In the stillness of this time and place, we lift our hurting hearts to You, O God. Thank You for life, and specifically the life of the one we celebrate today, and for allowing these family members and friends to share life with them. Thank You for the assurance that we who are believers, will once again share life with them in Your eternal heaven (John 14:1-3). Thank You for the gift of memory which will allow a continuation of thoughts about them for the next days, weeks, years. Relieve our broken hearts. Comfort our sorrow. Especially comfort the family, today, tomorrow, next week, next month, and every time they miss their loved one. Increase our faith in the unseen and the unknown. Even with the remains before us, we look up, for we know they is no longer here. They are absent from this body and already present with You (2 Corinthians 5:8). Remind us all that there is more to life than dying, and more to death than the grave. For that we say, hallelujah and Amen.
I was fortunate to spend my life adjacent to a University campus, there I sat and, there I served. Some said I was just a building – bricks and wood, paint and tiles, carpet and paneling, but I knew I was more. Many a Freshman entered my doors with anxious expressions, and many a Senior walked out with high expectations. They came and they went, generations of them, and then they brought their children back to see me. I hosted their gatherings – worship, Bible Study, and fellowship. They called me a Center, but I was also a safe-haven, a refuge, a still spot in the midst of an academic storm, a place to hide, to rest, to reflect. Some met life-long friends inside my walls, and others met the love-of-their-life. I’ve heard much laughter, watched a few tears, reflected on a few deep theological thoughts, shared lots of love. I’ve been privileged to observe spiritual growth, sometimes is the midst of pain. I’ve seen students struggle with truth and watched them win the fight. Sadly, I remember a few who lost, who gave in to false hope, who surrendered to ungodly pursuits. It’s been a good life, but now they’ve locked my doors for the last time. The demolition crew is on the way. Soon I will feel the wrecking ball. Oh, my stained- glass window will be saved for my successor, and some of my bricks will find their way to the homes and offices of my students, to serve as a reminder of our time together. But my time is over. You might say, I’ve graduated. Then again, you might say, “I have finished my course, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). But don’t say, I was just a building.
(Written on the occasion of the demolition of the Baptist Student Center at the University of Texas where this writer served for six years as Director. A new, larger facility will be constructed on the same site.)
Some have attempted to describe the outward appearance of a member of the opposite sex only to find themselves in trouble. I wonder if that can be done without trouble. We shall see. How often do you hear someone described as beautiful on the inside and the outside? Probably not every often. The advertising world knows that we don’t often look at the inside, thus products are sold with the macho man, the shapely woman, or the young, attractive, perfect-looking family. When a teen-age boy sticks his elbow into the side of another, it is most-likely the universal, and ancient indication of the outward beauty of a nearby teen-age girl. And when teen-age girls giggle, it might be because of an attractive boy passing by. But early-on we were encouraged to look past the outward. “Beauty is only skin deep” they told us, to which we responded, “Yes, but ugly cuts all the way to the bone.” Hard to convince, we were also told never to judge a book by its cover, not referring to our reading choices. And there was the age-old description of one who was lacking in outer appearance – “But they have a great personality.” Can we overcome this preference to the outward appearance, or is it normal? We were created to have preferences in every area of life, from food choices, to vehicle selections, to wearing apparel. Perhaps the answer is in our ever-challenging goal of being more spiritual. After all, as God instructed Samuel, “The Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7) and as Paul asked the believers in Corinth before teaching them otherwise, “Do you look at things according to the outward appearance” (2 Corinthians 10:7)? Unfortunately, in answer to Paul’s question, we do, but we’d rather not. Lord, help us all!
One of the ways I am processing the unexpected death of my brother is by remembering the fun times of our youth. The memory verse at one year’s Vacation Bible School was Ephesians 4:32, “Be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you (KJV),” and Bob had committed it to memory from the King James Version of the Bible – which is mostly what we had back then. There were a few other translations, but our Southern Baptist leaders assured us that all the others were liberal. Being ten years older, I became very good at harassing Bob. In fact, I “bullied” him (in an older brother kind of way) before bullying was so much in the news. Following this VBS experience, Bob had a come-back for all my bullying attempts. On every occasion, Bob would respond with, “Be ye kind!” Obviously, his new favorite verse, was not very popular with me. A more mature look at the verse shows me that there are three things Paul wants his readers to “be.” We are to be “kind” or gentle. One of those “liberal” translations calls this benign courtesy. We are to be “tenderhearted” or compassionate, feeling warm sympathy toward others, especially if they have been hurt in some way. Finally, we are to be “forgiving,” which is the natural result of being “kind” and “tenderhearted.” As if this were not enough, Paul then holds up Christ as the example for this kind of attitude and action. Without knowing it, Bob had discovered an antidote for bullying, a lesson it would take me a few years to learn. Try kindness this week.
