“A TIME TO BE BORN AND A TIME TO DIE”
September 7, 2007
“Chuck is in an active state of dying!” The pronouncement was given by the Hospice worker ministering at his bedside. My wife, Babs, was relaying the news by phone to me which she had just received from Chuck’s family. “They really want you to be with them if you can break away from your gathering,” she added.
The message, though not totally unexpected, gave rise to a jumbled mosaic of emotions filling up my mind. Profound sadness over Chuck’s passing was mixed with disappointment over the Lord’s refusal to bring about his healing for which I had so fervently been praying. Then there was my frustration over the dreadful timing of it all. The news had arrived on Tuesday evening while we were gathered at a local coffee shop with our men’s accountability group. Over the past several weeks the Lord had expanded our group into a simple church by adding the night manager, the cook, and another kitchen helper. Great things were happening and lives were being transformed before our eyes. I longed to spend more time with them and experience more of what the Lord was doing in that restaurant.
But the bulk of my frustration was aimed at what had been scheduled for the following afternoon. Chuck’s grown daughter, Allison, had recently come to the Lord and we were planning to have her baptism in the family pool where Chuck would be able to watch from his bed. Now it looked like our plans would be postponed indefinitely.
“Of course I’ll go,” I responded over the phone with a heavy sigh. “Don’t wait up for me; this could be a late night. And please pray for me,” I added. “I’m really struggling with this one.”
One of the men from our group graciously offered to drive me to Chuck’s home which gave me some time to silently chastise God over His lousy timing. “Excuse me, Lord,” I prayed, “But I don’t understand why this is happening tonight. It bums me out that you’re not willing to heal this man, but why must he be taken tonight? Don’t you realize how important tomorrow’s baptism is? Father, there is supposed to be many people in attendance including those who do not yet know you. This would be a tremendous witnessing opportunity. I can’t believe you would allow Chuck to die tonight and ruin tomorrow’s ceremony. Your timing couldn’t be worse!”
My whining rant was cut short by our arrival at Chuck’s home and my need to stow away my anger at the Divine in order to effectively pastor a hurting family. I was met at the door by his wife, Anita, who led me back to his room. I had sat by his bedside many times over the last year praying for his healing and attempting to help Chuck make sense of his failing health. He was suffering from atypical Parkinson’s disease. Instead of his muscles moving uncontrollably, they were frozen stiff as though stuck in some invisible body cast. The disease had long since taken his voice and Chuck would laboriously try to communicate through an electronic keypad. Forty years ago he had been a decorated helicopter pilot in Viet Nam. Now, thanks probably to his exposure to “agent orange,” he had been reduced to a barely breathing stick-figure, a prisoner of war in his own body. A urine bag filled with blood told us that Chuck’s organs were shutting down. He had been drifting in and out of consciousness. It was obvious this man was in his final hours of earthly life.
Anita leaned over his lifeless body and pried open his eyelids. “Look who’s here, honey,” she announced. “It’s Pastor Bill.”
I could see his eyes moving to record who was present with him in the room. That activity told me Chuck was still reasonably aware of his surroundings. I reached out and held his leathery, boney hand and spoke a few words of cheer to my ailing friend.
“God is with you, Chuck,” I mentioned talking over a huge lump in my throat. “He will never leave you and He will never let you out of His hands. That’s His promise, and God has never, ever broken a single promise!”
“Let’s read some Scripture,” I suggested motioning to the brother who had accompanied me and calling out a few references for him to find in His Bible. After the Scriptures were read I offered a final prayer for my friend and his grieving family and said my goodbyes fully expecting that to be the last time I talked to Chuck in this life. God, however, was not about to start fulfilling my expectations over the timing of Chuck’s passing.
The next morning the phone rang in my office and I braced myself for the bad news.
“Pastor Bill, this is Anita. You won’t believe what has happened! Chuck has rallied. He woke up this morning, asked for his electronic keyboard and typed out messages of love for his daughter and me. Then he indicated he wanted to be put in his wheelchair. Bill, he wants the baptism to go on. Can you still come this afternoon?”
