The dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live. – John 5:25
I am still in the land of the dying; I shall be in the land of the living soon. – John Newton
Death is inevitable! No one can outrun death. It will catch up to all of us eventually.
When I was interviewed by Newsweek in 2006 and asked to give a statement about death, I commented that I had been taught all of my life how to die, but no one had ever taught me how to grow old. That statement triggered a lot of interest, and I began thinking about writing this book.
I am certainly no expert on the subject of growing old, but now that I am gaining some experience, I have to admit that not all things get better with age. I have a newfound appreciation – and understanding – when I read this passage:
Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth, Before the difficult days come… Remember your Creator before the silver cord is loosed. – Ecclesiastes 12:1, Ecclesiastes 12:6
When I read this passage as a young preacher, I can assure you I did not relate to it as I do now. What impresses me now is that Solomon, the wisest king ever to rule Israel, intended for the young to read it “in the days of… youth, before the difficult days come.”
When I was young, I could not imagine being old. My mother said, and the doctor confirmed, that I had an unusual amount of energy; and it followed me into young adulthood. When middle age set in, I dealt with physical weariness, but my mind was always in high gear, and it never took long for my physical stamina to return after a grueling schedule. It tires me out to dwell on it now, wondering how I ever kept up with such a jam-packed itinerary.
I fought growing old in every way. I faithfully exercised and was careful to pace myself as I began to feel the grasp of Old Man Time. This was not a transition that I welcomed, and I began to dread what I knew would follow.
My wife, Ruth, however, was one of those who could lighten heavy hearts, especially mine. I will never forget when she announced what she wanted engraved on her gravestone, and for those who have so respectfully visited her gravesite at the Billy Graham Library, they have noticed that what she planned for was carried out to the letter.
Long before she became bedridden, she was driving along a highway through a construction site. Carefully following the detours and mile-by-mile cautionary signs, she came to the last one that said,
End of Construction. Thank you for your patience.
She arrived home, chuckling and telling the family about the posting. “When I die,” she said, “I want that engraved on my stone.” She was lighthearted but serious about her request. She even wrote it out so that we wouldn’t forget. While we found the humor enlightening, we appreciated the truth she conveyed through those few words. Every human being is under construction from conception to death. Each life is made up of mistakes and learning, waiting and growing, practicing patience and being persistent. At the end of construction – death – we have completed the process.
You formed my inward parts… My frame was not hidden from You, When I was made in secret, And skillfully wrought… The days fashioned for me. – Psalm 139:13, Psalm 139:15-16
Death says, “This is the finality of accomplishment.” While we cannot add anything more to our experience, believers in Christ have the hope of hearing the Savior say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” – Matthew 25:21
The apostle Paul spoke of the Christian being “rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith”. – Colossians 2:7
This is part of our ongoing construction in this life. But the Bible assures us that “if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Corinthians 5:1). When Ruth was separated from her pain-stricken body and earthly construction was complete, she found lasting peace. Her dwelling now is eternal.
There is a stretch of highway going up into the mountains of western North Carolina that has been under construction for many years. It is rugged terrain. The North Carolina Department of Transportation has the task of blasting through boulders and mangled tree roots to carve a smooth pathway into the high country. Vehicles have been caught in rockslides and temporary road closings. Signs flash through the night, Proceed with Caution, as the road winds and twists through the hills, guiding drivers through the maze. When travelers living at the top of the mountain see the welcomed sign, End of Construction, they know they are nearing home. I have known many parents who live in that part of the state and who pace the floor knowing their teenagers are up and down that mountain all the time. Reaching their destinations safely brings relief.
Life can be like traveling a treacherous road. There are potholes that jolt us, detours that get us off course, and signs warning us of danger ahead. The destination of the soul and spirit is of utmost importance to God, so He offers us daily guidance.
Some pay close attention to God’s directions; others ignore them and speed past the flashing lights. But everyone eventually arrives at the final destination: death’s door.
This is where the soul is separated from the body. Even on the cross, Jesus taught that death was a passage for the spirit into the presence of God (Luke 23:46). The psalmist declared,
God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave. – Psalm 49:15
Have you committed your soul into the hands of its Maker? Are you following the caution signs that God has posted throughout His Guidebook, the Bible?