In the past three months, I have grieved for two groups of people. First in April, when my brother Bob had unexpected multiple bypass surgery then his recovery then the past three weeks with his accidental fall, suffering blunt force trauma to the brain – then having brain surgery, and spending time in the Palliative Care Unit dying – and then having his memorial service, I have observed two groups of folks who differed from Bob’s family and friends, in the way they grieved. One group seemed to grieve amiss – not quite right, in a mistaken way, improperly. Bob’s group sang, prayed, shared Bob stories, laughed, and grieved – but not as those in the other groups. One group seemed to lack a faith-system that provided, “Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.” From outside their hospital rooms, one could hear loud weeping and refusal to let go of a loved-one. There seemed to be no hope for reunion, nor any comfort in the belief of a heavenly home for the soon-to-be-deceased. Then another group, while seemingly believers, were trying to make it through the difficult days by themselves, while Bob’s group was daily sustained by a rather large group of praying folks. To enter crisis, and possible death of a loved one without faith in God, is sad to observe. While not quite as sad, is observance of those who have no prayer support team interceding for them and undergirding them. I have grieved for both groups – folks who grieve amiss! The Psalmist says, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints (Psalm 116:15). Since that is true, should we not seek to lead all to be “saints” and then pray for them all the way to their “death?”
For sixty-six years and nine months I had a younger brother, my only sibling. To be ten years apart, and for most of our lives, separated by hundreds of miles, we were extremely close. We talked often, and in recent years communicated by e-mail and text messaging. We both spoke at our mother’s funeral in 1996. We both spoke again at our father’s funeral in 2002. Following the second funeral, I jokingly said to him. “In the next funeral, you’re on your on” and we laughed. After all, at ten years his senior, I should be the next to go. Last week, that joke ceased to be so funny. We gathered around his hospital bed and the nurses removed all the tubes and disconnected all the machines. With a career in Southern Gospel music, (where he picked-up the nickname “Breakfast Bob”) his hospital visitors were many. If I live to be 100, I think I shall never forget the moment when Tonya Goodman Sykes and Tony Gore stood beside my brother’s hospital bed and sang, “I will meet you in the morning just inside the Eastern Gate…” We accompanied him as far as we could, then released him at the Gate to the Lord who loved him even more than we did; the Lord whom Bob loved, trusted, and served. He will be missed by many, but our sense of loss is overcome when we think of the reunion that is on-going in heaven. “Then be ready, faithful pilgrim, lest with you it be too late…What a blessed, happy meeting just inside the Eastern Gate!” We haven’t lost him. We know exactly where he is, The Bible assures believers that “to be absent from the body” . . . is to “be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). We grieve and sorrow at his loss, but we do not “sorrow as others who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Even though we grieve due to our loss, Bob is not grieving today. He now resides in a heaven where there is one eternal day. Twice in the Book of Revelation, we are told there will be “No night there” (Revelation 21:25l 22:5). So, as far as Bob is concerned, the separation will be brief, and we will be joining him later on today. That is our blessed hope, and our blessed assurance. “Watching and waiting, looking above, filled with His goodness, lost in His love.”
Heaven is often pictured as having pearly gates at the entrance and upon arrival there, one must enter the gates. Indeed the Bible describes it as such, “twelve gates were twelve pearls: each individual gate was of one pearl” (Revelation 21:21). What happens when a person arrives at the gates of heaven and they are not opened? Are the angels in charge of gates, on vacation? Is it possible to arrive during an angelic shift change? Could one arrive before their heavenly dwelling place was ready for them to occupy. (John 14:2). Such may have been the case with my brother, Bob (affectionately known in the Gospel Music world as “Breakfast Bob”). Two months ago, he was preparing for knee replacement surgery, when tests revealed multiple heart valves clogged. Heart surgery was scheduled. Due to his age and weight, plus the degree of blockage, there was some concern by the medical staff that he might not survive the surgery. So strong was this belief, that Bob scheduled a meeting with his Pastor to discuss funeral details, set out to write his own obituary, and called me to be present during the surgery (even though we live several hundred miles apart). Bob not only survived the surgery, but was doing exceptionally well in his recovery. Someone joked by saying, “I guess his heavenly mansion wasn’t ready yet.” Then last week, while he was walking with his dog, Bob took a nasty fall, landing on concrete, face-first. Surgery was scheduled with the Surgeon saying there was a chance he would not make it through the night. He did. In the days following, he was upgraded to a 50/50 chance of survival, before being downgraded again. Then the decision was made to remove all the tubes, and turn off all the machines. Once again, I was called to be present. It was not an easy experience. Musical friends sang songs about heaven at the bedside. Others came by to bid Bob good-bye. However, as of this writing, Bob is still with us. He is not alert. He is no longer squeezing our hand or opening his eyes, but he is alive. He is breathing on his own, without difficulty. His heart is healthy. His pulse is strong. He may well leave us today, but we have repeatedly sung and talked him all the way to heaven, only to wait with him at the gate. Sometimes, it is just not yet time.
