Welcome, Enemy

 

For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 1 Corinthians 15:25-26

Death is a vile enemy. It defies faith. It denies hope. It devastates love.

Death is a vicious enemy. Jesus prayed to his Father, “If you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Then the Savior submitted to the most ignoble death possible. He willingly suffered the humiliating condemnation of a Roman cross.

Death is a defeated enemy. The Resurrection changed everything. Jesus turned death on its head. He came back from the grave, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.

Death’s final destruction is yet future. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54). In the meantime, humanity remains subject to the despicable throes of death. At present, death is still a powerful, hated enemy.

My brother Darrell is dying of cancer. It’s not a pleasant sight. He has not received food or water for six days. Yet he lingers. As far as we can tell, he is not aware of what is going on around him. His breathing is shallower today. Yet, incredibly, his vital signs are actually improving. His blood pressure improved today. His heart rate was closer to normal. The hospice care has been wonderful. He may yet linger for days. Or his departure from this broken world could come tonight.

God has his purpose in the timing of Darrell’s life and death. Yet I don’t recognize it in the lingering, unless it serves as an open door of invitation for those who remain.

God remains sovereign. Death remains an enemy, though a welcome enemy. When the angel of death finally arrives, it will sting. There will be genuine loss. We will feel pain. But death will accomplish only what God has decreed. Therefore I say to the hovering immanence of destruction, “Welcome, Enemy.”

Vigil

All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. Psalm 139:16

Brenda arrived from Wyoming four hours ago. She is the one closest to Darrell in both age and relationship. Now all four siblings are together in the room. It may be the last time.

Brenda greeted Darrell warmly. No response. He has hung on five days since food and water stopped.

“You’re a fighter, you know?” she said to him.

Darrell is a fighter. But the game is fixed. God has determined every breath we take. It’s not fatalism. It’s ordained. Every moment has a divine purpose.

I can see grace abounding here. Darrell did not prepare well for eternity. He did not pursue God. But God has pursued him. The chase is nearly over. It’s out of our hands. I still don’t have assurance  of Darrell’s response to the Gospel. But I do have assurance in the One who created him and ordained every day of his life.

The doctor just examined Darrell. He said Darrell is a resilient guy. It could be hours to days until his death.

The time of Darrell’s death will not be an accident of nature or the exhaustion of his strength to fight for life. It will be the determination of his loving and wise Creator.

 

 

Thirsty

“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.” Isaiah 55:1

The first night after they moved Darrell to a nearby hospice house, he pulled out his feeding tube. We don’t interpret it as a suicide attempt, rather a reflexive reaction to discomfort. But the result is he is no longer able to receive nourishment through his port. As a result of the strokes, he cannot swallow. Therefore Darrell is dehydrating. He is thirsty.

In Isaiah 55, the Lord speaks gently to those who are thirsty. He extends an invitation to come, drink and eat.

We all get thirsty. We need water to live. Not just physical water. Spiritual water. Isaiah uses a physical analogy to illustrate a spiritual reality. God invites us to come to him. The invitation is genuine. Though we are sinners, God is not against us. He yearns for us to receive mercy and pardon for our sins.

“Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.” Isaiah 55:6-7

We arrived last night at the hospice house in Spartanburg, South Carolina, to find Darrell unaware and non-responsive. I spoke with him, read Scripture and prayed with him. I told him God was not taking his physical life, but giving him eternal life. However, it was one way communication. Darrell made it through the night and we will return to him today.

God’s invitation is for all of us. Death is not the end, but a transition. We are eternal spiritual beings, not merely transient physical bodies. Are you thirsty? Are you hungry? God invites you to come, eat and drink from him.

A Breath of Mercy

My brother Darrell, 56, is dying of pancreatic cancer. He has only a few days to live at most now, perhaps less. We may get to South Carolina in time to see him before he dies. Or we may not arrive in time. When he passes, the immediate cause of death will be complications from a series of strokes.

Today God breathed a moment of mercy. Darrell regained enough awareness and lucidity to address end of life issues. Someone contacted a lawyer and he was able to sign a will. Although speech is impaired, he was able to communicate by phone with our parents, who still live in the same house in Ohio where my siblings and I all grew up. Most important, he met with a chaplain. Although I don’t know the details of their conversation, that is a very positive sign. The south is, after all, the Bible belt.