The highway of the upright is to depart from evil; He who keeps his way preserves his soul. – Proverbs 16:17
You may find yourself saying, “But, Billy, I’m nearing the end of life. I haven’t been a bad person.” There are many, young and old, who have said this as they have contemplated death, but it is my duty to speak the truth from God’s Word:
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. – Romans 3:23
During a visit to the Billy Graham Library, a woman relayed a story:
“My sweet mother, seventy-six years old, who never did any wrong in my eyes, struggled with my belief that all people were born sinners, according to Scripture. I prayed for years that she would come to recognize her own sin and repent so that she would know the salvation of Christ alone and have the promise of eternity with Him. When I received a call that my mother was on her deathbed, I traveled from Europe to her home in Florida. She took my hand and said, ‘My dear, when I’m gone, take heart. The Lord has saved me.’
‘Mother, how did this come about?’ ‘When I could no longer do for myself and was committed to this bed of infirmity, I realized I had come to the end of myself; I had no more control over my life. I felt lost in my own house. The home health care attendant who has been coming would patiently read to me, sometimes from the Bible:
There is none righteous, no, not one. – Romans 3:10
Now set your heart and your soul to seek the Lord your God. – 1 Chronicles 22:19
For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost. – Luke 19:10
“That moment, for me, will never fade. When I met the dear lady who had faithfully led my mother to the Lord, I was stunned at her vitality of life. She was the same age as my mother. It gave me great comfort to know that God will use us – no matter our age – to minister to others if we make ourselves available.”
The Bible says that “a true witness delivers souls” (Proverbs 14:25). The living never run out of opportunity; the question is, do we take advantage of the opportunities that come to us as this home health care worker did? Sometimes death comes suddenly and unexpectedly. “I didn’t even have a chance to say good-bye” is a lament I must have heard dozens of times. Even more tragic is the knowledge that you missed that last chance to share the Gospel.
As people grow older, the less surprised we are by their deaths, which often come only after an extended period of declining health. There even may be time for family members to gather and be with the dying person in the final hours. That is the way it was with Ruth. “Her body is beginning to shut down,” her doctor told me frankly. “Her death may still be some days away, but the process has begun, and you need to be prepared.” Two weeks later we gathered around her bedside as her breathing grew more shallow. I was seated by Ruth’s bedside holding her hand, and our daughter Anne was standing beside me. Suddenly Anne said,
She is in Heaven.
Her breathing had stopped, and her hand slipped from mine. Her years of suffering were over; Ruth had entered her final home. Memories of those final months will remain with me the rest of my life: her growing frailty, her suffering, her expressions of love, our times of prayer, her certainty – and even joy – that soon she would be in the presence of the Lord she had loved and served for so many years. As I think back over those days, the familiar words of Psalm 23 come to me with new meaning, for they exemplify Ruth’s confidence as she sensed her time on earth was drawing to a close:
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me… Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. – Psalm 23:4, Psalm 23:6
Living with Grief
As I write this it has been four years since Ruth went home to be with the Lord. I feel her loss more keenly now. Not a day passes that I don’t imagine her walking through my study door or us sitting together on our porch as we did so often, holding hands as the sun set over the mountaintops.
I have asked myself why this is the case; after all, shouldn’t our grieving over the loss of a loved one fade as time passes? Yes, it should – and in some ways it has for me. But in other ways it hasn’t, nor do I expect it to. One reason, I think, is because my strongest memory at the time of her death was of her last days – her weakness, her pain, her yearning for Heaven. Much as I longed to have her stay with us, I also knew that for her, death would be a welcome release from the burdens of this life. But with the passing of time, memories of the happiness we shared over more than sixty-three years of marriage come to mind. I remember our last years together as my travels lessened and we had more time just to be together. Those were some of the best years of our lives – almost as if we were falling in love again. And with those memories has come a deeper sense of loss.
The other reason I still feel her death so deeply, I think, is because mingled with my grief is a new sense of expectancy – the certain knowledge that someday soon the Lord will come for me also, and before long Ruth and I will be reunited in Heaven.
More than ever, I look forward to that day!
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Do you look forward to that day? As you grow older, do you find yourself anticipating Heaven more and more? Join the conversation on our blog! We would love to hear your thoughts about death and life after death! ~ Devotionals Daily