This is a reprint of my blog from 2014:
“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it.” – Steve Jobs
While I was on my mission trip this past June, one of the young men confided to me that he had been awakened one night to a murder right outside of his window. “A pickup truck pulled up, and there was some yelling. I heard some shots fired – like pop, pop, pop – and then the truck screeched away. I was peering through my bedroom window and I couldn’t see the person, but I heard it clearly. A man was screaming and crying out ‘God help me! Oh, God, help me!’ By the time any help arrived the man was dead.”
I could sense the fear in the young man’s voice. He heard a man’s last moments on this earth. He heard the man move into uncharted territory.
Death is a monster that invades the thoughts and minds of all ages, races, genders, and cultures. Death shocks and traumatizes. It strikes fear into the strongest of men and confuses the wisest of people. It’s a bully. It’s a tyrant. It’s an enigma. It’s unknown to us mortals.
I recall a close brush with death in my youth. I had stupidly jumped onto the the side of a friend’s car as he floored it across a convention hall’s acre-wide parking lot. I lost my grip and fell into a complete somersault, sliding over fifty feet across rough concrete. I picked myself up, bloody and bruised and humiliated… and a bit wiser. I almost died. For days afterward, I considered how close I came to entering eternity. And frankly, it scared me.
No doubt you’ve faced a similar deeply harrowing encounter with death, with yourself or a loved one. Maybe even recently.
We have a man here in Oak Ridge, Tennessee who has been trudging along the steady trail of terminal cancer towards the precipice that many consider the Great Unknown. Tom Craig is our senior pastor. His body is wracked with pain and confusion brought on by the poison of pancreatic cancer. He speech is forced and his eyes are sunken. His movements are slow and deliberate. We’re all watching him. We’re all learning.
Cancer has forced Tom to ration out his speech. That hasn’t hurt his impact, though. It’s like a monetary equation; since he speaks less, each word carries more value.
It appears to us that the strength of God has taken away any of death’s advantage.
This weekend was busy for Pastor Tom. His second daughter Aimee’s wedding was on Saturday, and Tom was going to be giving the charge to the new couple. He was also going to be walking the aisle and giving his daughter away.
I met him in the kitchen on Friday night as we were pulling together the last of the rehearsal dinner meal. I hugged him and could feel the projecting bones of his spinal column. He grinned at the BBQ spread.
“How about getting a sample?” I asked him.
He shook his head slowly. “No,” he frowned slightly. “I can’t eat anything.”
That was not an exaggeration. His wife Kim later told me that his main staple is protein liquid. He’s drinking his breakfast, lunch and dinner in miniscule portions.
Then Saturday came, and the auditorium was full. Here was Tom, with Aimee on his arm.
We watched him carefully, carefully walk down the aisle on Saturday. He gingerly gave away his daughter to Mark Cronemeyer Jr. and he quietly edged himself to the nearest seat. He was in pain, but he wanted to do this. I am not embarrassed to say that I shook with sobbing. I was not the only one.
While I watched him quietly struggle, I thought of this man’s display of Paul’s narration to Timothy. We were seeing the passage being re-enacted:
“For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
Yes, Tom has kept the faith, as well as raised the spirits of his congregation.
“Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2 Tim 4:6-8).
And it is amazingly clear that Tom is in love with the anticipation of the appearing of Jesus Christ. Soon after his part in the wedding, Tom quietly went to a side room and slept.
He spoke Sunday morning, but only in the short time before we took our offering. He did not have the energy for a full sermon – that was given to another speaker – yet Tom’s heartfelt message during the few brief minutes prior to the main message was dynamic.
“Scores of people have visited our church in the past weeks,” Tom said, carefully measuring his words due to his increasing deafness. “Many people have come to visit in view of my cancer… and my family’s encounter with cancer.” He nodded. “We are overwhelmed. The love and support that we have received during both of my daughter’s weddings this summer… I don’t know what to say.”
Then he gave us a charge. A powerful charge.
“When it comes to offering, it is important that you understand what giving really is.” He paused, and he turned his gaunt neck so that he could meet each of our eyes. “This is not a payment. Look, God doesn’t need your money. He has all the money He needs. If he needed money, would He go to you? No, He wants your heart. How empty just to give a payment! This is an offering, and the first offering is of yourself. It’s clearly stated in 2 Corinthians chapter 8 – give of yourself to God. Now, before we do anything else, I want you to pray, and pray aloud. Out loud I want you to say, ‘God, I am yours.'”
You see, Tom is taking us into new areas of discipleship. Through the years many of us have served, of course, but Tom is showing us more of the why of service rather than the how of service.
We’re taking deeper steps and discovering new territory.
There have been numerous times when I was part of something and had very little idea of what I was doing. I seem to get into those types of situations more often than I plan. There was the time in my mid-thirties when I joined a judo class. I was the white belt. The rest of the class all wore brown belts. I really had no idea what I was doing. It was a memorable experience. And painful.
Then there was the time I was asked to play in a Teacher/Student basketball tournament when I was a Bible instructor in California. Problem was, I didn’t know how to play basketball. It must have been great fun to watch – I had no idea what I was doing. I’m glad social media wasn’t around then.
We all end up in situations like these now and again. A new job assignment. An unexplainable letter from the IRS. A call to volunteer at our child’s school. We step into the fray, unsure of what to do.
That’s the way it is with death. We know about it but we secretly have hoped that it keeps its distance and stays in the shadow. We want to push it out of our thoughts.
Then here comes a man like Tom Craig who not only faces it, he runs toward it and points, shouts, prays, leads and even laughs about it. Before this summer, most of us were unsure – maybe somewhat familiar, but overall unsteady – about how to deal with death. Yes, we know how God’s grace helps us through any trial, but we sort of hang the responsibility all on God and look the other way. Well, Tom’s not going to let us do that. He directs our gaze toward it and shows us the truth of Psalm 90:12:
“Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
The Lord is directing Tom to show us – in measured speech – how to deal with the small treasure of time that God has bestowed on us before He calls us up to the Kingdom, and who knows when that may be?
We see Tom’s body become more frail but we see his messages become more vibrant.
Death has become a familiar and much less intimidating reality. I can’t help but recall the words of George S. Patton in the impact of those who give so much: “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.”
We thank God that the power of Jesus Christ is showing through our pastor, who has been pouring himself out so that we may all become stronger in the Lord.