|Pray for the dying|
All of this reminded me of a chapter in my book HOLD FAST, written after my father died of cancer nine years ago.
Glory and oxygen
Nearly fifty years ago, my grandfather stood anxiously beside the deathbed of my great grandfather in the small coastal hospital in Hoquium, Washington. Like most men of his generation, Charles Wesley Bond had done and could do anything that needed doing. Though surrounded by hard working and hard living loggers and mill workers, my great grandfather had lived a careful Christian life. For his zealous sharing of the Gospel, he was called “The Preacher” by his neighbors.
Though he had been unresponsive for several days, and the doctors gave the family no hope of recovery, he suddenly opened his eyes and raised his hands toward heaven. As my father told the story, a look of recognition and wonder spread across his features, and he said, “Glory! Glory!” and died.
My great grandfather’s death reminds me of Stephen who “looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘I see heaven opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God’” (Acts 7:56). My great grandfather’s final word also makes me profoundly grateful for God’s faithfulness to his promise to be the God of his children’s children.
I’m equally grateful for my last conversation with my grandfather, Elmer Elwood Bond, when he was ninety-one years old. He was lonely for my grandmother, who had died some years before, and weary of the world. “Dougie,” he said, hands clasped behind his back, as we slowly walked along the corridor of his assisted-living facility, “I’m homesick for heaven.”
After two-and-a-half years of chemotherapy, a stem-cell transplant, radiation, and sixteen bone-marrow biopsies, my father was in what doctors call “final-stage leukemia.” He had a series of mini strokes in the days before he died. After one of them as he slowly regained consciousness, he looked bewildered, and asked what time it was. I told him it was getting closer to time for heaven, and that in heaven he wouldn’t go up to Paul or Moses, or Bunyan or Spurgeon, or Jesus, and ask what time it was. I felt his hand faintly squeeze mine, and he smiled.
Then a strange thing happened. His bewilderment disappeared; he seemed to relax, and a look of profound peace came over him. As he to struggled to speak, what came from his lips were words of gratitude and praise. “So blessed,” he repeated several times.
A day or two later, his final word was “oxygen,” and then he died. I’ll admit, at first I felt let down that his final word was just “oxygen,” and I ached that he had had to suffer so much. Then, as a balm to my grief in the days after he died, it occurred to me how similar my Lord’s dying words were: “I thirst.”
Heaven means dying
Talk of heaven used to make me pretty uncomfortable. Read a passage like the last chapter of the Bible and it all sounds overwhelmingly wonderful, beyond imagining, thrilling beyond words. Still, for most young men, the nagging uneasiness persists. Sit by your father’s bedside as he calls for oxygen and then dies, and there’s good reason for the uneasiness.
I remember avoiding deep conversation with my parents about heaven and longings to go there that from time to time flickered on my affections; I was afraid that if I told them my warmest thoughts about heaven, those words would become self-fulfilling premonitions, and they would be retelling them at my funeral a few days later.
And there’s the clincher. It wasn’t heaven I had the aversion to; it was what I had to pass through to get there that made me uneasy. Columnist George F. Will tells the story of a cleric, who, when “asked how one might come to understand the Church’s teaching on Heaven and Hell, answered succinctly: ‘Die.’” There’s the rub. It was dying that made me try to suppress thoughts of heaven, and dying makes a young man rather uneasy. Check that. It makes most young men nothing short of terrified. Thus, as a teenager, I pushed thoughts of dying—and of heaven--as far into the future as I could, so far that for long stretches I deluded myself into thinking it would never happen at all.
I did this, and you do this, for a reason. Today, young men are usually healthy, full of life, strong, ambitious. You may even feel invincible and imagine that you contain the world, that you will always be “in the pink,” as Edwardian English gentlemen glibly called it.
But if you lived in any other century than you do, or in any other part of the world than you do, you would not be so inclined to think this way. One hundred years ago the average man lived to be only forty-eight years old, and one out of ten babies died before they were a year old. Go further back in history and mortality rates soared higher still. Saintly Samuel Rutherford lost six children and his wife before his own death in 1661.
Or review the rare Huguenot church records from Rouen after a wave of le contagion swept through the congregation. Imagine the grief and anguish of Louise Simon when her husband Guillaume died and was buried October 22, 1635. Three days later, still reeling from her loss, she must bury her daughter Marion, and three days after that she must bury her ten-year-old daughter Jeanne and on the same day her eighteen-year-old, Elizabeth. The rough wind still blew. Not four days later she would bury yet another daughter, Marguerite.
Life was filled with pain and loss in those days, and so it is for many Christians today who suffer disease and persecution. But admit it. All this is galaxies away from your life and experience. Read the history; watch the news reports of suffering around the globe--none of it really sinks in.