I am reminded of the incident recorded in Numbers 21 when the children of Israel grumbled against the Lord in the wilderness. God sent venomous snakes among the people. The bites of the serpents were lethal. When the people repented of their sin, God didn’t remove the snakes. Instead he instructed Moses to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole. Anyone who was bitten had only to look at the pole and he would live.

Jesus referred to this event when he was speaking to Nicodemus in John 3. He identified the pole as a type or a symbol of his coming cross. He himself became sin for us, which is pictured by the serpent on the pole. Like the serpent in the desert, the Son of Man would be lifted up on a cross. Those who look at him will live. It is the look of faith.

Salvation is not achieved by a lifetime of good works. In this word picture given by Jesus to the educated rabbi, salvation results from a mere look at the cross. Maybe it’s just a glance, but the cross arrests our attention. It turns our glance into a gaze. We can look at the cross with full confidence in our salvation. We can do nothing because Christ has done everything. We can receive deliverance only by faith. It is God’s love poured out for us.

If God had removed the snakes from among the people, the people still would have died. They already were bitten. They were guilty of sin. By leaving the snakes in their midst–the consequences of their grumbling, God graciously pointed them to the only deliverance from their condition.

We are in the same condition today. We are guilty of sin. We have been bitten by snakes. Have you looked at the cross? Will you gaze at the cross today? it is your only deliverance from sin.

Are you ready for eternity?

And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” ’ “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”  Luke 12:16-21 

One of Jesus’ parables has popped into my mind repeatedly over the past two days as I receive updates of my brother Darrell’s appar­ent immi­nent demise in South Carolina. Jesus told a story about a man whose focus was fixed on the fleeting, temporal, physical world.

Somebody has said that everybody knows they’re going to die. We just think it’s not going to be today. Even if we have cancer and the doctor has told us our days are numbered, we can fight for life in this world to the exclusion of preparation for eternity.

I don’t know much about my brother’s faith. He received my spiritual encouragement without dissent, but with little outward interest. He prayed with me and appreciated my prayers. He may be headed to heaven. But I really don’t have much assurance.

My brother has fought hard for life. He is one of the longest living survivors of pancreatic cancer – almost 14 years. Just a month ago he told me of his intent to participate in a strenuous bicycle ride in Vir­ginia this weekend. He said he planned to do it again next year. And the next. And the next.

Despite strong urges from all of us, Darrell refused to make a will. It was his way of saying, “This cancer isn’t going to beat me. I’m going to live.”

But instead, God may be saying, “Your life will be demanded from you very soon.” Apparently Darrell will die soon without a will. The stroke was sudden. He is no longer capable of legally expressing his obvious wishes.

Are you ready for eternity? Please, confront the claim of Jesus on your life. And write a will.

Confession of a non-reader

Our family’s mailbox is usually full each day. We receive solicitation letters from a dozen organizations. Some of them we support. Others we don’t. But they write to us anyway.

We subscribe to a couple magazines and receive additional ones because we’re connected to their cause or their organization.

We subscribe to two weekly newspapers and, until recently, we also subscribed to a local daily newspaper. They could have kept our business, but they didn’t and we weren’t loyal. Our subscription expired last fall.

Then there’s the online news. Which. Never. Ends. I could spend all day reading mail, print media and ministry or news websites.

It’s time for confession. I don’t read 70% of the print media we receive. I don’t even glance at it. It goes straight to recycling. A few select items are always read. I never miss reading Ravi Zacharias’ newsletters. In fact, I usually file them for future use.

Some items I may read selectively or skim for something to catch my eye, including the weekly newspapers. But I never read the Lions Club magazine, even though I’m the president of the local club. And I skim much of  Alliance Life, even though I’m the pastor of an Alliance Church.

Well, shouldn’t I read these publications as a loyal pastor and club president? Probably. But loyalty has limits. It’s far better to read because the material is interesting and useful.

That means it’s up to the writer to win readership, not the readers to exercise loyalty. Loyalty is good. I like loyalty. I even count on it from members in our church. But loyalty can be a lame path to mediocrity.

