by Dr. Joe McKeever
First Baptist Church, Kenner, Louisiana
We were saddened to learn of the death of Dr. Stephen Ambrose Sunday. Some people leave holes when they depart; he left a crater. I met him once. In 1998, he and Doug Brinkley did an all-day conference at LePavillon Hotel here in New Orleans on the centennial of the Spanish-American War. My son and I went down for the morning session. Ambrose had a gift for advocating anything he was passionate about in a way that made you want to sign up. He was the consummate teacher. In Monday’s Times-Picayune, Hugh Ambrose said of his father, “He fought cancer as he did all things: with passion, with dignity, with generosity, without complaint. He always was the biggest man we have ever known.” Ambrose left behind a wife, three sons, two daughters, five grandchildren, and thousands of students—everyone who owns one of his books. He left us immeasurably richer than he found us. We may blame cancer for his early departure.
Writer William Saroyan once said, “Everybody has got to die, but I always believed an exception would be made in my case.” As he himself discovered in 1981, there would be no exceptions. In the words of Holy Scripture, “It is appointed unto man once to die and after that the judgement.” (Hebrews 9:27) Forget about reincarnation; it’s not going to happen. Even the beer commercial got that right: “You only go around once; grab for all the gusto you can!”
Last week, I was with a pastor friend in revival. On Monday, his parents drove up to visit his family and his father attended our services. They returned home that night, and next morning, his mother had a cerebral hemorrhage. Her services were Friday. I did not know her, but I grieve because of my affection for her children, and because I love my own mother. I dread more than I can say the time when we will have to give her back to God. I told my friend I may have to call him some day asking for counsel on how to get through this.
I hate death. It helps a little to know the Lord Jesus despised it far more than I. He broke up every funeral procession He met by raising the dead. He wept at the graveside of Lazarus, then proceeded to bring him back. According to Hebrews 2, Jesus came to earth to a) defeat the one who held the power of death, that is, the devil, and b) deliver those who through fear of death were subject to bondage all their lives. Jesus was the original Dragonslayer.
The Bible calls death an enemy and has nothing good to say about this monster. For believers, the other side of death is wonderful, but death itself is a destroyer of dreams and a divider of families and a cause of sorrows. My grandchildren know this even though the only experience they have with death are a couple of elderly neighbors who no longer walk their dogs past the house. From time to time, as I’m pushing a five-year-old in the swing, she will say, “Grandpa, how old will you be when I’m 25?” I’ll add 20 years to my age and say, “82.” Sometimes she will say, “Will you be dead then?” We talk about these things for a moment and she says, “Don’t ever die. I don’t want you to die.”
I’ve done funerals where the grandchildren eulogized the deceased. I think to myself, “That’s about as good as it gets.” I would like to live until my eight grandchildren are adults and have some of them be the speakers who rise to say a few words of tribute to this old man who adored them every day of their lives with every breath of his.
Sunday, I dropped in on a Sunday School class to show the children a new hand puppet someone gave us. The twins, age 5, beam at me and hug my legs and draw me in to their activities, then beg me with their eyes to stay. That night, I ran by their home for a few minutes. Grant, 8, was typing on the computer while the girls and I sat on the bed behind him watching and talking. After a bit, I said, “I hope you have a good day at school tomorrow.” In unison, they said, “Are you leaving?” I said, “Well, I didn’t bring my pajamas.” And added, “That was a joke.” They all looked dead serious. Abby said, “Not to me, it wasn’t.” Thank you, sweetheart. I love you, too.
I do not want to go off and leave my family. That’s the nature of love. I promise to make every effort to stay as long as I can—which is why I walk on the levee every morning and take my vitamins and get regular checkups. But when I leave, I would like to say to my children and grandchildren, “You be strong and serve God and raise your families. Someday, in the distant future, you too will be reluctant to leave behind those little ones who are such a joy to your life. But the good news is: I will be over on the other side waiting to welcome you, along with Grandma and more loved ones than you could ever imagine.”
And we will be done with this foolishness called dying.
(NOTE: We are not being maudlin by respectfully suggesting you give some thought to your own death. The best way to prepare for that event is to prepare to live. The gospel is good news because Jesus Christ died to pay the price for your sins and offers eternal life—a wonderful existence that begins here and now!—to all who open their hearts to Him in simple faith and surrender. No one is promised the luxury of knowing in advance how many days or years they have left. It may seem to you that dying is what other people do, but don’t be fooled. Your local newspaper has reserved several pages in every issue for new obituaries. The local funeral directors expect to make their loan payments from funerals not yet scheduled. We hate death, but in this world it’s a fact of life. Only in Jesus Christ, we may make arrangements to breeze right through that experience and emerge on the other side in the land of sunshine and joy, a place called Heaven. Revelation 21 and 22.)
©2002 Joe McKeever. Used by permission of the author.
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