Death is so final! People are here—so here, so relevant in life. But, when they go—oh, how gone they are! Here one minute and gone the next; this is what life is. It happens so quickly—so instantly—that the shock of a loved-one’s departure is as much surrounding the speed of it as is the void forced upon us. Who is ever ready, truly ready, for a loved one to cross over into eternity? Sure, there are times when someone lingers with a debilitating sickness, leaving family members to think that their departure, whenever it happens, will be better, at least for the one suffering. But even in cases such as this, when death finally happens, the stability we daily feel receives tremendous shockwaves, leaving us at the very least with a feeling of awkwardness. For something so normal to life experience, there is nothing normal about death; so final—so life changing.
Just lately, several in our church family have lost loved ones in death. Some have lost fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, and life-long friends. I have lost three friends in death over the last couple of weeks. I preached the funeral of a life-long friend and brother in Christ, James Rickard a week or so ago. I wish everybody knew “Rick!” He was an Alabama boy, and grew up within a few miles of my home in northwest Alabama. He was such a great Christian man. He was an elder in the congregation I left to come here several years ago. He was 94 years old when he died, and the picture of health right up until the end when he got sick with pneumonia, and just never pulled out of it.
I must tell this story about Rick. You know my love for Restoration History, and the plea for restoring New Testament Christianity in our present age. Rick had the same love. Our commonality was based on our mutual love for doing Bible things in Bible ways. Often we talking about the grand old preachers of yesteryear. Several years ago, in my research I came across a clipping out of the Birmingham News from 1926. The title of the article was, “Venerable Gentleman, 104, of Vina, Ala., Has Baptized 8,000.” The man’s name was John H. Dale (1822-1927), and the story went on to tell of how he was born in Ireland and moved to Illinois as a young lad, where he met, and was baptized by Barton W. Stone (1772-1844). Intriguing, right? Other than the obvious things like his age and the number of people he baptized, what hit me was that the article said this old fellow lived in Vina. After doing a little math, I realized that Rick was about six years old when this article was written, and he was from Vina. I called him immediately and asked if he had heard of this old gentleman. After a short pause on the phone, I heard him say, “Why, I have not heard that name in over 75 years!” He proceeded to tell me that as a little boy, “brother Dale,” as everyone called him, was an old, old man! He said that every time the doors were open brother Dale was at church, and that he remembered that he would always go and shake hands with that old preacher. After hearing this, I began telling folks at church that I shook the hand of a man who shook the hand of someone who was baptized by Barton W. Stone. Of course, I had to tell that story again at Rick’s funeral. My, how we will miss him!
A few days later, I received news that one of my childhood friends had died. His name was Barry Findlay. Barry was a Christian, and attended the Tara congregation where my father, Richard Harp, preaches. Barry was a few years older than me, but how fond are my memories of our youth, and the times we were very much in each other’s company. Sadly, I was unable to attend his funeral last Sunday, but I heard several of our friends were in attendance.
Then, Monday I received the news of another childhood friend who passed away suddenly on Sunday afternoon. Alan Nelson was supposed to be at the funeral for our friend Barry, but he was not there. People wondered why he was not there, since when news of Barry’s passing, Alan had called Barry’s mother to express his deep sympathy, and offered to do anything to help in her time of grief. He offered to cut her grass, get some groceries, or anything else she needed. Alan was like that—like all of the good-hearted kids who grew up together as members of the Forest Park church of Christ in the 1970s. Alan would have been at the funeral, but he was not. Later, we found out why. He was in the process of meeting his Maker while others were mourning the loss of another.
Oh, the transitory nature of life. My prayers are before the Father of lights, who is the giver of all good gifts, for those of our church family who have suffered loss over the last several days. Carmen Hodnett lost her father last week. Charlie and Janis Ruhl had a niece suffer death. Jeanette Woodall, Kay Baker and Helen Conolty all suffered the loss of a sister. Charlie Boyd had a brother-in-law die. Shelley Thomson experienced the loss of her mother. Shelby Horn had two cousins die within days of each other. Last Tuesday evening, Charbeth Mills experienced the sad loss of her father. Then, Thursday our world was turned upside down with the accidental death of our Canon Callender.
Why is it that the mention of the word “death” is so frightening to us? Is it the separation? The finality? Is it the fear of the unknown? Certainly, all of these play a role in promoting fear of death. But, death is a part of life. For the Christian, it holds a magnetic allure of anticipation. Knowing what will happen after, the opportunity to have a new body, an immortal one that will never need medical assistance. Never will there be decay. Knowing all that, Paul said, “When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’” (1 Corinthians 15:54–55 ESV) These verses tell us that when the day comes of our departure, with all the dread we may have incurred about it throughout our lives, once it happens, the first thing we will think is, “Why, that was no big deal! There was no sting like everybody said it would be, only victory!!”
Death can hold promise of greater things. While it is not ours to determine who will or will not be there, heaven holds much attraction to us due to the earnest belief that obedience to God’s Word will bring about that end. Thus, we ascribe ourselves to this eventuality with anticipation of being forever more with God.