The Funeral I Most Dreaded

July 27, 2015

This morning I will preach my father-in-law's funeral. 

For 32 years of our marriage, I dreaded this terrible task because he was not a believer. He wanted no part of Christ or his gospel. We prayed for him, witnessed to him, sent others to talk to him, and five years ago even took him to Manaus, Brazil to go fishing for tucunaré (peacock bass), but with the real intention of sharing Christ on the entire trip. We colluded, cooperated and conspired for his soul. 

While in Manaus we attended the Nova Igreja Batista, where our close friends David and Pennie Hatcher serve and we stayed in their home. They and all the members of Nova became co-conspirators in our redemptive plot. 

I will never forget sitting on the front row of their massive sanctuary surrounded by thousands of bouncing Brazilians worshiping and praising their Savior, smiles beaming from their brown faces. Gene could only recognize one word that they sang over and over--Jesus. He looked at Tanya and said, "These people really believe what they are singing." She took the opportunity to drive home the point that He had changed their lives and that is why they sang so fervently. 

When we got back to Kentucky, our niece met us at the airport and drove her grandfather home. She later told us that he did not stop talking—about the church and about David and Pennie. The three days of fishing the Rio Uatumã or seeing freshwater dolphins, caiman, howler monkeys or any of the things that he went to Brazil to see did not even merit a mention. Instead he was fixated on the obvious deep, meaningful belief in the gospel now so evident to him in so many people. 

A few months later his body failed him. One night his legs refused to work for him anymore and he never walked again. Too big and with too many medical needs for any of us to care for at home, the man whose life was as big as the great outdoors suddenly found himself limited to the four walls of a single room and flat on his back in a nursing home. 

For the first four or five days we had to go through red tape to get him a television and, coupled with his near deafness, he had nothing to watch or hear when we weren't there. The strange providence of God had twisted and brought him into the last place on earth he wanted to be but precisely where he needed to be and there, in the silence of that room, God brought to his mind all the times someone had shared the gospel with him, the simple message that Jesus saves by grace through faith. The effect in the lives of his children and grandchildren and his deceased wife and so many others that he knew was undeniable. 

The next day Tanya and I came to see him and were amazed by his attitude. Frankly, we had anticipated that he would hate the nursing home and might be terribly uncooperative. Instead he was positive, focused, and met this challenge with the same spirit that helped him survive World War II. We were, to be candid, stunned. 

As we got up to leave, Gene put out his hand and said something strange to me. "Preach to me, Hershey." He had never said that before. I thought he was confused or that asking me to pray for him was so unusual that he just didn't know how to do it. In 32 years, until this episode, he had never asked me to pray for him or with him about anything. A few days earlier he had held out his hand and said, "Say some good words for me," and I had taken that to mean pray for him and I had. Now I was trying to interpret, "Preach to me" and thought surely he meant for me to pray. 

So Tanya took one hand and I the other, and I prayed. I asked God to strengthen and heal him according to His will, but then I prayed for God to save him. I begged God to help him see that Jesus was the only way. I told God that Gene had had his way for far too long, and I pleaded with him to overwhelm him with His love and to overrule his stubborn heart and grant him repentance and faith in Christ alone. 

When I said, "Amen,” Gene patted my hand and looked me in the eye and said, “I've done that.” Tanya and I shot each other a skeptical and confused glance, both of us worried that he might say such a thing too lightly--though he certainly never had before. “What?” I asked. “I've done that!” “You're telling me that you have repented of your sins and you are trusting in Christ alone for eternal life?” “Yes,” he answered. "I have.” “Now, Gene,” I pleaded, “I really need to be sure about this because more than anything I want to spend eternity with you.” “Well you will,” he said, “because I have done that.” 

I wish I could tell you how sweet these last three years of his life have been, even in difficult circumstances none of us would ever choose. We saw God's grace at work in his life even as it had a profound effect on us as well. So today, I am not preaching the funeral I dreaded. I am preaching the funeral that I could preach for a Rahab, or a Ruth, or the thief on the cross. It's the story of redemption, of God's love extended to one whom many thought beyond His reach. It's the story of the five o'clock worker who gets the same reward as the one who's labored since dawn. It's the story of grace. It's the story of Jesus.

Marriage and the Gospel

When we volunteered to help a couple in our church move, the wife looked appreciative, but a bit worried. “I need to tell you,” she said in a low tone as she leaned forward, “My sister, Debi, will be there helping us, too, and she’s a ... a stripper.”

