Monday, May 30, 2016

A Candle Snuffed Out (What's Your Obituary? Part 3)

Three candles stood on the podium in the third grade Sunday School classroom—a long one, a medium sized one, and a short one. 

“Which candle is the youngest?” asked the teacher.

My eight-year-old hand shot up.  “The shortest,” I said confidently.

But then the teacher explained:  “The short candle has been burning a long time, but the tall candle is just beginning.  The short candle is actually the oldest.”

Sometimes the candle of life is snuffed out.  Abruptly.  Quickly.  Before we can make sense of it.

Having worked with teenagers and young people for many years, I have witnessed several tall candles that are now extinguished.  Each blown-out candle has reminded me of this fragile journey that is life and has forced me, ever so slowly, out of the comfort of daily existence, to live in the reality of something called Eternity.

For years, I’ve been part of door knocking efforts in our town, going out to share the Good News of Jesus.  From the time I was eight until well into my teens, I had the opportunity to ride alongside many young people whom I otherwise never would have met had I not spent my Saturdays “bus visiting” with my mom and others— offering area youngsters a free ride to Sunday School on our church’s big, white bus.

Our “bus ministry,” once a thriving venue that reached dozens of children in our small town and its neighboring communities, dwindled to a mere handful, so that by the time I was sixteen, there were only a few families riding weekly and, within a decade, only a few children rode to church—usually with other families from our congregation.

One summer, I was abruptly reminded that those to whom we ministered could depart from this earth at any time.  None of us ever knows when our last spiritual conversation with someone will be.  We’re not guaranteed that the needy kids we try to reach today will even live past their teens.

Early June on the farm brought boatloads of work.  Whether it was helping mow hay, sell at one of many farmers’ markets, or just spend time supervising my younger siblings with their chores, life was busy.  The phone rang at 7:00 one Monday evening.  It was a Dr. Brown from Chicago.

“It’s for you,” Dad had said, handing my sister the kitchen phone.

“Can you help him?” I heard my younger sister ask the doctor. 

Dr. Brown had assisted my sister a few years before when she had struggled with her own various health issues.   

“There’s nothing I can do,” the physician told her.  He added, “Rod’s kidneys are already beginning to shut down.  “The best thing you can do,” he said, “is help this boy prepare for death.  It’s a very spiritual matter.”

So Rod Schultz was dying.  And right now we shouldn’t be expecting physicial healing.  We should pray that he was ready to meet God.

Up till that point, even though we knew Rod was really sick, we’d been hoping for a miracle.  Rod.  The kid who showed up at youth activities every couple months or so.  Who accompanied his dad to special breakfasts at church.  Who even sat in the pew and listened when we had evangelists preach.  Rod.  The kid who palled around with our younger brother sometimes doing farm work.

One summer, Rod had even attended a Christian camp for a week.  In these various junctures, he had heard Gospel many times.  But, as far as we knew, he’d never come to Christ.  Not even made a profession of faith.  As he entered his teen years, the boy took several turns for the worse.  It was not uncommon to find him hanging out at the local fast-food restaurant with some of the worst kids in town or to find out he had become the “friend” a wayward church teen had begun to hang with after deciding to call the quits on God.

During the last few years, many prayers had been offered for Rod.  At 19, he’d already had leukemia three years; and he had no time to play with his soul.  He needed to turn to God.  Completely.

A few months earlier, Rod had undergone a bone marrow transplant.  I remember that time well, for my sister and I had gone to the hospital to see him. 

After donning surgical masks and gloves, we entered the nearly germ-free environment of Rod’s hospital room. What we saw on a whiteboard at the door of his room made us stop still in wonder; for there, Rod had written a surprising message.  “God at work here”—Psalm 16:11.  I stared at the words, contemplating their message and hoping that Rod really had turned to Jesus Christ.

Rod was upbeat and friendly, even with his recent procedure.  And, as it turned out, the nineteen-year-old had no mind to die. In fact, his will to live so impressed the doctors that they began to wonder if it was part of the reason he was still alive, beating the odds.  But upon Rod’s return home, he showed no sign that he was on the path of life, mentioned in Psalm 16:11.  Back he went to his old friends; never once did he darken the church door; and try as we might to remind him of his eternal need, Rod continued to shrug it off, only to declare his plans for the future. 

Rod graduated from high school that spring and, within a week, was asking his dad where his college application was.  Rod’s will to live never expired, even though the doctors said he wouldn’t make it for another two weeks.  That was the setting of this most recent phone call.  The time that we learned Rod would need to be ready to meet God.

Rod had beat the odds other times.  And, each time he had willed to live, it had worked. At every other juncture in which he had been given a message of doom, Rod decided he would not even consider death a possibility.  Somehow, each time, he’d made it through.

But now, no internal will could drive Death from Rod’s door. Rod’s summons to eternity had arrived, and nothing would change it.

I was working in the church office some days later when I received the phone call.  As Dr. Brown had forewarned, Rod had entered eternity.  His funeral would be held at a nearby Catholic church.  I took down the information.

The weather was warm and sunny the day of the funeral as I entered the sanctuary.  At the front stood Rod’s dad, who told me about Rod’s last moments:  the young man had screamed at the moment of death.  While his grandmother interpreted it as a release of his spirit, I wondered if perhaps the scream meant something else.   

It is when young people like Rod pass away that I am reminded of the message of eternity:  Life is short.  Death is real.  The Bible is true, and Hell is forever.

Several teens of my acquaintance, once under the influence of God’s Word in some measure, have now passed into eternity.  It is because of their lives that I rarely can spend one day not contemplating the reality of forever.  Their short existence spurs me to look into the sometimes hollow eyes of young people and ask them a question that most have never considered:  “If you died tonight, do you know where you would go?”  Even if they mock or laugh, I want every young person to be confronted with truth.  Eternity is too long of a time to let one day on earth pass without remembering it.  Earth’s comforts seem insignificant when placed in the balance of “forever.”

