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Bless Your Heart by Cindy Colley

Where Is Your Sting?–Part 6

The Sting of Death is Absence.

There are four large oak trees growing on the property of the Jacksonville Church of Christ that were planted some seventy-five years ago by my father. The trees are a reminder to me that there was a day when a very young version of my Dad went with my Uncle Clifford Smith to bargain for some land on which to build a new meeting house for the Jacksonville church. One day, just a few months later, Dad went to get some oak saplings from his brother to plant on the newly-purchased land. The trunks of the oaks are places where children play hide and seek today and the branches provide ample shade around the building and the accompanying fellowship hall. They are a reminder that the plants have outlived the planter. 

If absence makes the heart grow fonder, then it’s no wonder that children remember all the good times so readily when a parent leaves them behind, because suddenly life is saturated with the absence of that beloved mentor. That’s just one more aspect of death’s sting. This week I’ve been wading through lots of pots and pans, piles of old photos, heavy pieces of furniture, books, bedding, blue Mason jars and other various piles and containers from house, barn and workshop. Of course, the obvious truth that the work and collection outlives the worker  and collector shouts from every box, basket, pile, and parcel.

The words my sister said earlier in the week, as we were struggling (we all want to defer to the other) to divide up the old quilts, knives, pocket watches, rings, Bibles , etc…keep resounding: “We all know we can’t have what we really want, so this is really hard.” 

Absence is hard. Ezra, who is three, looked at the big laundry basket of toys that I brought home from Dad’s. “But,” he objected. “Doze are Piedaddy’s toys and we need to take dem back to his house, because he needs dem.”

Absence is hard. But the best truth is…absence in our little sphere, of course, means presence in God’s big and eternal one. That reality reminds me of three  important and reassuring things, today.

  1. Reminders of a good life are plentiful and, though they signal absence, they keep on providing good things for those who are still on the journey. A mother’s marked Bible, a good climbing tree, an iron swing set that’s so strong that only the trumpet’s blow will signal it’s end…all of these  keep telling us about a good provider who still, in may ways, does. 
  2. What we “want” is not always really what we want, at all. God is infinitely good and completely cares for his people. Ezra will learn soon enough that Piedaddy does not need anything!
  3. The giver of these left-behind treasures—the humble sharecropper’s son—knew the Giver. He knew the real sense in which all of us are sharecroppers. We are all just “farming Someone else’s land” as we sojourn here.
Bless Your Heart by Cindy Colley

Where Is Your Sting?–Part 3

The Sting of Death is Pain

Sometimes death comes painlessly. But more often, at some point linked to death by circumstance or time, there is physical pain. The physical pain endured as death comes is transferred to loved ones and caregivers in the form of emotional pain. Legion are those who have been at bedsides and wished they could endure the pain being experienced by one approaching death. I recall being at the bedside of my mother as she neared the end and had, for several days, been uncommunicative; but her body still very obviously writhed in pain. The empowering truth that death is a release for faithful people becomes extremely important in such an hour. In my mother’s case, the cancer had been very slow and painful for several years. This climax of pain near the hour of her parting was a powerful reminder that we do not love everything about our environment here on earth. We love and long for heaven. 

The Bible makes it clear that suffering is the muscle builder of faith. Passages like James 1 and Hebrews 12 make it clear that we are better prepared to do the work of the Lord when we have suffered. If my Savior could learn obedience by the things he suffered (Heb. 5:8)…if the pain aspect of the cross was a completer in the Savior’s qualification to BE the Savior and mediator, then surely the pain of death teaches those in the valley of its shadow today about obedience, too. For certain, I have risen from that valley each time I’ve journeyed through it wanting to be ever submissive to the One who is preparing my home (Jn. 14:1-3). 

It’s interesting that heaven is described always more by what is NOT there than by what is there. Revelation 21:4 is the go-to passage of comfort when we are in the throes of death:

And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.