“Well,” Tanya answered with a laugh, “she’s not going to practice while we’re loading the truck, will she?” Assuring her that we would be fine and that we actually looked forward to meeting her sister, she seemed relieved.

On the day of the move we were delighted to meet Debi and were struck by two things about her: how ordinary she seemed and what a hard worker she was. Still, I could only imagine how she viewed men, and I took care that day to stay very connected to Tanya, especially in front of her. Little touches, light banter, an occasional peck on the cheek as she passed me with a box filled with sweaters.

When we stopped for a quick lunch, Debi was observing us closely. We talked with our friends about church and about what God was doing there, she asked a few questions about how we met and how long we had been together, but mostly we were just ourselves and enjoyed each other’s company. We finished the move, invited her to visit our church sometime, and said a warm goodbye as we held hands and walked to our car.

A week later our friend called to say thank you for helping them move, but she said, “I really called to tell you some incredible news. My sister, Debi, was completely blown away by your relationship. This past week several times she would ask me if you guys are for real and finally she asked me what made the difference in your marriage. What do you have that makes you love each other like that? I saw my opportunity to tell her that it’s Jesus that makes the difference in your lives and I shared the gospel with her and she has trusted Christ!”

That happened more than 20 years ago, but some variation of that story has happened many times in our 34-year marriage. In fact, without question, our relationship is the greatest evangelism tool we have. On a beach, at a restaurant, on a plane, in a mall, it just happens. People notice that we are in love, that we cherish and adore one another and they’ll start a conversation about it. Eventually they get to the question: “What is your secret?”

One time I was on the phone with an airline ticket agent when the airline’s computer system went down. Apologizing profusely, she described the situation and suggested that I might want to call back later because she didn’t know how long it would be before things were working again. I told her that I didn’t mind waiting. “In fact,” I explained, “if this is the biggest problem I have today this is a great day.”

“Wow. You sure are a positive person,” she responded.

“Well, my wife is the world’s most upbeat person and she won’t let me complain much! I’ve got the greatest wife in the world, and I’ve really got no excuse to be down. We’ve been married [at that time] 18 years and I love her more today than I did the day we got married. She is fantastic.”

“Sir,” she said, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody married that long talk about his wife like that. May I ask you a question? What is the secret to a great relationship like that?”

“You don’t really want me to tell you that,” I teased.

“Yes, yes, I really do, “she pleaded. “You see, I’m recently divorced, and if I ever get married again, that’s the kind of relationship I want. So really, what’s your secret?”

“Well, if you really want me to tell you - we both have the same core value. You see, you can come from different backgrounds, be from different ethnic groups, or have almost any other difference, but if you don’t agree on the core value - the one thing in life that is more important than anything else, the one thing that matters most - then your marriage won’t be very happy. We both have the same core value that we pour our lives into and in that shared significance we find a joy in one another that we could not have any other way.”

I did not have to wait long for the question I knew she would ask: “Well, what’s your core value?”

“Oh, you don’t want me to tell you that!” I joked.

“Yes, yes, I do,” she answered. “What is the one thing that both of you find more important than anything else?”

“Okay,” I answered, “you asked. We both are followers of Jesus Christ and he is Lord of our lives. We have found that by putting him in first place we love each other much more in second place than if we put one another in first place and put him in second place. Does that make sense?”

“Oh, it really does,” she said emphatically. “You see, I am Jewish, and since my divorce a friend of mine has been taking me with her to this Bible church, and listening to the sermons it has made me ask if Jesus is my Messiah. Do you think Jesus is my Messiah?”

“You don’t want me to answer that!”

“Yes, I do. Is he my Messiah?”

“Let me read you something,” I said, turning in my Bible to Isaiah 53, slowly and deliberately reading her the words that foretold of Jesus, and in just a few moments we prayed together on the phone as she repented of her sins and accepted Christ as Lord. After talking with her about discipleship and baptism, I told her of a church near her where she could be baptized and serve and she was excited to begin her new life as a follower of Christ.

Just as I finished she said, “Hey, the computers just came back online.”

“Imagine that,” I said.

If marriage is a picture of Christ and his love for his church, then much more is at stake than my happiness. The world should long for what Christians have. If our marriages aren’t filled with kindness and joy, why would anyone want what we offer? But when they see in us a mutual delight, a gentle and easy trust in one another, they can’t help but ask, “What’s your secret?” And we can tell them that it’s no secret at all. It’s Jesus.