Heaven on earth
Most young men are full of energy, curiosity, and enthusiasm. You have friends and sports, and most of you have prosperity and lots of toys that contribute to the delusion. You might even be tempted to ask, “How much better can heaven be than all this?” The pleasures of life lie all about you. The familiar things are so full of delight that it’s, frankly, difficult to imagine misery, pain, and loss, the constant reminders of reality in virtually all other worlds except yours. And when you’ve got it all it’s a simple matter to delude yourself into thinking that the good life will last forever.
In the most famous American Puritan sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, preached July 8, 1741, at second meeting house in Enfield, Connecticut, Jonathan Edwards said that “the children of men miserably delude themselves in confidence in their own strength and wisdom; they trust to nothing but shadow.”
Thanks to good things like modern medicine and free market economics, the delusion is potent. Unlike in Edwards’ time, today young men rarely if ever see sick and dying people. We are surrounded by so much prosperity and pleasure that it’s finally difficult to convince ourselves that heaven could be any better.
Life has many foretastes of heaven—even for many unbelievers. But for the Christian, life lived in obedience to God in this world yields rich foretastes of eternal joy in heaven. Puritan preacher and Westminster divine, Joseph Caryl, observed in 1653 that “All saints shall enjoy a heaven when they leave this earth; some saints enjoy a heaven while they are here on earth.” But the danger comes when we grow content with the mere foretastes and begin thinking that joy now is everything. Worse yet, we begin to imagine that money and temporal pleasures are what bring the foretastes. Think that way and it only takes a nudge before you care nothing for heaven. You’ve come full circle and are back to seeking heaven in earthly things. It’s a fruitless search.
One of the problems with earthly pleasures is that they are fleeting. “It was heavenly while it lasted,” we say of a walk on the beach at sunset, or a sail in the moonlight, or a plate of Panang curry, or a bowl of favorite ice cream. You name it. The highest pleasure you can find in this life does not last. It’s over in a flash.
But not so with heavenly pleasures. “You will fill me with joy in your presence,” wrote David in Psalm 16:11, “with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” Eternal pleasures—that means that they will last and never fade in intensity, that they will never cease to give you the excitement and thrill, or the peaceful relaxation, or the accelerating flood of experience that literally takes your breath away.
See through the shadows
Nevertheless, it is in our nature to pitch our hopes on what we can see, on the familiar things that gratify us now, and in so doing to pitch our hopes on earth. So how do we make our way through the shadows?
Puritan preacher, Richard Baxter faced the same question in his parish in Kidderminster and wrote of it in his most enduring book Saints’ Everlasting Rest.
Come to a man who hath the world at will and tell him, ‘This is not your happiness; you have higher things to look after,’ and how little will he regard you! But when affliction comes, it speaks convincingly, and will be heard when preachers cannot. What warm, affectionate, eager thoughts we have of the world till affliction cool them and moderate them! How few and cold would our thoughts of heaven be, how little should we care for coming thither, if God would give us rest on earth! When the world is worth nothing, then heaven is worth something.
To see clearly here, you and I need to reconnect ourselves with the realities of sickness and death. We need our comfortable thoughts of the world and its pleasures cooled by facing the reality of sin-induced affliction in our fallen world. Then and only then will we be disposed to see and value heaven in proportion to its deserts.
While writing this chapter, I was called out in the night to go to the bedside of an eighty-six-year-old member of our congregation, Frank Starr, a World War II combat veteran who fought with the 82nd Airborne. His dear wife called to say that he was not doing well, that he was in Intensive Care at the Veterans hospital in Seattle, Washington and that the hospital had sent a cab for her. She asked if I would come. The doctor did not sound hopeful. “The CAT scan shows that his lungs are full of clots,” he said. “At any moment one of those could dislodge. He is a very sick man.”
Surprised that he was breathing so easily, I leaned over him. “How are you, Frank?” I asked. With a twinkle in his eyes, he replied as he had for many years, “Pretty good for a no-good.” And then I said, as I had replied to him many times, that I knew someone who made it his business to make no-goods good. “Thank you, Jesus,” he replied softly.
The doctor, accustomed to being around dying people, kept commenting on how peaceful Frank was--when the CAT scan looked so grim. Impressive as it is, medical technology is really pretty limited. Things like peace with God, heaven just across the river, eternal pleasures at God’s right hand for evermore—none of that registers well on a CAT scan.
Seeing this dear old man hoping in Christ and longing for heaven as he lay afflicted and dying helped me to value heaven more and earth less. The same will be true for you. “Illness sanctified is better than health,” observed poet William Cowper. Like Baxter, Cowper understood that affliction, rightly understood, will turn the Christian from deluded contentment with the partial things of this life to wonder and longing for the fullness of heaven—the death of death, eternal joys, pleasures forevermore.