“Absolutely; let’s do it!” I responded overjoyed at the sudden turn of events.
When I arrived at their home the family room was already filled with guests. Chuck was sitting up in his wheelchair fully alert and looking better than I had seen him in several months. Alli and I were dressed in our swimming suits prepared for a baptismal service. Everyone else was decked out in their Sunday best. The incongruity of our attire made for some gentle humor and ushered in a relaxed atmosphere for what was taking place. In a surreal setting that only the Master Playwright could stage, we gathered around a pool table with Chuck sitting to my right and Alli to my left, the dying yet about-to-enter-into-eternal-life man on one side and the newly born yet about-to-be-dying-with-Christ woman on the other.
Since I knew I would be speaking to those outside the Christian faith, I silently prayed for the Holy Spirit to guide my words and then boldly began to share my heart. I talked about the Old Covenant and how all serious covenants in ancient times were initiated by an oath-swearing ceremony. Then I explained the New Covenant in Christ and described baptism as the New Covenant oath-swearing ceremony.
“Jesus swore the oath at the cross,” I explained. “We swear the oath at our baptism. Being immersed into Christ symbolizes the death and burial of our old self and the birth of our new life in Him, a life that will live forever with Jesus.” “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” – Galatians 2:20. “Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.” – Romans 6:3-5.
“Almost exactly one year ago we immersed Chuck into Christ in the Stanislaus River, wheelchair and all,” I reminded the people present. “Now that was a baptism to remember! But that was the day Chuck died. No matter what happens to his earthly body now, Chuck will live on for all eternity with his beloved Lord, without disabilities, without pain, without sickness, without frustrations, without worries, without tears, and without death.” “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” – Revelations 21:4. “And now,” I added, pointing to Alli, “his daughter one day will be joining him. Because Anita was also baptized at the same time as Chuck, this entire family will be spending eternity together.”
“I don’t know why God has allowed my friend to succumb to this illness,” I continued. “Our prayers for a miracle were left seemingly unanswered, until today. It is a miracle that Chuck is able to be alert enough to enjoy this ceremony and only God could have brought this event together in such perfect timing. No, I don’t know all that is going through the mind of God in letting Chuck suffer so. But I know his illness has led directly to the salvation of his entire family. When Chuck is finally released from his deteriorating body, he will leave behind a legacy of life. Only God knows how vast that legacy will be.”
Following the baptism Chuck and his family and friends posed for pictures. Amazingly, Chuck had the energy to give us a “thumbs up” signal for each photograph. I’m certain those pictures will become a family treasure. They are lasting evidence of the day God decided to miraculously bless one of His faithful soldiers by lifting him off of his deathbed to enjoy the new birth of his daughter. It was a day that reminded us all of how loving and merciful God truly is, and how perfect is His timing—always! Thirty hours later an honor guard of heavenly angels swooped down to free this disease-shackled old soldier from his bodily prison and escort him up to the waiting arms of his Commander-in-Chief. “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” – Psalm 116:15.
In the days following this incredible, divine chain of events, I have been meditating on God’s perfect timing. I have been duly convicted to repent of my shameful whining at the Almighty. Though I don’t always understand His ways I have hopefully learned not to complain about His timing. “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die…” – Ecclesiastes 3:1-2. I dearly wish this bit of wisdom from Solomon weren’t true. Unfortunately, ever since the day sin entered our world, death has lurked at the end of every life waiting to pounce upon our dreams and enforce its grisly will upon us. However the good news, which Solomon in all his wisdom couldn’t decipher, is that God would send us a Champion to do away with death. “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” – 1Corinthians 15:22. Life and death came together at Alli’s baptism to create an unforgettable picture of God’s grace. Life and death also came together at the cross to give us an enduring, unshakeable hope that faith in Him leads to everlasting life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16.
We may not have any say over the circumstances and timing of our own demise, but we can influence the type of legacy we leave behind. While we are still breathing and enjoying our earthly life, now is the time to ask ourselves, “Will mine be a legacy of life?”
Bill, a child of God building a legacy of life