In Memoriam (16 May 2004)

Lay down your sweet and weary head…

Two weekends ago, my friend Jeff Williams was in a major automobile accident during a thunderstorm, his injuries placing him at the Brackenridge Trauma Center in a coma. When I found out about the accident from another friend, he informed me that Jeff’s prognosis was bleak.

I met Jeff when he was referred to a small group for graduate students I was involved with last fall. Jeff was finishing up a Counseling degree at St. Edwards University, had recently recommitted his life to Christ, and like many guys in their twenties, was looking for fellowship with other Christian men. Jeff worked at a nearby childrens’ hospital, where he counseled emotionally disturbed kids. I never saw him work, but I cannot imagine Jeff being anything less than brilliant at this – God blessed him with a sweet affect and gentle spirit, which were evident within 10 minutes of meeting him. Jeff was generous too – when we went out to eat after our meeting that night, he spontaneously picked up our tab.

Though I only knew Jeff for a short time, we got to be pretty good friends. In our small group last fall (which also included three guys named “Matt”), we discussed many things - our common work/school difficulties, our relationships, our struggles with sin, and our issues of faith. We shared our deepest problems, prayed for one another, and enjoyed an measure of what Scripture would call “fellowship in the Spirit.” I remember that Jeff sat next to me when I organized a large group from Hope Student Life to go see The Return of the King last December, and that, in a group of about 25 people he didn’t know, he charmed everyone pretty quickly. Like everyone else there, he loved the movie, but I think he loved the fellowship with all the new people that night more. This was fitting – Tolkien’s epic tale valued fellowship at its very core.

I didn’t see Jeff much during the spring semester – his schedule conflicted with the small group, and our respective hectic schedules and opposing ends of town made it difficult for us to meet for lunch. We did talk a few times over the phone, and maintained our friendship at some level that way. I gave Jeff a copy of The Ragamuffin Gospel, an excellent treatise by Brennan Manning about the grace of God, and we spent much of our phone time discussing the message of this book – that God does not love us because we are virtuous or lovable, but because He chose to, even giving His Own Son for us when we were still sinners, and that we should respond by trusting Him humbly, assessing ourselves honestly, and by living and loving as He enables us to. It was a message that crystallized all we had discussed in the fall.

I last talked to Jeff near the end of March. At the end of April, he lay in a hospital bed clinging to life.

Night is falling, you have come to journey’s end…

On 02 May 2004, Jeffrey Ryan Williams passed on into eternity at the age of twenty-eight, surrounded by friends and family. He was survived by an 8-year-old daughter, Brianna Hope, that he loved very much, and numerous family and friends. One particularly striking line from the Obit – “He loved his life and in his death, became a giver of life by donating his major organs to five recipients.”

Sleep now, and dream of the ones that came before;
For they are calling, from across a distant shore…

Jeff’s family has experienced overwhelming heartbreak this last year. Jeff attended a couple of memorial services last fall for loved ones in his extended family, and with the loss of Jeff, I know the Williams family needs the Lord to comfort them beyond all understanding. If you read this, please take a moment and pray for them…

Why do you weep? What are these tears upon your face?...

I was listening to a recording of Rich Mullins, a musician and blessed ragamuffin, speaking about how death affects the living. To paraphrase, Mullins said that when we weep for the departed, we weep not so much for them, as each and all will die eventually, but we instead weep for us, because whatever we experienced through that departed person is now gone. In Rich’s case, these words were especially poignant – he himself had just departed this world in an automobile accident. That Rich addressed his own mortality explicitly in much of his music and prose gave all of us who followed him reason to pause and think of our own.

God created each of us to offer something special to this world and the people in it, and when we go, the specialness goes with us, leaving voids in the hearts of those left here. Jeff possessed exceptional specialness, an inkling of which I’ve chronicled here. Even as I write this, my heart sinks, my eyes tear up, and I am sad, for I know my friend is gone.

Soon you will see; all of your fears will pass away…

For the departed, there is a freedom in finality. They no longer must cope with the legion difficulties of mortal life. No more paying bills. No more fighting traffic. No more awkward moments. No more broken relationships. No more laboring to atone for our mistakes. In sum, we are free from all our fears.

I think this is why some who know they face impending death, whether they be soldiers on a battlefield or terminal cancer patients, seem to experience an inexplicable peace in their final moments – they know it’ll be over soon, and that they need not worry anymore.

In a way, death can be a gift – it is an endpoint that can arrive at anytime, and when we realize this, we can either despair or appreciate each moment God grants us, even the unpleasant ones. The Master charges us to do the latter – “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? …Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.”

Say it from my arms – you’re only sleeping

C.S. Lewis stated it best when he said that we are not bodies that have souls – we are souls that have bodies. Though Jeff’s mortal body is dead, his soul most certainly lives on, and he has now embarked on the greater part of his life. He has passed on into eternity…

What’s that you see on the horizon?
Why do the white gulls call?

“Passed on into eternity…” – admittedly something of a cliché, and a euphemism for something conventionally thought of as unpleasant. Think about it for a little bit…

Eternity is big and scary. There is much uncertainty about what it will be like, even for those in the Christian church. Some worry that it will be a bore, or in the case of Christians, a neverending church service. Some struggle with the evils they’ve committed, and expect an eternity in hell. Atheists and naturalists see no physical evidence for an afterlife, and feel that life ends as soon as the electrical impulses in our brains do. Eastern religions testify about reincarnation based on the actions taken in this life. The Apostle Paul says “We know in part, and we prophesy in part; then we shall know in full.” It is obvious that, in our present state, there is much we don’t know. However…

Across the sea, a pale horizon;
The ships have come to carry you home.

