“Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10b).
One morning in September, a phone call informed me of the death of Dr. Clarke Bozeman. This good man, nearly 90 years old, a deacon in the First Baptist Church of Columbus, Mississippi (where I served as pastor from 1974-86), and a veterinarian in that city for 50 years or more, had been in declining health for some time. His home-going was not unexpected. The funeral was a celebration of a life well-lived.
Two hours later, another call came from the same city; J. C. Perkins, longtime member of the First Baptist Church, prominent businessman, husband of Margaret Perkins (who has headed the church’s library and media center for a generation or longer), had an accident while working with his boat at the lake. Alone and unable to summon help, he died there.
Two good men, two supportive and loving families, two lives well-invested in service for God and mankind leaving a church and city filled with sadness.
At moments like this, we find comfort in a hundred places: in remembering a thousand events and incidents, in notes and mementoes around the house or in the office, in the hugs and soft words of friends, and in the nearness of those we love most and best. For disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, nothing comforts like the assurances and promises of God’s word to His children.
Throughout this weekend, those two families will be opening God’s Word from time to time to claim anew His words to those who love Him. Friends who appear only for a few minutes of comfort will whisper scriptures which they have found most assuring. “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
The following Sunday, September 11, was the tenth anniversary of what shall ever be known in American history simply as “Nine-Eleven”. Pastors everywhere were sharing their own stories of that fateful day as spiritual applications for their people. I love to tell the story of Al Braca. This brother in the Lord has been in Heaven for a decade now, but his example and inspiration linger.
Al came to know Christ perhaps 30 years ago after the Lord healed their little daughter of a serious disease. He was so overcome by God’s goodness he gave his life to Jesus and was radically changed.
Al worked for the brokerage firm of Cantor Fitzgerald, occupying (I believe) the 104th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. It’s fair to assume that his co-workers were a religious mixture of every faith, doctrine, ideology and theology, located as they were in Manhattan. When Braca began sharing his faith openly, not everyone appreciated it. They quickly branded him “The Rev.” To most, it was not a compliment.
An odd thing began happening, however. From time to time, individuals in the office would slip privately to Al for counsel or prayer on a personal issue, a marital crisis, or a problem with a teenager at home.
On that day a decade ago when the planes hit the towers, no one knew the buildings would collapse and that nearly 3,000 people would perish before sundown. Those above where the planes hit had an hour or more to learn what had happened and realize the precarious nature of their predicament. What they did at Cantor Fitzgerald is the good part of this story.
After 9-11, families of victims began calling one another to offer what comfort they could as well as to learn more about what had gone on with their loved ones. Mrs. Braca began getting calls about Al.
A man called. “I talked to my wife before the towers fell. She said, ‘Al has us all in a circle. We’re holding hands and he’s leading us in prayer.’”
A woman called. “My husband said, ‘The Rev is up here praying for us all.’”
Lisa Chilson Rose, who chronicled Al’s story in her book As the Towers Fell, has no doubt that when those buildings fell to earth that day, Al Braca took a lot of people to Heaven with him. That’s what faithfulness will do. “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life”
“Be faithful…;” this is our command. What does it mean to be faithful? It means to live by faith, by a confidence in the Lord Jesus Christ that sends us into the world to represent Him, to serve Him by loving and serving others. To live by faith means to obey Him and remain steadfast for Him against overwhelming odds, in the absence of good feelings, even when circumstances force us to stand alone.
The Lord said, “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8). When Jesus returns to earth, will He find people still serving and obeying Him? Will He find people who worship Him by faith? People who are giving to Him by faith? People who love their enemies, pray for those who despitefully use them, and bless those who curse them (in the language Matt. 5:44). Will He find anyone being faithful?
“Be faithful until death…;” this is our goal. I’ll be sketching someone (most of you know I’m also a cartoonist) and even though the whole process is over within two minutes, often the subject will say, “How much longer do I have to smile?” My response is always the same: “For the rest of your life! You have a great smile. The rest of us love to see it.” Parents on a trip grow tired of hearing the same question from the back seat: “How much longer?”
The Lord told the church at Smyrna, “Be faithful all the way home—unto death.” And how much longer is that? No one knows. For Dr. Bozeman, death came in his 90th year. That’s a long time. For J. C. Perkins, it was 15 or 20 years sooner than that. Pick up the newspaper for any major city today and turn to the obituary page. I can guarantee you two things: 1) at least half the people on these saddest of all pages did not know one week ago they would be featured here, and 2) if you are old enough to read, you can almost always find someone there younger than you.
Do not assume, my friend, that you will be given 90 years on this earth and thus have plenty of time to prepare for the final exam. No one knows. It’s far better to be ready and live every day prepared for whatever the future holds. Writer William Saroyan once said, “I always knew that people live, they get old, and they die. But somehow I just always felt an exception would be made in my case.” No exception. He died in 1983.
Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life;” this is our promise. The crown mentioned here was not the glittering thing we generally think of, like those seen in the Tower of London. Rather, it was a small garland of leaves given to victors in athletic competition. And the “crown of life”? Life is the crown. The reward we are given in Heaven is eternal and abundant life with the Lord in Heaven. We could ask for nothing better, nothing greater.
The greatest pain death brings to the living is separation from those we love most. But, likewise, the best reward we could ask for in Heaven is to live forever with those we love most, and no one fits that category more than the Lord Jesus Himself.
“And so we will be with the Lord forever” (1 Thess. 4:17). What’s the greatest thing about Heaven? The Lord is there. “I saw no temple in [Heaven], for the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. And the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev. 21:22-23).
There were tears shed at Dr. Bozeman’s funeral services. Even though the family called it a celebration of his life, they will miss this gentle soul who was their mast, their patriarch, their rock. Tears were at Mr. Perkins’ funeral, even though they too gave thanks to the Lord for the character of the man, his faith in Christ, and the promises of God. In both cases, those who gathered in the First Baptist Church of Columbus lifted their voices in praise to God and in thanksgiving for His faithfulness.
Interesting, isn’t it? He promises eternal life’s blessings to all who are faithful to Him “unto death” and we celebrate the faithfulness of the Lord to us in this life and after death. That’s why the Gospel is and always has been good news.
As Ken Chafin used to tell his preacher boys in seminary years ago, “Fellows, when you stand at the funeral of a godly man or woman, say it loud and make it strong. Because you’ve got the only word in town.” Amen. Thank you, Lord.
Joe McKeever is a retired Southern Baptist pastor from New Orleans, Louisiana. He blogs regularly at www.joemckeever.com.
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