But it’s interesting that the verse doesn’t just exclude death itself from our picture of heaven. It specifically excludes pain as a “former thing”. One day, we will speak to one another in heaven and we may mention “former things.” But there will not even be pain at the memory of pain. It’s important to remember and take comfort in the fact that, if you said goodbye to a suffering loved one, the release from pain was both complete and permanent. 

I remember a day in the long cancer struggle when my mother became very discouraged about life here on earth.  Through tears, she said “I’m not sure I am doing the right thing to keep taking treatments and keep suffering along here. I think I just want to go on and be with God.” I  was young and perhaps immature as I responded. I recall weeping and gently rebuking her and telling her that we needed her.  I told her that we could hardly stand to hear her talk that way…that the treatments were going to give us good days.  I encouraged her to be strong for the grandchildren who loved her so very much. 

But the truth is, as her pain waxed greater through the progression of disease, so did her faith. Her desire to be in heaven and bring others with her—even her evangelism—shone brightest as she was leaving. She left a Bible study partially done with a nurse on that cancer unit. She asked me, before she left, to complete that partially finished study. Some of her last words were about souls and she spoke freely to us, her children, about always being certain we are living so that the reunion for which she longed will occur. 

We learn obedience in many of life’s situations. But we learn it more completely in death’s situations— the ICU, the Emergency Room, the care of Hospice. We learn it when we lose the ability to swallow or walk or breathe without labor. The lessons begun by the chastisement of our parents with the paddle or switch are sometimes finished in the darkest hours beneath the rod of pain. 

And those of us who are witnesses to that chastisement learn, too. We learn the lessons, too. And we long for heaven.

Bless Your Heart by Cindy Colley

Where is Your Sting?

It has come…that quiet moment when everyone has finally left Serenity after lots of noise, many tears and lots of jubilant celebration, too. My father gently passed from this life to an infinitely better one in the early hours of December 5th—29 days ago. Since that moment there’s hardly been another gentle moment, as a memorial service, that ended up being in the midst of a snowy blizzard (that my father would have loved), was planned and executed, albeit with far fewer present to memorialize than we had envisioned. Roads were closed that morning in Jacksonville, Alabama, and metaphorically, lots of roads in my world have remained closed from that day to this one.

The road to reflection has been mostly blocked by the hubbub of cherished family in my house. The road to gratitude has been largely closed because it has so many lanes—so many people I need to profoundly thank—that the job of thankfulness that I love has been overwhelming and has been mostly “on hold.” The path of Bible study and prayer has been a rocky one, too; so many interruptions each time I’ve been in the “kneeling” position before the Word or in petition before Him. Mountains of laundry, cooking, cleaning up messes made by children whose company, hugs and antics I would not trade for anything—all of these have been tasks that have lovingly blockaded more peaceful, but often painful jobs. I’m very thankful for holiday “stress” this year. It somehow masked the pain that, even in the midst of the hurrying, sometimes crept into the recesses of heart and memory. I could easily postpone an aching heart in the ministry to  family and I am thankful for that dulling of the ache. There was very little sleep during the holidays, but I mostly exchanged that for uninterrupted celebration…and that was a good thing. 

But here’s the day of quietness. I am sitting here in this house that’s totally plundered—still littered with baby crumbs, wrapping paper, puppy toys and unfolded laundry, but the quiet is deafening now.  There’s a CPAP machine in the closet that needs to be returned, clothing that’s my dad’s that needs…what does it need, anyway?…throwing out? (That’s for another day.) There are death certificates that must be mailed and there’s a tax form that must be FOUND.  (Why am I always paying a price for being so scattered?) I know now’s the time I’ve anticipated, both fondly and with dread. 

I also know that there is absolutely NO reason for sadness. My father was ninety-five. He was a faithful Christian. He has a new body that never hurts or struggles. He is united with my mother and loved ones. He is, in short, perfected…fit for heaven. His transport was with angels. His destination of complete rest and bliss has been reached. So why should I be sad? I know there are those of you who are reading who would give anything to be in my shoes regarding deceased parents. 