Eternity.  May we ever consider its reality!  And may we daily let its truth drive us to share the life-giving Gospel of Jesus Christ!

Monday, May 16, 2016

A Mother's Influence: The Story of Naamah (What’s Your Obituary? Part Two)

Traversing through I Kings one day, I ran across another obituary. (You can read it for yourself in  I Kings 14.)

Naamah.  Certainly not as popular as Ruth.  Or Abigail.  Or Mary.  She’s a woman we hear of very infrequently in the Scripture.  Three times only is she mentioned in this Book; but each time, her name is connected with Rehoboam, for she was his mother.

As one of Solomon’s many wives, she profoundly impacted that wise king and his son—helping to steal their hearts from following the God of Heaven and causing them to serve other gods.  False gods.

I firmly believe Rehoboam’s mother was intrinsically involved in his turning from God. Twice in I Kings 14 (essentially Rehoboam’s eulogy) it is written that Naamah is his mother; Gill says this twice mention emphasizes her influence. 

Who interpreted events for Rehoboam as a young child, a teen, a young adult?  Certainly not his busy father, who was building a temple and a palace and caring for his many wives.  Rather, Rehoboam’s confidante would have been his mother.  As Solomon’s own mother, Bathsheeba, had been his wise counselor, so Naamah became the counselor to their son, the young Rehoboam.

A mother’s influence can be far reaching.  Her worldview, perception of the things of God, and view of God's law—these all help to shape the view of the world she leaves with her children.   What of Naamah?  Did she value Israel’s history?  Had God’s Words penetrated her life?

Outstretched arms of a mammoth bronze bull statue greeted the young girl.  Looking up, little Naamah saw her youngest sibling, a baby girl, burning.  “A sacrifice to Molech,” Naamah’s mother whispered.  “To pacify his anger.  To keep the Hebrews from invading again.”

Growing up in the land of the Ammonites, Naamah had for years been a stranger to the Most High.  What she believed about deity she considered through Molech, the idol demanding child sacrifice.  And the Jews?  Well, her people had been long-time enemies with them.  The laws of God? The works of the Almighty?  They affected her very little.  It is unlikely she spent time imparting God's commands to her young son.  The Deity who had miraculously divided the Red Sea, who had led His children through the wilderness—was more Enemy than Friend to her.  His law even forbad her type to enter His sanctuary. 

With such an influence to shape his little mind, is it any wonder that by the time Rehoboam grew up and became king, he lacked the spirit of Joshua and Caleb, who “wholly followed” the Lord their God (Num. 32:12)?  Is it any surprise that he tolerated evil, even allowing those of Judah to build high places and groves "on every high hill and under every green tree"?

From the vantage point of the temple, erected by his very own father to worship a holy and exclusive God, Rehoboam could now behold the stones marking other altars…for other gods…on every high hill!  The dry, barren wilderness boasted few green trees.  But wherever there was one, a grove for an idol stood. The young king might have called it toleration.  Acceptance.  Love.  But however he justified his actions, the God of Heaven was not well pleased.

We don’t know anything about his mother’s personality.  Or her physical characteristics.  Perhaps she was a very kind woman with excellent intentions.  She might have had a very sweet disposition.  She was probably beautiful.  Many people may have liked her.  We are not told these things. But what Rehoboam most needed was a heart in love with God that would never compromise on truth, never violate the Lord’s commands.   This, as we insinuate from Rehoboam’s obituary, she did not impart.

When Rehoboam learned at his mother’s knee, what did she tell him?  First Kings 14:24 informs us that in Rehoboam's reign “there were also sodomites in the land: and they did according to all the abominations of the nations which the LORD cast out before the children of Israel.”

Naamah’s view of normal was coming from a culture that understood not the ways of God.  So as she opened her mouth to teach her son, that grandson of the sweet singer of Israel who had penned dozens of psalms instructing praise, her lips failed to yield glory to the one, true God.  In just a couple generations, the single-hearted devotion of David to Jehovah God had passed away, replaced by sodomy throughout the land and idol worship everywhere.  This was rampant evil—abounding in full degree.

Then, five years into his reign, disaster struck.  Egypt, that ancient enemy, invaded. Gone were the beautifully designed gold vessels specifically made for the temple.  Gone was the gold from his palace.  Gone were all the treasures--the candlesticks, the vessels, the bowls.  If Solomon could see his son now—working to design replacement sets of everything—not in gold but brass!  Because Egypt had come.  And robbed Israel--Egypt!  

Years before, during his grandfather David’s time, a plague had once been stayed at the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite.  Now, on that precious plot of earth stood a magnificent temple erected by his own father, King Solomon.  And here the enemies of the Lord came!   To steal his nation's treasure.

“Keep thy heart with all diligence,” Rehoboam’s wise father had written through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, “for out of it are the issues of life” (Prov. 4:23).

Oh that both Solomon and Rehoboam had done this!  Had Solomon kept his heart, he could have spared his own son from being raised by a woman who knew not God. Had he but remembered his warnings about the wrong kinds of women (Proverbs 23:27,” For a . . . strange woman is a narrow pit"), he could have avoided the snare of an ungodly woman.  Without her influence, would the spiritual lifeblood have been pinched from Rehoboam, grandson to the man after God’s own heart? Would the land have succumbed to idolatry and immorality and the devastation of a foreign attack?  

May we ever keep our hearts, staying in love with the God of Heaven, not tolerating any deviation from His narrow way.  Toleration may be popular, but truth is everlasting!  

Remembering how quickly truth may be lost, then, let us never compromise any of it!