A few years ago, our local restaurant in Clarkfield closed its doors. Some people complained, “If only the local people had been loyal to it, the restaurant could have remained open.” That’s probably true. But it cuts against the grain of American capitalism.

In a free market system, it’s up to the restaurant to win the loyalty of its customers, not up to customers to win the survival of the restaurant. Like it or not, the Clarkfield Cafe was competing with establishments in Marshall, Montevideo, Granite Falls, and even Canby. No doubt, that’s very hard. Maybe impossible. How can a small, local cafe which might serve 60 people on a good day compete with a chain restaurant which serves 60 people in an hour? It can’t, not without loyalty from its customers.

In the middle of writing this, I spoke with my son on the phone and invited him to read my blog. “You can read it because you’re loyal to me as your dad,” I said. “But it’s better if you read it because there’s something worthwhile in it.”

“That’s exactly right,” he said. “And advertising can help. Otherwise, customers [readers] don’t know you’re there.”

Advertising wasn’t on my radar. I was thinking instead about a recent change in my life which made me more of a reader. Last month the  Advocate Tribune called out of the blue and asked me to write a few stories for them.

It has made me more of a reader of the newspaper because now I’m more invested in the product. I read my own stuff first. Then I read other articles in the paper. That sounds self-centered. It is. All writers (and readers) are selfish.

How can small bloggers or small newspapers compete in an information explosion? They can’t, not without reader loyalty. That loyalty must be earned. If we want more readers, we must write well.

Maybe advertising would help. But I think quality helps more. That’s why I cringe when I see bungled writing or sloppy concerts or muddled preaching, especially my own.

 

Gamaliel, an Unlikely “Good Guy”

It’s time to smash the stereotype that believers are good people and unbelievers are bad people. Simply put, God’s people are not always good and those who reject God don’t always do bad.

Ananias and Sapphira were God’s people (I think they’re probably in heaven), but they were hypocrites when they stood before the Apostle Peter and lied about selling their land and giving all the money to care for the poor. God struck them both dead for that deceit. Decades later, Peter may be have been thinking of Ananias and Sapphira when he wrote, “It is time for judgment to begin with God’s household” (1 Peter 4:17).

On the other hand, Cyrus, first king of the Medo-Persian empire, treated the captive Jews in Babylon favorably. He stopped the cruel policies of the Assyrians and Babylonians and encouraged the Jews to go home and build their temple. He even returned many of the valuable items which had been stolen from the temple. Isaiah wrote that the Lord called Cyrus “his anointed,” a messianic term (Isaiah 45:1).

The prophet was clear that the pagan king didn’t acknowledge the Lord, yet God summoned Cyrus by name and bestowed on him a title of honor. The unbelieving ruler accomplished God’s purpose of releasing captive Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild the temple which had been destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar.

Cyrus was an unbeliever, but he did a very good thing under the providence of the Lord.

In the New Testament, right after the story of Ananias and Sappira in Acts chapter 5, another unbeliever did good to God’s people. Rabbi Gamaliel, a famous Jewish teacher of the first century, saved Peter and the other apostles from an almost certain death at the hands of an angry and frustrated Sanhedrin.

The early church was enjoying tremendous growth, to the dismay of the Pharisees and the temple leaders, the Sanhedrin. The jealous Jewish leaders refused to recognize the resurrection of Jesus and repeatedly warned the apostles to stop preaching. They even had them arrested and thrown into jail.

An angel from God released them in the middle of the night. The apostles returned to the temple courts and resumed their preaching. The Jewish leaders were furious and wanted to kill them. It probably would have happened, too, except for an unbeliever in their midst by the name of Gamaliel. He convinced the Sanhedrin from history and logic to let them go.

Gamaliel concluded, “Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:38-39).

The speech illustrates what Howard Hendricks used to describe as “the law of spiritual thermodynamics.” The greater the heat, the greater the growth. It worked. The apostles were flogged and released. They returned to their ministry, rejoicing that they were considered worthy of suffering for Jesus.

Gamaliel, an unlikely good guy, had saved the lives of the apostles in the providence of God.

Two questions to consider:

  1. Do we rejoice when people oppose Jesus and we suffer for it? Or do we whine and complain about injustice instead?
  2.  Could we help others believe in Jesus because we refuse to stoop to criticism and judgment when we are mistreated in the providence of God?