The sadness, of course, is all wrapped up in the human struggle. Death, without the power that is in the resurrection of Jesus, stings (I Corinthians 15:54-57). Death, in a battle against humanity, is always the victor. But, in a battle where Christ is on my side, death is the victim. It is powerless. 

So faith in Him—Bible study, prayer, viewing Him in the circumstances of providence around me, the strength of fellowship—FAITH is what I so desperately need in the shadow of the death of one so loved. And I will persevere to grow in the faith that overcomes the sting that can be masked, but not erased without Jesus, the Victor. 

Until you get your note, thank you to hundreds who have reached out in so many ways. You have sent messages of condolence in email, phone texting and Facebook. You have contributed to the scholarship fund that honors the memory of our mother and dad. You have sent postal cards and letters by the scores (I’m sure there are a couple of hundred in there in my big porcelain bowl.) Children have drawn happy pictures and groups of Diggers have sent cards and even gifts. I am immersed in comforting fellowship and blessed beyond measure. Your prayers have been the greatest of gifts. 

So, in the words of my three-year-old grandson, Ezra, “Why are you sad? We should be happy if Piedaddy is with Jesus. I would like that.” 

Here’s the latest conversation in our Bible time from last Sunday night. 

Me: “Ezra, we are going to Piedaddy’s house tomorrow for our Christmas.”

Hannah: “But you know Piedaddy will not be there.”

Ezra: “Because he is in heaven with Jesus. And that man in the box at Piedaddy’s Bible class was not really Piedaddy. It was just not him.”

Hannah: “Well, it was just a little part of him. The real Piedaddy is with Jesus. And he is not sick  anymore. And he can run and jump and play.”

Ezra: “You mean he does not have to have his walker anymore, even?”

Me: “Right. He can do anything he wants to do and he is very happy.”

Hannah: “And when we get through living here, we will get to go be with him and it will be so happy!”

Ezra: “But how will we get there?”

Me: “Well, one day there will be a very loud trumpet that blows and we will look up and we will see Jesus coming in the clouds and we will get to fly up there and meet him.”

Ezra: “Will we get to go in a helicopter?”

Me: “No, we will get to fly just like a bird with nothing to take us.”

Ezra: “You mean it will be like a super-hero?”

Ben: “Yes, like a super-hero.”

Me: “And we will just fly on to heaven with Him.” 

Ezra: “But I “fink” that loud trumpet will be ‘keery’” (scary).

Hannah: “ Oh no, you will love it. All of us will be there with you and when you get through flying,  everyone you love will all be in the same place.”

Glenn: “Oh no, Ezra. You will not be scared. I promise. You will be so excited to see Jesus. And then when we get to heaven, there will never be anything else to make us sad or hurt us.”

Hannah: “You will never fall and skin your knee. You will never get sick and have a fever.”

Me: “You will never get burned by any stove or fire. You will never cough or cry or hurt at all.”

Ezra: “Well, that will be great, but I still think “dat woud twumpet will be a wittle keery.”

Bless Your Heart by Cindy Colley

Contest Winner #2: Alisha Middleton

Sometimes the most encouraging commodity is a memory. Oh, we don’t enjoy the passing of those who are sources of strength to us, but memories and the tangible reminders left behind are still invaluable to us. We lean on examples of faith that have already led  to heaven. Heaven, in fact, becomes dearer as its throng swells to include many who’ve been dear in this life to us. The second contest winner, Alisha Middleton, has an encourager who lives in the place for which we’re all striving. Here’s her letter…

Three months ago our congregation lost someone very dear to us. One of our shepherds, Dale Ledbetter passed away after suffering with a very painful form of cancer. We miss him everyday, especially the love and compassion he showed for members of our congregation. The attached picture shows a onesie that he picked out for our son before he was even born. Also in the pictures are some of the notes he wrote to us during my pregnancy with Liam. Our son never got to meet Brother Dale, but someday I will show him these notes and tell him about the type of man he was. I hope my son will be like him someday.

