You see, sometimes God has plans he hasn’t vetted with us. And those plans always seem to win over ours.
And this was one of those times.
Our hearts cry out, “Why?” With millions of people in this world with no care for God, who have abandoned their spouses and children, why my friend? Why do they have good health? Why do they live on? Why do they prosper? They hate the Giver of all good things, and yet the Giver gives them another day.
Why would one who loves God have their life cut off at forty-two? Why would one who loves God have to bury their spouse at forty-two? Is there no worse person in this world? Is there no better candidate for early death?
There are no answers.
Not in this life anyway.
The preacher, Solomon himself, with all his wisdom couldn’t find an answer. He said all this is vanity. It’s puzzling. It makes no sense. So walk carefully. (Ecclesiastes 7:15).
The one thing that softens the impact of answerless questions is the unchanging and sovereign love of God for his people. He who did not spare his own son but delivered him over for us all, how will he not with him freely give us all things? (Romans 8:32).
Yes, freely give all things, even when it seems he is taking them away. Yes, freely give all things, even when the pain seems unbearable.
Surely He will not abandon us now. He already gave His Son for us. What greater commitment do we need?
Oh yes, there is also the promise that our God is in the heavens doing whatever He pleases (Psalm 115:3). And this, as much as it troubles us, was pleasing to God or He wouldn’t have done it.
Yes, yes, He is the one who did it. And I think my friend would agree with me. Especially now.
While that is unsettling for some, if I thought for one minute that God was up in heaven earnestly desiring to hold back the powers of death from His child, my friend, but ultimately unable to, I would never preach again. I would have nothing good to say about a God who is so loving as to not want people to die a physical death, but so impotent as to be unable to stop it. What assurance can such impotence give of a future resurrection and hope? That would be a God unworthy of the very lives we wish to preserve. That would be the doctor who was in the ER that night. He meant well. Tried hard. Did all he could do. But fell short.
Worthy of thanks and gratitude, to be sure. But worthy of worship that bows down and offers a life? Surely not.
Last Sunday, God, for reasons sufficient to himself in his providence and wisdom, declared the life journey of my friend to be completed.
He decided it was time to free my friend from the shackles of this broken world, and the chains of his broken body.
And so, last Sunday, God called him. He said, “Come. It’s time. You’ve had enough.”
And he was gone.
And that, dear reader, is grace to my friend. And it is, in some measure, grace to those who suffered with him, who cried when he hurt, who now rejoice that his broken body no longer toys with his daily comfort and even his very existence. He is in heaven, and his broken body is destined for glory.
The good news is that when we hear for ourselves the voice of God saying, “Come. It’s time,” and we join my friend in eternity, the answers won’t matter anymore. The questions will not even be thought of.
Jesus will shine far too brightly for such concerns that weigh so heavily now. And the suffering and sorrow and tears and pain and death so prevalent in this age will have passed away. God will wipe every tear from our eyes. All things will be made new (Revelation 21:4-5). And with clear, unclouded vision, we will see the Savior who makes this life worthwhile. And we will join my friend and the rest of the redeemed in singing, “Worthy is the Lamb.”
And that brings a smile in the dark. It brings an end to hopelessness.
But for now, in the second full week of October, 2011, we are brutally reminded that life can be short, its end unexpected.
We are reminded of the brokenness of life in a world filled with sin.
We are reminded that there are no guarantees of tomorrow.
And we are reminded, as Pastor Mann so clearly stated yesterday, that while relationships in life are important, the only relationship that really matters is the one that you have, or don’t have, with Jesus Christ.
Being a good man, as my friend was, is great as far as it goes. It just doesn’t go far enough.
Being friends with a good man, as many of us were privileged to be, is a true blessing in this life. It makes life easier to live and to enjoy. But it will not fix our deepest problems.
Only Jesus can do that, and Jesus did that when he died and rose again.
My friend had that relationship with Christ. He believed Jesus, and so he followed Jesus. That relationship changed his life so greatly, and it challenged me constantly.
It reminds me that the gospel of Jesus Christ that has changed us now calls for continual transformation.
My friend was the willing and continual recipient of that transformation. And it showed.
On Thursday night, hundreds lined the hallway at the funeral home, snaked back and forth, and then stretched out the door while they waited to see the family. They had been affected by that transformation.
Yesterday, more than five hundred gathered at Lebanon Baptist Church because they knew my friend and were the benefactors of God’s grace through his transformation.
And so we said goodbye.
We carried his body to a sloping hillside. Pastor Mann read Scripture. He prayed. And then the crowd dispersed.
I waited at the cemetery, with just a few others, watching until the red dirt thudded onto the casket with the dull sound of earthly finality.
And then I drove away in silence.
Heaven is a little bit closer today, and a little sweeter. Earth is a little more foreign, and and a little more empty.
I miss you already, old friend. Except you weren’t old.
I loved you, though far too little. And I thank you for loving me. We walked through a lot of life together—good days and bad. And one day we will walk in the sunshine of glory together because of Jesus.
I know others love you and miss you more than I do, and with good reason. They shared a home and a life with you. And my heart hurts for them. They are my friends too.
My heart hurts for a grieving wife, widowed way too early.
My heart hurts for two young children, who will grow up with only a heavenly Father. In His grace, surely He will be enough for them. He said He would be.
My heart hurts for parents and a grandmother, for in-laws. They are supposed to be on the other side of the casket at family funerals with their grown children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren greeting friends and loved ones on their behalf. Parents aren’t supposed to bury children. But sometimes, that’s what happens in a broken world.
My heart hurts for a church family, along with these loved ones, who will miss the daily conduit of God’s grace that was my friend.
But my heart finds joy in the great promise of God that one day all things will be made new. We will be freed from this broken world and made inhabitants of a new heaven and new earth where righteousness dwells, and where death has met its final match. And this because Jesus lived, died, and rose again.
Until then, let us walk faithfully, if only ploddingly, in the footsteps of our Jesus, our Savior, and in the shadow of those who, like my friend, have gone on before.
Let us trust, as my friend did, that Jesus has done everything to make us acceptable to God, just as Jesus did for my friend.
Let us, along with my friend, embrace the gospel of Jesus, with all that it entails, and live for the next world because this one will be over.
And it may be sooner than expected.