…I contend that there is much we do know:

1. We are more than the sum of our parts. Electrical impulses and instincts supposedly developed through evolutionary processes do not explain the complexity of emotions and desires of humans, especially the desire to seek and know the nature of God. The writer of Ecclesiastes states that “Also,[God] has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” Put very simply, this “eternity into man’s heart” equates to a soul.

2. Our mortal lives are a one-shot deal, and our ability to affect this world ends with life. Though it would be nice if we could live our lives over and get things right, our collective clockwork consistency in screwing things up and creating misery and destruction suggests that we’re all doing this for the first time, and that none of us possess any useful experience coming into this life. If we’re all doing this for this first time at this late juncture in human history, we are likely doing this for the last time as well. As stated before, a person’s ability to affect this world ends with their mortal life. The departed are at best relegated to spectators. Otherwise, we’d be hearing more Mozart piano sonatas, would find ourselved bemused my more writings from Twain, and would still have need to fear Hitler and Stalin.

3. Those who die must answer to God for their actions. Each of us, no matter what our religious upbringing, retains some sense of right and wrong, a Moral Compass intrinsic to our natures. I believe that this Moral Compass was placed there by God, as a sort of Jiminy Cricket on our shoulder to guide us to act right and do good. I doubt that any of us would deny that we have such Moral Compass, and I also doubt that any of us would then deny that we have at one time or another acted contrary to it. That is, all of us have acted contrary our God-given sense of right and wrong. Assuming that we will meet God face-to-face (and according to Paul, we will), it stands to reason that we will need to give some account to God for how we acted. John’s harrowing account near the end of Revelation suggests that this will be the case...

And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done.

4. “We have reason to be uneasy”. If God took lightly to Sin, our occasional missteps would not constitute much of a concern. Unfortunately for us, this is not the case. Citing Old Testament Scripture, Paul states that “The wages of sin is death.” The Old Testament portrays God as a passionate lover, continually pining for Israel’s affections, but also jealous for His right to divine honor, and serious as a heart attack when it comes to Sin, so much so that he demands a meticulously-performed sacrifice for the atonement of it. If we acted contrary to our Moral Compass, we have opposed God, and to quote C.S. Lewis (who makes this case far more eloquently in the first few chapters of Mere Christianity), “We have reason to be uneasy.”

5. Jesus Christ stepped in as the Sacrifice for our Sin, rendering our debt to God “Paid in Full.” God’s Covenant with Israel was founded under the Law, a set of rules that, if obeyed, would lead to fellowship with God and prosperity as a nation. The Law, though perfect, was weak in one aspect – to benefit Israel, it depended on their obedience. As the Old Testament illustrates throughout, Israel disobeyed repeatedly, was chastened and conquered repeatedly, repented before God repeatedly, and repeatedly God restored them. God promised a Messiah-servant through the Prophets who would bring healing and forgiveness, and delivered in full by sending his Son, a part of Himself, to become a man, and to be the Sacrifice for our sins. Jesus died in our place, and paid the debt our sin created with God in full, making a simpler and better road to fellowship with God.

6. Those who trust in Jesus Christ as their Savior will have eternal life in their true home. Faith is more than simple belief in or mental assent to a series of Spiritual Truths. Faith is trusting your soul to Another, and trusting that His Sacrifice is enough to save you from your Sin and make a path to God. Faith, though it involves the head, is ultimately a matter of the heart. Even for intellectuals such as Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, and Stephen Hawking, I’m convinced that this is true. The complete scripture from Paul I mentioned above says “The wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Jesus said “Whoever accepts me accepts Him who sent me.” Jesus is our way to God. I think all of us have felt like wanderers far from home at some point, yearning for something better. For all, Home is with God the Father, and for those in Christ, we will find our way to that Home.

7. Those who deny Jesus Christ as their Savior will experience eternity in hell. From Revelation:

And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

This is our reason to be uneasy. If we don’t put our faith in Christ, we must be perfect to avoid hell, and that course is hopeless. Lest anyone think this a word of condemnation, let me say that this is where I (and everyone else) deserve to go, and it is where I would go bereft of my faith in Christ. Hell is a real possibility facing those who die, and should be a good motivation to put faith in Christ while the opportunity exists.

All this to come to this simple word of thankfulness – Jeff knew Jesus Christ, and trusted in Jesus Christ as his Savior. The ships have come to carry him Home. Therefore, wherever Jeff is right now, he is with Christ, and, as Gandalf would say, that is an encouraging thought.

And all will turn to silver glass…

The notion of eternity in heaven as a boring eternal church service must be more cultural than spiritual. While I believe that we will worship continually, it will be no drudgery, because living in the presence of an omnipotent God who personally loves us transcends the concept of, well, anything we could imagine. Infinity is a good place to start. So is Revelation 21:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away." And he who was seated on the throne said, "Behold, I am making all things new."

We see heaven as a place where decay and death no longer have power over us. All will be known, but I see no evidence of anyone taking offense at anything. All sins and offenses will be rendered moot and forgotten in the holy presence of God. Most importantly, we will live with God, and God himself will live with us, comforting us, and loving us to a level such that every definition ever formulated for the word “love” will prove a poor, pale representation of the Reality we will experience of Love then. No small wonder that so few words have been written of heaven – none will prove adequate to describe what awaits us. I will now mercifully stop trying.

A light on the waters;
Grey ships pass into the West.

Godspeed, Jeff. When my ship and my Lord bid me come, I’ll be along.

Words from “Into the West” by Annie Lennox, Fran Walsh, and Howard Shore, inspired by The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. All scripture references taken from the English Standard Version.


At 5:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey Nate, I am sorry that your friend passed away, but you really just presented it so right, it is not ours, but God's choice who stays and who leaves. Take care, ok? Natasha

At 11:34 PM, Blogger gabedozer said...

Amen, bless you hatah.


Post a Comment

<< Home