-Alisha Middleton

Bless Your Heart by Cindy Colley

Sister to Sister: Oasis!

 

There are small oases in the desert for Christians in America throughout any year’s months of  the drought of truth in our land. But there is one huge oasis every August and we have just traveled to the streams which are at Polishing the Pulpit. Our strength is renewed. We are emboldened and better prepared to stand for truth and to share it in love with those around us who are thirsty, too. And we more acutely long for heaven. 

The Wilderness Resort is quiet now. My husband and I are preparing to leave this morning. The folks at the front desk are talking about how wonderful the week was. They’re not Christians, but they are quick to tell us that this is their best week of the year. God’s people have shined a light in this place.  We are determined to individually trim our wicks and refuel our lamps to shine brighter all over this great country. 

Here are a few of my personal highlights from the week. I know you have them, too, if you were here:

  1. The eclipse. I sang “There is Sunshine in my Soul Today” with a small group of sisters while the light was still bright and then “How Great Thou Art” when it was hidden. We praised Him in prayer and begged Him to help us never to let anything get between us and the light that is His Son. I will never forget those moments.

  2. The chance to talk about the mothering lives of Millennial Moms in a small group setting with all those babies and sweet children—souls fresh from God—all over the floor and the pews. That was an epic opportunity for me. In that room was a very strong current that will flow into future generations for Him; not because I was teaching, but because they are already so doggedly determined to bring up generations for Him.

  3. The late night prayers with Glenn after long days with brethren. These reminded me of the enormous blessing that God has given me in this man. We talked over some serious eternity-affecting problems with people all through our days at PTP. But at night, this man of God, just laid them with me, at the feet of the One who already inhabits eternity (Is. 57:15). These times breathed into my spiritual muscles the ability to go do this again the next day. They gave me the real hope that we can overcome obstacles and make progress collectively toward heaven. 

  4. Being real, I have to say that the grandchildren were a definite highlight. I got to show my family in the Lord my new Colleyanna, in her pink bonnet and her long green and pink prairie dress. I got to have a sweet almost-three year old sleeping in the bed beside our bed almost every night. Glenn and I had bedtime Bible time and prayers with him at hours that were way too late for him to be awake. But it’s once a year and it’s a mammy’s paradise, in that respect. It’s the realization that my life is headed toward a sunset and a new light is arising. It’s profound in the spiritual context of PTP.

  5. The truth emanating from that conference center. It was everywhere and it does affect every faithful church, every mission point, every youth group, every area where the gospel is going. This is not because this is any kind of headquarters for His church. That’s not in the plan. But the beauty of this gathering is just that. Individuals are hearing about PTP and taking vacation times as families and the Word is going forth in mighty ways directed by the Providence of God and through the zeal of individual Christians who take it home and just keep on influencing others who teach others, who talk to others, who show Him to others. It’s how PTP has grown from 3 people, only a few years ago, to 4800 in these relatively few years. It is amazing and I believe it is arguably the one most powerful gospel-spreading gathering since the apostolic age when Pentecost occurred. I know that’s a big statement and I do not know all about all historical events of His people, but I cannot conceive of a gathering that could be more influential, certainly in modern times. (My personal favorite of the lessons I heard? The Sunday morning lesson by his great servant, Dan Winkler. Let’s be done with cheap substitutes and offer him the best perfume! But I also really loved some of those in Deep Creek about “Milk that Tastes Like Meat.”) 

In a land of spiritual famine, we have the sustenance. We have the Bread and Water of Life. The synergy of PTP is the right blessing, though, to remind us of just what we have in His truth. May we, in the harder times, throughout this year, remind ourselves that we are not alone! There will be another gathering on a hilltop in Sevierville next year, Lord willing. And there will one day be a gathering on the mountain of Zion for His faithful—a gathering from which we will never pack up and leave!