Because I fly many miles, I occasionally get an upgrade to first class. Such was the case last week on both outbound and return flights. Because it was a birthday trip for my wife, I switched seats with her, allowing her to sit in first class, while I took her seat in the coach area of the airplane. Seeing empty seats in first class, Joanne asked the flight attendant if I could come up and sit by her. Stephanie came to my coach seat and politely asked if I would like to join my wife in first class. Her positive attitude and willingness to accommodate made for a wonderful three-hour flight. Surprisingly, I was also upgraded to first class on the return flight. Once again, I switched seats with my wife, allowing her to sit in first class. With an empty seat next to her, my wife, again asked if I could be moved up to sit with her. This time the flight attendant, Gineska, was so rude in telling my wife that I could not move up, that Joanne spent much of the flight crying. Furthermore, Gineska, came to my coach seat to inform me that our switch was against all rules, since this was an international flight, and in addition, she had “written up” our seat switch, and reported it to the Captain. Since she had made my wife cry, I was told I could go to first class just long enough to console her, but I could not sit down beside her. I really wanted to visit with Gineska again to quote Ephesians 4:2 to her, “with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love” or at least quote Winston Churchill, “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.” We understand the need for rules, and appreciate the fact that rules were enforced. However, there is a proper, professional way to be an enforcer, and an improper, unprofessional way. One flight attendant made our day, another made our day miserable.
As much as we would like to change things, some things are just unchangeably real, and there’s not much we can do about it. To say that in a popular way, “It is what it is.” Jesus does not change. The writer of Hebrews proclaims, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Even while society changes, human nature does not change. Reality is real. Hanging on my wall as I grew through my teen-age years, was a plaque containing the words of American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, entitled “The Serenity Prayer” – “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” More recently, I have come across a line from American Author Byron Katie, “If you want reality to be different than it is, you might as well try to teach a cat to bark.” I have prayed Niebuhr’s prayer again this week and decided to cease trying to teach cats to bark. I have also asked God for wisdom to change the things I can.
I knew five men who served as President of my seminary – one while I was a student, three while I was on the faculty, and one who was Interim President between two Presidents. While they were very diverse, each had his strengths, and each made lasting contributions to the school. Each impacted the lives of future ministers. I considered each to be my friend. I learned from all of them. One took the first Chapel of each semester to welcome the new students and pronounce them, “Southwesterners . . . You’d rather die than dishonor the name!” He was so punctual that one day he went to the pulpit while a long-winded Chapel speaker was continuing past his time, put his arm around the man, and said, “Excuse me brother, but I’m going to go ahead and lead our closing prayer while you finish your sermon.” I loved him. He taught me to honor the clock. Another was loved by everyone on campus. He would enter the Auditorium from a side door, three minutes before the beginning of Chapel, index card in hand, shake hands with whoever was praying that day and be on the platform by the top of the hour, in time to begin. He modeled proper time management for me. Another President would enter the auditorium for Chapel from the back door, work his way down the aisle, shaking hands, speaking to everyone within sound range, calling some by name. He never applied to be President. When asked in the interview why he wanted to be President, he is reported to have replied, “I’m not sure I want to. You invited me. Why do you want me?” Love it. He taught me not to be afraid of honest answers. Still another President, entered the auditorium for Chapel from the back door, shaking hands with a few, calling fewer by name, some incorrectly (such as Dr. Don Crawford), taking the platform to be in charge, often commenting on the sermon, after the day’s preacher had finished. He was always gracious with me, even when we disagreed, which we did on several occasions. He taught me how to disagree without being disagreeable. One Interim President and I shared a three-office suite, only he took up two of the three, so as to have room for all his slides of the Holy Land, that he showed in class and in dozens of churches. I enjoyed watching students enter his office to discuss a bad grade on a test, likely made because they dropped their pen and missed getting a thousand years of history in their notes. Most came out weeping. They learned that while they were saved by grace, they had to pass by works. Even though we differed considerably in age, he taught me how to be a colleague. I’ve learned that one does not always get to choose with whom he works, but one can always work with respect and honor, whomever are his associates.