Many things in a fallen world are counterintuitive. The young man who will have real joy and satisfaction in this life never gets it by striving after earthly things. He must set his face toward the Celestial City, toward heaven. “Aim at Heaven and you get earth thrown in,” wrote C. S. Lewis. “Aim at earth and you get neither.”
A wise young man--in spite of vigorous health, strength, and a lifetime of opportunity and privilege before him--sets his affections on things above and lays up treasures in heaven, treasures that can never be taken away, that never fade or rust or betray, and that satisfy now and forever. Set your sights on earthly pleasures and you’ll consume your life in the futile pursuit of rainbows—but never find a single one.
A thoughtful young man must begin early cultivating a clear sight of heaven. This demands that you unmask the familiar things that cloud your vision. You must grow up in faith and be a man in order to set your sights on heaven, and then you must order your life with a view to getting there, whatever the cost.
The fundamental problem for most young men is that they set their sights only on what they can see right now. They imagine that health and prosperity will last forever, that their lungs will never be full of blood clots, that only other people get cancer, that old people die, that life now is as good as heaven. Brace yourself like a man. Unmask the delusion. Expose the fraud. It’s all a lie. Stop believing it!
Speak to yourself like Bunyan’s Mr. Standfast as he faced dying and the Celestial City just beyond.
The thoughts of what I am going to, and of the conduct that waits for me on the other side, doth lie as a glowing coal at my heart. I see myself now at the end of my journey; my toilsome days are ended. I am going now to see that head that was crowned with thorns, and that face which was spit upon for me. I have formerly lived by hearsay and faith: but now I go where I shall live by sight, and shall be with Him in whose company I delight myself.
Do you delight yourself in the company of Jesus? Do you practice the spiritual disciplines that put you in the company of Jesus: daily prayer, Bible reading and meditation, heartfelt and manly singing of praise to God, fellowship and godly conversation? Heaven will be eternal pleasure because you will be in the company of King Jesus. Practice the presence of Christ in your daily life, in your entertainments, in your friendships, and you will be fitting yourself for heaven.
Be ruthless with entertainments that focus your sights on the easy-come, easy-go frivolities that pass for pleasure in this life. Cut off the music or movies or friends that support the delusion that you need to live for the immediate gratification found in worldly things. An important way to do this is to take your stand with friends like Mr. Standfast—and hold fast with them to the end. The Bible is full of such men—Joshua, Job, Peter, Paul--and so is Church history.
December 22, 1666, after a month of prison and torture, young Covenanter preacher Hugh M’Kail, flanked by the king’s soldiers, staggered through the gray streets of Edinburgh. M’Kail had been arrested and condemned to death for complicity in the Battle of Rullion Green, a well-intentioned but disastrous stand taken by farmers in defense of “the Crown rights of the Redeemer in his Kirk.” Few among them were trained soldiers, and only a handful carried muskets or basket-hilt claymores. It all began in Galloway when a handful of farmers attempted to defend an old man against the unjust brutalities of the king’s dragoons. M’Kail had joined the Pentland Rising, as the king’s Privy Counsel called it, as chaplain and preacher.
Now the pale young minister paused at the foot of the scaffold, and after declaring that he’d seen in his condemnation, “a clear ray of the majesty of the Lord,” he sang the thirty-first Psalm. His body racked with pain from weeks of torture, he mounted the first step of the scaffold and said, “I care no more to go up this ladder, and over it, than if I were going to my father’s house.” At the next agonizing step he paused, “Every step is a degree nearer heaven.”
When he finally reached the top, he took out his Bible and read from the last chapter. “And he showed me a pure river of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb…” After encouraging the faithful, he prayed:
“Now I leave off to speak any more to creatures, and turn my speech to thee, O Lord. Now I begin a conversation with God, which shall never be broken off. Farewell, father and mother, friends and relations! Farewell, the world and all delights! Farewell, meat and drink! Farewell, sun, moon and stars!”
A hush fell over the crowds; even the king’s dragoons were silent, and the fervent young man’s prayer was not drowned out by drum rolling. M’Kail continued.
“Welcome, God and Father! Welcome, sweet Lord Jesus, Mediator of the New Covenant! Welcome, blessed Spirit of grace, God of all consolation! Welcome, glory! Welcome, eternal life--!”
His prayer was cut off as the hangman tightened the noose around his neck. Hugh M’Kail’s confidence at the gallows reminds me of renowned Bible commentator Matthew Henry’s statement, “He whose head is in heaven need not fear to put his feet into the grave.”
All this is what the Puritans called dying grace, but you don’t get it by setting your sights on earth. You prepare to die well, like a man, by “setting your affections on things above,” by cultivating a love and longing for heaven. Only then are you prepared to live your life to the hilt and to die hoping confidently in Christ, as M’Kail did.
Live life aiming at glory, as my great grandfather did, and you will get bits of heaven now--and eternal pleasures forever after. “For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our confidence firm to the end” (Hebrews 3:14).
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