Bless Your Heart by Cindy Colley

Sister to Sister: A Shepherd’s Plea

One  of  my favorite holiday gifts this year was from my brother-in-law, Scotty Sparks. This gift originated with my grandfather, a shepherd in the church for many years in Jacksonville, Alabama. It’s a letter he’d thought about a lot and typed out to send to members of his congregation who had gone astray. Following his death in 1982, the letter ended up in my mother’s hands. She eventually gave it to Scotty at some point in the late 1980’s and, as you will see from Scotty’s note to me, he used it as an outline from which to preach the gospel. Every plea in the letter is just as pertinent to people who walk away from the Lord today as it was to wayward members of the body when it was first penned. I know my “Daddy Duncan” wrote this from a heart of grief at the lost condition of some soul that was under his care. Perhaps he sent it to several. Perhaps, he also preached from this outline.

 

Here are Scotty’s words prefacing the letter he gave me for Christmas:

This is a copy of a letter written by your grandfather, John Duncan, while he served as an elder at Jacksonville. I do not know the year. Your mother, Johnnia, gave it to me while I was at FHU to have as a resource. (She was always giving me good books or material.) I eventually developed this into a sermon. I hope you will overlook my “boxing in” the points. As a college student with a low inventory of sermons and an even lower inventory of dimes for the copier, I simply used the original letter for my notes. Perhaps the precious knowledge that your grandfather’s deep love for souls demonstrated in the words of this document and preached several years after his death to encourage people he would never meet on this side of heaven will compensate for the defacement. 

And here is my grandfather’s letter. If you have walked away from faithfulness, will you think about his words?

Dear brother in Christ,

I am writing this letter not to censure or criticize your any way, but that I may exhort you and cause you to think of what it means to live in a lost condition.

One of the most solemn questions that could be asked of a lost person is:

“What if you should die in your lost condition?”…Terrible thing to think about….Judgment. One day we will have to stand before the great white throne and give an account unto God for the way we live here. We need to read often Luke, the sixteenth chapter, beginning with verse 19; the story of the rich man and Lazarus, and also the other passages of the Scriptures that teach what an awful place hell is.

Another question just as solemn is:

“What if you should live in your lost condition?” At first, that question doesn’t sound to be very solemn at all, but let’s think seriously about what we are doing when we are living in a lost condition.

First of all, we lend support to the forces of Satan against the Lord; fighting, whether we mean to or not, with Satan against the Lord’s cause, because there is no such thing as being neutral in the conflict between Christ and the devil. Christ, himself, said, “He that is not with me is against me.”

Secondly, we will influence others to be lost. not intentionally, of course, but inevitably. As God uses His children to lead others to salvation, the devil uses all others to lead people into sin and to keep each other in sin. Wicked men and women are used to lure some into evil, but some people will not be tempted by them, so, to reach these, Satan must use good and upright people. For example, wives may keep their husbands from being saved; husbands may lead wives to hell; parents may cause their children to be lost; or children may even do the same for their parents. 

Thirdly, we will live a life less abundant than God intended for man. Jesus came to give life more abundantly (John 10:10). A more abundant life includes many things…for example, forgiveness, hope of eternal life versus no hope, hence no fear of death versus a fear of dying; fellowship with Christ versus no fellowship…and many others.

Fourthly, our hearts will become harder (Heb. 3:13). “But exhort one another daily, while it is called today, lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.” …Hebrews 3: 7,8… “Wherefore as the Holy Ghost saith, “To day if ye will hear his voice, Harden not your hearts, as in the provocation, in the day of temptation in the wilderness…” …I Timothy 4:2…”Your conscience will become seared as with a hot iron.”

Fifthly, we will die in our lost condition. It is a mistake–a lie of the devil–to think that we might live in a lost condition  and die in a saved condition. In Numbers 23:10, Balaam wanted to die the death of the righteous, but he had refused to live the life of the righteous. And, if we die in this lost condition, we will be lost eternally. 

In conclusion, if we knew we would die tomorrow, we would want to be Christians, but if we knew we would live to be 110, we should still want to live each day for the Lord. There is one thing worse than dying in a lost condition–and that is living in a lost condition. 

