Ron is the founding pastor of a church in Harrisburg, PA, and a graduate of Denver Seminary in Colorado.
My wife and I had just gotten home after Bible Study. We were both in the kitchen when her cell phone rang. I could tell immediately that something had happened by the stunned expression that came upon her face. When she finished the call, she turned to me, still stunned, to tell me the news. Lou had passed away.
I was as astonished as she. Lou? No!
An Unexpected Death
Lou was a cheerful and vibrant 62-year old woman who had joined our church a little over a year before. She had quickly become an integral part of our congregation, not only forming warm friendships, but also joining our office team to lend her administrative skills to the church. A few months previously she had taken the lead role on that team, and became responsible for getting all our Admin tasks done on Sunday mornings.
Three Sundays prior to the night when we received that phone call Lou had come to church suffering with severe pain in her leg. Because of her strong sense of duty, she was committed to carrying out her administrative responsibilities. But she told us that due to the pain, she would have to go back home as soon as she completed her tasks.
Over the next two weeks the leg pain got no better, and Lou stayed home both from her job and from church. In our congregation we've set up the administrative process to allow workers to do some tasks from home rather than having to compress all the work into Sunday mornings after they get to church. Even though her pain was unabated, Lou faithfully did what she could from home. She prepared the bulletins each Sunday, and by the use of Dropbox, they were automatically made available to her replacement worker at church.
During those two weeks when Lou was unable to come to church because of the pain, my wife kept in touch with her by phone. As it became clear the pain was getting no better, she urged Lou to have the leg x-rayed, thinking there might be a hairline fracture that wasn't healing. But none of us had any idea that something life-threatening might be going on.
Then we got the call from Lou’s daughter. She had gone to her mom’s house to check on her, and found her dead.
It was very hard to believe. As we were preparing for bed my wife said to me, “I’m still processing this.”
“I am, too,” I told her. Neither of us slept very well.
Coping With a Sudden Death
Part of it, for me, is the sheer unexpectedness of what happened. As a pastor, I’ve ministered to a number of terminally ill people. It’s one thing to walk alongside someone through those final phases of life. But this is the first time I’ve been confronted with a death that was sudden and totally without warning. I simply wasn’t emotionally prepared for this.
All night I wrestled with the fact that Lou’s cheerful presence wouldn't be with us any more. I felt a great sense of loss. There was also a feeling of helplessness. I had, of course, prayed for Lou’s leg. But I hadn’t prayed for her life. And now, I couldn’t. There was no way I could minister to her any more. I wanted to do something for her, but there was nothing I could do.
Lou’s sudden death is a reminder of the fragility of life. The Bible teaches that tomorrow is not promised to us. We all know that, and accept it intellectually. But an event like this brings that truth home in a very personal way.
The Bible’s Promise for Those Who Die in Christ
As I lay in bed that night thinking about all these things, it was very natural for me to grab my Bible and turn to a passage that I think puts what happened in eternal perspective. Chapter 11 of the Gospel of John tells the story of Mary and Martha, whose brother Lazarus fell ill and died. During the illness, the two sisters had sent for their friend Jesus in the hope and belief that He could heal their brother. But Jesus did not arrive until after Lazarus’ death. Martha lamented to Jesus that if He had been there her brother would not have died. His reply to her forever robs death of all its power:
I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.
— Jesus (John 11:25-26)
Through Christ we are victorious over death!
Death Is Only a Transition, Not a Termination
I’m finding that for me, Lou’s sudden passing only reinforces the great truth Jesus shared with Martha. For the person who puts his or her trust in Christ, there is no such thing as death! There is only a transition from one mode of life to another. The apostle Paul said that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:6).
Yes, Lou’s body died, but she had no experience of death. Rather, she closed her eyes on earth, and opened them in the presence of the Lord. That’s what Jesus meant when He said, “whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.”
I remember what it was like when I was put under anesthesia for a minor medical procedure. One moment, I was lying there waiting for the procedure to begin. The next I was fully awake and discovered, to my surprise, that it was all over. There was no experience of “going under” and “waking up.” I didn't sense that transition when it occurred, and was not aware of becoming unconscious until I had already fully reawakened.
That, I believe, is what Jesus is telling us it's like for a believer when his or her body dies.
Lou’s passing has brought sadness that we'll no longer have this beautiful person among us. But what it has not done, at least for me, is raise fears or trepidation about my own mortality. In fact, by reminding me of what the Son of God has promised, it actually adds to my level of reassurance and peace. It has brought back to the forefront of my mind what I consider to be the greatest promise ever made:
“Whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.”
© 2013 Ronald E Franklin