by Joe McKeever
When Franklin Graham spoke last summer before a convention hall filled with Southern Baptists, he brought the audience up to date on his parents. His father, the venerable evangelist Billy Graham, has endured a couple of difficult surgeries lately, lives in pain, and has trouble getting around. But he's gradually improving. Mrs. Graham—the equally outstanding Ruth—spends her days in a wheelchair, no longer able to walk.
Franklin said, "The other day, Daddy hobbled into Mother's bedroom and said, I feel so bad. I feel like the Lord is ready to take me home.' Mother said, That must feel wonderful.'" As we laughed, Franklin said, "He won't get any sympathy from Mother!"
Here's the conundrum: I feel bad enough to die. When I die, I'm going to heaven. That will be wonderful.
In so few words, we have the believer's predicament as he faces his own death. On the one hand, dying is frequently accompanied by pain and suffering, and results in separation and sadness. It's terrible. Then, in the moments following death, the believer is brought into the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ to enjoy delights and sensations for which nothing on earth has prepared him. It's terrific.
"To be absent from the body"—what we call death—strikes fear and sorrow into the hearts of humans. Nothing, we think, could be worse. "To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord" (cf. 2 Cor. 5:8). What could be better? Absent here; present there.
It's all a matter of perspective. Out the "exit" sign here, through the "entrance" sign there. We stand on the shore and watch our loved one sail toward the distant horizon and say, "There he goes." The saints standing on the celestial shore call out, "Here he comes."
I think I have figured something out. In John 11, Jesus weeps at the graveside of His friend Lazarus. Now, the man has been dead four days, a condition which Jesus could have prevented, and the Lord is about to raise him from the dead. So, why is Jesus crying? I think I know.
Watching the weeklong funeral of former President Ronald Reagan, on several occasions I was moved to tears. In no way was I weeping for Mr. Reagan, although I admired him. But he was elderly and sickly, he had lived a long life, and it was clearly his time. Yet, when the military pallbearers bore his casket into the Capitol Rotunda and Mrs. Reagan reached out to touch it lovingly, that got me. When military men and women, in uniform or not, stood at full attention and saluted the casket, that got me. When a child walking beside his parents stopped to remove his glasses and wipe his eyes, I lost it. At the burial site, when son Michael Reagan spoke of the gift his father had given him by telling of his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as his personal Savior, that really got to me.
My tears were prompted not by the death of the loved one but by the tears and tender love of the mourners.
At the graveside of Lazarus, Jesus watched as the two grieving sisters poured out their heartbreak. That touched him as nothing else had, and "Jesus wept."
My friend Ian told me the heartrending story of his father's battle with Alzheimer's. His dad, a retired pastor who touched so many lives throughout a long ministry, and whom I have often claimed as my primary mentor, is 81 now and declining rapidly. He occasionally recognizes his daughter or one of his three sons, and is still able to talk, but his comprehension is waning.
Not long ago, Ian's teenage nephew was killed in a tragic accident. The mother, Ian's sister, asked him to drive over and break the news to their parents. Soon, other family members and friends began arriving at the house, hugging, crying, consoling each other. The one person in the home who could not understand what was going on was Ian's father—this precious minister who had comforted so many in similar circumstances through the decades. At one point, he turned to Ian and with tears running down his face, said, "I'm sad but I don't know why."
The heartbreak of those he loved touched him in ways he could not understand or express.
As he contemplated his own death, the Apostle Paul found himself torn. "Hard choice! The desire to break camp here and be with Christ is powerful! Some days I can think of nothing better. But, most days, because of what you are going through, I'm sure that it's better for me to stick it out here" (Phil. 1:23, The Message).
Lucy Ott died yesterday. She had worked in Vacation Bible School all this week, and on Friday, went home from church and went home to Jesus. Family members say she had needed a treatment to relieve the fluid around her heart, but had delayed it in order to work with the children at church this week. She was a lovely lady, always happy to be with the Lord's people, always radiating His love.
I grieve her passing. But I celebrate her arriving.
Dr. McKeever is director of Missions
for the New Orleans Baptist Association.