Death

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:21)

Mom died just a few minutes before midnight last night. She has completed her sojourn. She now walks by sight, not by faith. It is well with her soul.

The doctor was right yesterday morning. It did turn out to be mom’s special day. About 4 p.m. Carol and I were alone with her when Carol noticed that she seemed to be awake. These moments would last only a few seconds, so Carol quickly suggested that I read Scripture and pray with her again. I read Joshua 24:15 and reminded mom about her plaque with that verse. She nodded weakly. I told mom that for her, that verse was more than a plaque, it was a proclamation. It was a promise mom kept.

Back on Saturday when we arrived at her hospice room, I told mom she had lived her life well and had two remaining tasks. The first was to meet her eighth great-grandchild, James Walter Clevenger. She performed that assignment admirably to our joy and delight. I might add that James played his role perfectly, as well. Mom’s second task was to blaze the trail of faith to the end of life and model for her family how to die well. Usually that task is given to dads. Husbands die first in a majority of marriages. But in this marriage, that responsibility was given to mom. She was doing her final task very well.

After Scripture and prayer yesterday afternoon, mom was still awake. So I took the opportunity to tell her we thought she still had some time left. Carol and I might return to Minnesota. I told her that dad, Pam and Brenda would take good care of her. Would it be OK if Carol and I returned to Minnesota?

Mom croaked, “Yes!” in a loud, clear, deep tone that sounded almost like her normal voice. She was giving me mother’s permission for the final time. Perhaps she was also giving herself permission to die.

Within a few minutes, her condition deteriorated significantly. Her breathing became much more shallow and irregular. At 4:30 p.m. we called in the rest of the family, sang hymns for mom, and watched as death crept nearer. Dad sat silently and held mom’s hand. We all had one question, “How long?” Pam and Warren were sitting attentively with mom when she quietly passed into the Lord’s presence.

Barbara Bush, one of the world’s most prominent women, recently died. She is reported to have been a great woman of faith who loved Jesus and anticipated heaven. I marvel that the transcendent God who directs with the flick of his finger the course of the universe – or multiverse, if you prefer – would stoop in his imminence to notice Barbara Bush. I marvel even more that this same God embraced an obscure, unknown, elderly woman lying unnoticed by the world in a hospice bed and carried her into his presence. More astounding yet is that this same heavenly Father offers the same invitation to anyone who will respond to him in faith. If God’s transcendent power is unspeakable, his unmatched imminent grace can only be called “amazing.” The superlatives of language have been exhausted before they plumb the depths of God’s divine attributes. No wonder the great Apostle John concluded his book of the Revelation with, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus.”

      And Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight,
     The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
     The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
     Even so, it is well with my soul.
                                                 Horatio G. Spafford, 1873

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Uncle Bob

My Uncle Bob died yesterday in Ohio at the age of 88. I had four uncles but he was the only one I knew well. He was the last uncle standing, so I’m now uncle-less. It’s a genuine loss.

Everyone should have an Uncle Bob. He was a gentle, soft-spoken man of clear and genuine faith in Jesus. I never heard him say a cross or unkind word about anyone, even with easy targets like celebrities, politicians, and TV preachers. I never saw him get angry, even when I put a baseball through a front-door window at his house.

I was shagging fly balls that day in Uncle Bob’s (small) front yard. I had guessed I could aim closer to the house without reaching it. I’m not a power hitter, so it seemed safe. Not quite. After the crash, my mother was the first person out the door. She saw all us kids, but I was the one with the red face holding the bat. It was probably the only home run I ever hit in my life. I think she was swinging before she got to me. Spank first. Ask questions later. I never saw what happened to the rest of the kids.

No matter. I deserved the spanking. It probably helped me that my grandfather installed windows for a living. He ended up with an extra service call that day. But Uncle Bob never said a word to me about it. He just didn’t get angry. I was around him enough to know what he was really like. People often say nice things about the deceased at funerals. But in this case, it’s really true.

Uncle Bob encouraged me in my preaching, even when I was a youth, and was always interested in my ministry. Last month Carol and I stopped in to see my aunt and uncle at the end of our Ohio trip. Uncle Bob slipped $100 in my pocket. He had cancer and knew it didn’t look good, although a month ago they were still treating it aggressively and hoping for recovery.

We agreed it could be the last time we might see one another on this earth and rejoiced in the promise of eternal life in Jesus. I reminded Uncle Bob that we already knew how this would end. We just didn’t know when. He would eventually die even if God extended his life now. He agreed and said he had only one wish. He hoped when his time came, he would go quickly.

