Hebrews 9:27: "It is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment."
My dear mother had been a widow for twenty-seven years. During that time, she made many visits to our family. While in her late seventies and early eighties, she would usually stay with us for a month at a time. She read to our young ones, and they enjoyed her caring ways. But as the visit went on, our general “busyness” with ministry, teaching, school, activities, entertainment, and hospitality, as well as the everyday household hustle, was a bit more than she wanted to handle.
On the morning of her departure for home, we always got a large chuckle as she descended the stairs to our living room, coat neatly folded across her arm, suitcase packed and waiting at the front door. She would sit down, gloves on, ticket in hand, purse and hat ready, with a smile on her face as always. Her departure to the airport or bus station was still some time off. When any of us would ask her why she was ready and waiting so early, she would respond, “At least you’ll know where I am.” I’ve often thought what an appropriate epitaph that would have been to put on her grave marker.
Mom died just a few weeks before her eighty-ninth birthday. She weighed barely seventy pounds and while not complaining, remarked to me in a hushed breath, “I don’t know how any person can go through this without hope in the Lord.” I had just reminded her of Christ’s promise to prepare a place for her with Him where He is (John 14:2). With that, her weary eyes suddenly brightened, her voice grew stronger as she spoke these words, “Isn’t that going to be fantastic!” Those were her last words to me. With that, she was ready to fly! Not everyone finishes as well as my mom.
Scripture reveals some great victories as well as very sad endings. King Saul, the very first king of the Israelites, was blessed by God early in life. But in 1 Samuel 8-31, we read his biographical ascendancy to greatness, and then his tragic admission of complete failure. Of all people, his potential for fame and dignity were obvious.
He was physically superior (9:2), humble in heart (9:21), and spiritually empowered (10:6). But tragically, before Saul had time to figure out what was happening, he chose that “slippery slope” of self-centeredness that Satan always provides for all willing participants. Saul’s utter disregard for the will of God (15:10-11), then hatred for David and attempts to kill him (18:8-11) eventually led him to the point at which, looking back regretfully on his own life, he had to confess, “I have played the fool" (26:21).
Contrast that with the words of another Saul, the one turned Paul through the power of his encounter with the risen Christ (Acts 9:2ff). Near the end of his days from a cold dungeon in one of Nero’s Roman prisons, Paul wrote to his young convert Timothy that the time had come for his departure. “I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. In heaven a crown is waiting for me which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on that great day of His appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7-8). The lives of Moses, David, and Paul are examples of men who, early in life, showed every evidence of wickedness. However, when touched by God’s grace each one became an instrument of righteousness and enduring faith.
I am struck by the regularity of the counsel given to all seven of the first century churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3, calling them to prevail over the obstacles of testings, false teaching, and spiritual coldness. In Hebrews we are called to “fix our eyes upon the author and finisher of our faith.” Peter reminds us that our faith is continually on trial before the world.
Why is it that with all of Solomon’s wisdom, his gift of the grandest temple ever in Jerusalem, and his incomparable counsel to others, in his final years he seems to have become downright silly?
One of my best and most influential Christian friends during my high school days died an alcoholic in his mid-fifties. We lived in opposite parts of the country. On one of my business trips, I was able to arrange a lunch with “Jim.” We both had a genuinely joyous time together as we talked about many of the good old times, but there was one subject he would not discuss—his faith. Each time anything touching the subject came close, he would purposely switch it off.
I’m eighty-four years old and trying to “wrap up” this concept of finishing well. My mind keeps being drawn back to the aged author of Psalm 71. Even he seemed to wander back and forth as he reviewed his life. Like Solomon, what happened? Like Hezekiah, who prayed for fifteen more years of life. His request was granted, but during that time his personal pride brought disaster on his family.
Solomon was so much wiser than his behavior when he said, “Happy is the man who finds wisdom and who acquires understanding.” Never underestimate that combination! Some time ago I wrote an article for a magazine entitled “The Irrevocable Call?” In it, I dealt with some questions about why so much pressure is felt by pastors when they consider change—especially when they consider a change in career.
As indicated in the introduction to this book, I had to consider that issue when I chose to do development work for the divinity school and college. I heard from several missionaries and fellow pastors, some very concerned about my slippage from God’s will. On the other hand, as I wrote in the article, I mentioned how one former missionary, after years of evangelizing, was so disturbed by the poverty that surrounded him that he helped hundreds of them develop small farms and businesses for their survival. These, in turn, all proved a blessing to people and even helped their local churches to prosper. How dare we presume to judge another person’s heart or deep motivational choices?
One of my main points dealt with how many well-meaning Christians with pious-sounding phrases and clichés, pressure and prod people toward the pastorate. One letter back to me from a senior pastor used those very words to describe how, in his earlier immaturity, he took such advice to be “the will of God.” Then, after a dozen years in pastoring, he became frustrated to the point that, like King Saul, he believed God might have taken His hand off his life!
He wrote, “The key statement for which I have deep gratitude to you is, ‘It is not the call to pastoral ministry that is irrevocable, but the call to follow Christ Himself! Never let that priority get juxtaposed.” I replied to his letter with encouragement to pursue God’s call to one of many possibilities available for one with his giftedness.
One reason I share that experience with you is to reaffirm that ministry effectiveness is in the hands of God. We are the “planters and waterers,” not the saviors!
As I peruse the 71st Psalm, I believe there are at least four prime statements that the old man prayed and claimed for himself, based on his past experiences and future trust.
1. Lord, You are my foundation. Don’t let me ever be ashamed (v. 1-4). 2. Lord, I may be weak. You are my hope and my confidence. Help me be strong in this last phase of my life and I will praise You (v. 5-16). 3. Lord, You are great. Forgive me when I feel forsaken. As long as you are with me, I’ll continue to be strong (v. 17-19). 4. Lord, You have allowed troubles to come in my life. May your consolation revive and comfort me all my days and I will praise You with all that I have. And bring me into Your eternal life (v. 20-24).
This brings me back once more to my mother. It became obvious to all that she was near the end of her days. Her last letter to me mentioned that I would “see a great change in her bodily condition” when next we were together. I responded with a greeting card, but it just didn’t say enough. I reminisced in my thoughts for a while, and then composed this poem and enclosed it with the card. I titled it, “Her Legacy.”
“You’ll really see a change in me,” Mom’s words came weaker on that call.
And deep within myself I knew, she’s right; for years do change us all.
The thought first saddened me, but then, I paused as though God seemed to say, “The outside shell’s not all there is, REAL life lasts on in other ways.”
Her FAITH and HOPE, they taught us much her LOVE, an inspiration!
What changes not she gave so that another generation
Might recognize that this counts most a mind, awake to God and keen,
We’ll cherish Mom’s great legacy, those UNSEEN, CHANGELESS, things we’ve SEEN!
“I consider that the sufferings of this present world are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).