 

My grandfather, to me, was that great friend who took us hiking in the woods in the fall and  fishing in the summer. He was that friend with whom we watched Bonanza on Sunday nights after worship. He was  the friend who went to town on my birthday to buy me the wonderful very hard plastic horse that I  still treasure and the silver necklace with the tiny blue bauble. He is the man who had such a credit rating in this small town that I could go in almost any store in town and pick up whatever he sent me for and simply say, “Put this on John Duncan’s bill.” He could build anything in that garage and he would take me to work with him and let me play on a giant old adding machine on his desk. He taught me to skip rocks and to bait hooks. He was the quintessential grandfather.

But to others, he was more. He did not, to my knowledge, have even a high school education, but he did important things. He faithfully raised two children of his own and three stepsons whose father left them at a young age. He was the progenitor of seven faithful preachers and of six women who married faithful preachers; of three elders in the Lord’s church and of four women who are wives of elders in the kingdom. 

Once, as a child, I enquired about why my grandmother all of a sudden had a lady coming every now and then, to help her do housekeeping chores. I had never seen a maid before and, though my grandmother was kind of ill by then, she was the hardest-working woman I knew. “Well,” she said, “…this lady needed some food and some help with her light bill, so your grandfather told me to try and think of some jobs she could do, so he could help her back on her feet.” I didn’t think so much about that then, but I have thought a little more about it as an adult. It’s a pretty good thing when you can help people without enabling indolence.

The congregation where he worshipped and served is now 99 years old. Next year, as it celebrates its 100th birthday, it will rejoice in the fact that its publication “House to House/Heart to Heart” reaches millions of people around the world annually with the gospel. The congregation will reach thousands who attend its Polishing the Pulpit conferences around our country. Of course, none of this is his doing. It is the doing of our great God who has used lots and lots of ordinary people through the years to keep the work that began with a gospel meeting in the year 1918 by Brother C.H. Woodruff alive in Him for the next 100 years. Each man in Christ is just one little link in a chain of events and lives and opportunities: one chapter in a book that will find its last chapter around the throne. But still, I’m glad for His tiny little part and I’m glad he was my friend.

As I write, I am sitting in the large Houston Cole library (pictured) on the campus of Jacksonville State University. It is one–the last, in fact–of several buildings that my grandfather helped construct on this campus. His secular job was to direct the maintenance operations for this university during several decades of the twentieth century. He was proud of its buildings and grounds and fiercely dedicated to a work ethic and the management of a team of hardworking men. He did not own his own home, but lived in university housing. (That’s me on the porch of that university house with a surprise from under their tree circa 1963.) He did not own his own car, but drove a university truck. His large and productive garden, where I learned how to grow things and what happened to people who didn’t like to work, was planted on university soil. He typed the letter that I am holding on a university typewriter and directed his team from a little university office. His sons would gather in a particular spot in one of the dorms that was acoustically wonderful and sing hymns. I even have a recording of one of those hymn-sings, and those young men were incredibly good for a country quartet. (I doubt that the dorms at JSU are often used for hymn-singing today.)

Now, I know that I am not unique in being able to reminisce about godly influences in my early years. I know that there are congregations all over this world that warm by fires that have been stoked through the years by faithful, yet very ordinary people. I know that my grandfather never once thought about the fact that I might someday sit and reminisce, from this chair, in a building constructed from a blueprint he once held in his hands. But here I am. In the same way, you and I do not know where and how our influence may live in the ensuing decades. But there will be a time and place in which someone will be thinking about me. I will be, to the world, an insignificant name on a grave marker. But to someone, I might be able to make an eternal difference. I hope I can do that for the little souls in my family, Ezra and Colleyanna, and I hope that difference will be for heaven.

My grandfather did not own much as he traversed a tiny little area on this planet. But he owns a mansion now. It would do a lot of people I know an eternally important good if they would heed the words transcribed above from a simple twentieth century shepherd. Can I help you live in a saved condition?