God answered that prayer. Uncle Bob declined quickly and was in hospice only five days before passing away yesterday morning at home with his wife and son beside him. He left behind a widow of strong faith who will follow him to heaven some day, three children of faith who will follow him some day, and six grandchildren–all of strong faith–who also will follow him some day.

Don’t you wish you had an Uncle Bob like that?

Pastor or brother?

And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother. 1 John 4:21

My brother Darrell is dying of pancreatic cancer. He is a 13-year survivor. Almost 14 years. We’re not aware of anyone who has lived longer. When the cancer was first diagnosed, Darrell and his family were casual participants (perhaps members) of a Methodist church. They had a good relationship with the pastor. Then in the time of their great need, the church suffered a split. The pastor was ousted. As I understand it, they tried another church. Then it, too, suffered a split. Or maybe it was the same church a second time around.

In any event, my brother had what we call “a bad church experience.” There are two sides to every story. I didn’t hear the entire account. But in the aftermath, Darrell and his family essentially adopted a secular worldview. They felt burnt by the church. He never ceased claiming to be a believer, at least with me. I didn’t observe anger directed toward God. But his attention was drawn to other endeavors, especially beating his cancer by medical means. In my last extended conversation with Darrell, he described his walk of faith as “slow.”

When we arrived at the hospice home Sunday night, Darrell had been unresponsive for a couple days. Nevertheless, I read Scripture with him, invited him to faith in Christ and prayed with him. To watching family members, this was my pastoral task. Every day I’ve read Scripture to Darrell, expounded on the passage, and prayed with him. My role here has indeed been spiritual. But is it pastoral?

As Darrell has lingered, the question has arisen whether I should continue to stay near Darrell or drive to Ohio in support of our parents. In considering this decision, someone asked me what I want to do about Darrell as a brother, not just as a pastor. In other words, am I a pastor or a brother?

The question surprised me. As a pastor, I’ve read Scripture and prayed with people thousands of times. That experience has given me familiarity with the situation here. But I’m not Darrell’s pastor. I’m his brother. As his brother, I’m required to love him. In this situation, that means reading Scripture to him, presenting opportunities of faith in the face of death, and praying with him. I can do nothing less for my brother.

Pastor or brother? The answer isn’t both. I’m not the pastor here. I’m a brother.

 

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.

The Endurance of Faith

If you hang around any church long enough, you discover there’s a drop-out experience for some people of faith. We don’t talk about it much, but in truth some people not only start believing in Jesus, they also stop believing. You probably know somebody like that.

Maybe they believed when they were a child and gave up their faith in high school or college. Maybe they came to Christ through a dramatic conversion as a young adult, but fizzled out a short time later. I’ve heard of Christians who were active in their church for decades, then they chucked it all—their faith, not just their church. Some wander for a while and then come back. Others never return. Some, but not all, had bad church experiences involving mistreatment. Some, but not all, rebelled and fell into habitual sin, which destroyed their faith. Some, but not all, asked honest, deep questions, but received only glib, superficial answers. Some, but not all, were disillusioned by religious people around them who had lost their first love and were just going through motions of empty faith.

Does that describe anyone you know?

Theologians have argued for centuries how and why people lose their faith. We’re not going to solve that problem in a blog. But one thing is crystal clear in the New Testament: God’s wants our faith to vibrantly endure to the end of our lives. In the New Testament losing one’s faith is not normal. In the New Testament losing one’s faith is not necessary. In the New Testament losing one’s faith is not negotiable—it’s not an option for God’s people.

But it still happens. If you’ve lost your faith, I’d love to hear your story. Would you be willing to share it with me? If you’re trying not to lose your faith, would you share your struggle with me? I’d love to walk beside you, just to listen.

We’re going to talk about losing our faith–or better–hanging on tight this Sunday in Clarkfield. I’d love for you to join us and enter in the discussion.

A Gangster and Faith

When I was a kid, I ran a morning paper route seven days a week for over six years. I’m grateful for the discipline and relational skills it built into my life. There are some riveting paperboy stories stashed away in my memory: delivering newspapers in blizzards, fruitless attempts to collect from people who couldn’t pay, two dog bites, and one memorable encounter with a gangster.

At least I thought he was a gangster. It happened one day when I stopped to collect at the home of Miss Sharp, a 90-year old spinster who had taught English at the local college. She had no family and in all my years of delivering her newspaper and collecting, I had never seen another person at her house.

