As is normal this time of year in Arkansas, the mornings are darker while we are getting ready for the day. Monday was no different. My phone, sitting in its usual spot on my nightstand, lit up. I wondered who would be calling me that early in the morning. Then that feeling that I’m sure many preachers experience when our phones ring at odd hours hit me. “I hope it’s not something bad,” I thought to myself. When I picked up my phone I saw that I had a voicemail message. The number was one with which I was familiar, but as I opened my phone and listened to the message, the voice was familiar. The message? One of my closest friends and brother in Christ had passed away that morning. He was not in poor health. I was with him the night before. And now, less than twelve hours later, he was gone.
Now, I understand this experience is something that everyone will go through at some point in life. But we are never ready for these moments to come. The shock of losing a loved one suddenly seems to consume us. It is so difficult to bring any other thought to mind. The memories and experiences of time shared flood over us as a river overflowing its banks. We often find it impossible to concentrate on usual responsibilities. Emotions range from sadness to disbelief to laughter over happy times spent with our loved one. This cycle seems to continue in rapid succession. We wonder if these swings will end. And if so, when? The truth is, there are many things we wonder about at moments like this.
The Christians in Thessalonica no doubt had many questions about life with God and Christ. Apparently they had lots of concern with the subject of death as well. In his first letter to that congregation, Paul addressed their questions about death and the second coming of Christ. “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14). This is perhaps one of the most encouraging passages in all Scripture. How this word must have lifted the spirits of those believers who were concerned about their loved ones.
When we lose someone who is dear to us, our hearts ache. We feel the pain and agony of no longer having that person in our daily lives. And Jesus understood this pain. That’s why he said, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled…” (John 14:1). But neither Paul nor Christ said grief would not come with loss. Rather, our grief is not like that of those who have no hope of life after this. This is what makes the statement from Paul such an encouraging, uplifting passage. We can be confident that God will bring those who die in the Lord with him when he returns. Our sorrow is not everlasting. Our grief is tempered by grace. And we rejoice because those who die in the Lord have won the victory. Thanks be to God!
My friend – my brother, mentor, supporter – touched the lives of so many. He had a greater impact on me than perhaps I realize at this moment. His experience and ministry throughout his life demonstrate the heart of one who is like God. He would readily confess to me that he doesn’t know all the scriptures, nor could he quote a bunch to me (though I am convinced he did and could have). But one thing I know for certain – he lived out the gospel of God. He shared the love of God with all those he encountered. He knew who he was in light of who God is. He understood clearly what God had called him to, and he used the talents with which he was blessed to bring others closer to God. During his routine visits in my office he would laugh, tell stories, and then get serious for a few minutes. I always knew when the serious moment was coming. He would say, “Look me in the eye, boy, when I talk to you.” He would then let me know in his encouraging way that I needed to “do my duty,” which I understood as meaning “keep ministering to people…keep loving them…keep serving them.”
My friend cared deeply for the lost. He dedicated his life to living out the Gospel before others. And without question, he was able to speak to anyone, from any background, in any situation. He had a tremendous ability to cut to the heart of the matter. And he led a great number of people to Christ. Over the past four years, especially, I have watched him interact with more people than I can count. Each situation was different. Each person was different. But my friend remained the same. Throughout this week, one passage has played over and over in my mind.
“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).
This was my friend. It didn’t matter who you were, nor from where you came, he was going to interact with you and make you feel comfortable. He had the uncanny ability to cross barriers most of us cannot cross. He was truly a servant to all. He gave of himself so that he could share with them the blessings of God’s amazing grace. Though he never changed, he became all things to all men. What a legacy! What an example! All things to all men. That’s my friend. Oh, how he will be missed!