My wife was quiet and sincere—a behind-the-scenes kind of person. She taught and mentored students in her home church in the 1980s and 1990s. But she chose not to retire from that ministry. And over the past 10 years, she continued to teach and mentor the children of her former students. In fact, she ministered to two generations of believers in Jesus within the same family. All in all, 40 years of faithful service.
Since the early days of human existence it’s been a constant foe. Recently it came calling in a friend’s life as she lamented her children not walking with Jesus. Another friend bemoaned the death of what had been a loving marriage. A family member looked at me with teary eyes, trying to form words that couldn’t come due to dementia. Another family member, deep in the throes of grief because of her father’s death, said softly, “I can’t believe he’s gone.”
My friend says our lives are like trains. We make various “stops” for school, college, job, marriage, and family. At each stop we spend time with others who have stepped off. When we graduate or change jobs, we say goodbye to the people at that junction and step back onto the train. Only a handful of people stay with us all the way to the end. These are the most important people in our lives, the people who receive most of our time and attention.
A euphemism is “a polite expression used in place of words or phrases that otherwise might be considered harsh or unpleasant to hear.” Instead of saying, “We ended our dog’s life,” we say, “We put our dog to sleep.”
It was a great tragedy for our whole community. My daughter’s first-grade teacher died in childbirth, along with her baby. She was just 36 years old. It broke my heart to see her in a casket with the baby in her arms.
Mortality motivates and eternity influences. These two things motivated and influenced Puritan leader Richard Baxter, who is credited with saying, “The face of death, and nearness of eternity, did much to convince me what books to read, what studies to prefer and prosecute, what company and conversation to choose. It drove me early into the vineyard of the Lord, and taught me to preach as a dying man to dying men.” Baxter’s mortality made him discriminating as to how to use his time. When we look at the Scriptures, it’s clear that they influenced his understanding.
For two of my friends, this yuletide season will be a difficult one. They’ve both lost loved ones during this period, and the festive season reminds them of the painful absence. Sometimes it’s hard to feel joyous during Christmas.
I once met a beautiful East African girl named Mercy, a patient at a hospital where I volunteered in Kampala, Uganda. During one of my visits, the girl’s teenage brother summoned me to his sister’s bed. He explained that their parents had died and he, at age 14, was his sister’s sole caregiver. “I have learned you and a Mzungu man [my friend, David Kuo] gave pillows to the patients last week,” he said. “My sister, named Mercy, wasn’t here when you came. She has never slept on a pillow before. Would you please bring her one?”
During the Middle Ages, some monks kept a skull on their desks to remind them of their mortality and eventual death. The bony paperweight was a vivid reminder that life is fleeting and that they needed to keep their priorities in line.
“What are you reading?” a friend asked. “A fairy tale,” I replied. “Oh, I love fairy tales,” she said and leaned over to read the title of the story. “Ewww!” she said, “What a grim title.” I was reading “The Glass Coffin” in the book Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Apparently the word coffin turned her off.
When a family member of two of my co-workers was killed in a construction accident, the love for this outgoing outdoorsman, faithful husband, and father of two was on full display. The country church he called home couldn’t possibly handle all the mourners, so the service was moved to a larger sanctuary. Friends and family flooded the church building! And the unspoken message of the abundant attendees was clear: Tim Dougherty touched many lives in a way that was uniquely his because he lived life with his strong, loving arms wrapped around his family and friends.
Finishing up a long day’s work, I pressed the touch screen on my computer one last time and saw a date that was very familiar. Just like that it hit me: Today is my dad’s birthday. Quickly my thoughts went to my mom. Widowed 20 years ago, my mother is a living testimony of God’s provision and strength for those who come face to face with life’s hard unpredictability.
Taking his dark, weathered hands in mine, we bowed to pray. As a custodian (him) and as a teacher (me), our different life experiences intersected in my tiny office this week. His mother had been sick for some time, and the disease that had previously been confined to one area had now spread to her entire body. Confident of God’s ability to heal, we prayed for Him to restore her body—and we also asked for the miracle of comfort that supersedes death. Tonight, her son sits by her bedside and knows he will soon have to say goodbye. For now, anyway.
This isn’t an easy post for me to write. It means reflecting on some of the darkest evil plaguing our world today: terrorism. But a recent encounter allowed me to see more clearly the power of God’s sustaining Word—even amidst terror caused by evil actions.