To my surprise, a man answered my knock. He looked to be about 60 years old with a mustache, bowler hat and pinstripe suit. I thought, “This looks like a gangster.” I think maybe The Sting had just come out, a movie about the Chi­cago mob. The man had a crooked smile like Humphrey Bogart. His voice had a nasal accent. He paid me with a $20 bill, which was much more uncommon then than it would be today.

I was immediately suspicious. I examined the $20 bill at home and asked my parents if I should call the police. It was exciting to think that maybe I had a counterfeit $20 bill in my possession. To their credit, my parents didn’t take my anxiety seriously.

Finally my dad flattened my excitement completely with just one sentence, “If it’s counterfeit, you can’t spend it.” I hadn’t thought of that! But it was true. Counterfeit money is worthless.

So is counterfeit faith. It’s worthless. Counterfeit faith is as old as the story of Cain and Abel. When it comes to faith, we need the genuine item.

We’ll talk about discerning real faith this Sunday at New Life Church. You’re welcome to join us.

What have you forgotten lately?

The pastor of New Life Church has some strange personality quirks. He’s forgetful. He can be so focused on a given task that he misses subtle social cues or works past a scheduled appointment. At the other extreme, he can be so scatterbrained that he becomes forgetful. Sometimes he’s working at the church and discovers he needs something at the house. Maybe it’s a book or a flash drive. So I run around the corner and rush in the back door. Then I get distracted—usually by something delicious in the kitchen— and return to the church without the book or flash drive.

It works the other way, too. Like several in our congregation, we get our drinking water from the church. Sometimes Carol sends me over to the church for water. I arrive with a gallon jug swinging from each arm. Then I think of something to do in the office and return home a few minutes later—without the water.

Leaving on long car trips are particularly adventurous in our family. We forget things so often that we congratulate ourselves when we don’t forget anything. Sometimes we pat ourselves on the back too soon. Through the years we’ve forgotten food, water, wallets & purses, cameras, audio CDs, coats, gloves, sunglasses, boots, jumper cables, tents, towels, matches, money…. On our last trip to Ohio, we forgot a phone charger cord at Carol’s parents’ house. We’ll pick it up on our next trip—if we remember.

Before you get too high and mighty about your good habits, you should admit you forget some things, too. In fact, the best story I know about forgetting something happened to an elder in our first church. They had seven kids, five still at home. One Sunday they arrived for worship like they always did, in a little hatchback sedan. The two youngest girls rode in the trunk. True story. That day they left church without their youngest daughter, who was about eight years old at the time. This was before cell phones, of course, and they lived in another town. So Carol and I took Rebekah home and fed her lunch, laughing the whole time, while her unsuspecting family drove all the way home, only to discover they had forgotten something rather important in their trunk.

We’ve never stopped laughing about that, but the truth is, some of our worst moments come when we forget something. I’m sorry to report I’ve even slammed my fist into the steering wheel and said a bad word. If you do that, too, you’re taking yourself too seriously. Take it from one who knows. Been there, done that. And I have several T-shirts to prove it.

If there’s more than one of you in the car when you’ve forgotten something, this is when the blame game begins.

“I thought you were going to bring that.”

“No, I thought you had it. That was your responsibility.”

That’s just the part of the conversation I can print. Have you ever blown everything out of proportion and lost something you couldn’t afford to lose around your family—your temper?

People who take themselves too seriously don’t take God seriously enough. They just can’t stand it when they make mistakes. That’s me and that’s you. And it’s also Jesus’ disciples. They took a trip and they forgot something important.

Mark 8:14—The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat.

Carol and I went to Montevideo this past Tuesday, intending to eat lunch in the car. True to form, we forgot the food. But it was no big deal. We just ate a little later when we got home. It wasn’t that easy for the disciples. They weren’t on a one hour excursion away from home. Rather, they were on an extended trip out on a lake. No McDonald’s, no lunchboxes, no fishing poles. And no chance to turn around and grab the grub. It’s pretty obvious what happened next: the blame game. They started complaining and arguing. Then one of them, probably Judas, held up a loaf of bread, waved it at them teasingly and said with an impish smile: “Hey fellows, look what I brought!”

The conversation went downhill from there. It became a window into their hearts. Then Jesus stepped up and challenged them with one statement and eight questions. The questions were designed to help them understand the statement. Yes, the disciples had forgotten something important. But it wasn’t bread. Food was just the conversation starter. They forgot something else. It’s something we forget, too. Yes, the disciples forgot the food, just like we often do. More importantly, they forgot that the bread of life was with them in the boat.

When the bread of life is with you, everything changes. So why do we keep forgetting that?

We’ll talk about it this Sunday.