Departing Is Such Sweet Sorrow.

Death is but a Door.

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As I write this, our country is entering the 37th week since the Coronavirus invaded our culture, impacting us fiscally, vocationally, emotionally, spiritually, and socially. In my 25 years of ministry, I cannot remember when Christians were so focused on their future residence; Heaven, panting for either the clouds to break open and usher in the rapture or through the sweet kiss of death. Persecution has a way of refocusing us, a springboard to reprioritizing our lives, and there is no better example than the Apostle Paul who went through such a transition to arrive at a place where he could declare with integrity, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21, ESV).

It is a matter of balance; to not be so focused on the next life that you render yourself useless in this life. Conversely, we must not be so focused on this life that we neglect storing up treasures in the next life through our service to God. In our text for today’s devotion, Paul uses the word “depart” when referring to a believer’s death, an interesting Greek word that conveys several thoughts.

Firstly, “depart” in the original Greek can speak of medicine; a pill, for example, while unable to do something in one form, can in another. No wonder Paul viewed death in such a way; he knew, as we do, our bodies to be weak, fallible, and restricting; there are many things we are unable to do while on earth. But, in Heaven, we will be released from any such restrictions and will be free to worship and serve our Father without the distractions and disruptions we face daily in this life. Free from disease and disabilities, trials, tribulations, and even temptations; free to simply enjoy and love our Father forever.

Secondly, “depart” can also speak of an ox retiring from a day’s labor. Indeed, the Apostle Paul knew what hard work was; he was tired; therefore, he looked forward to the land on the other side of death’s door; a land of rest. Paul gives us a picture of a farm with an ox bearing a heavy workload under the hand of its master; pulling heavy loads, carrying heavy burdens yet at the end of the day, was led to the stable, had its yoke removed, given food to eat and hay on which to sleep. There are many in our world that can relate to Paul in that they are tired, weary, and worn, ready for Jesus to greet them on the other side with, “enter into my rest” (Heb. 4:3).

Third, this word “depart” was used in the Greek culture to speak of the lifting of tent stakes, packing up, and moving on. In the Old Testament, the Israelites would travel in tents. Once they reached a place to stop, they would set up camp, allow their livestock to partake of the fields, dig a well, and wait until God would move them on. When a trumpet was blown, the tent stakes were lifted from the ground; everyone would pack up and head to a better, more fertile land. When Paul spoke of death as a “departing,” his audience knew the powerful imagery he was laying out for Heaven. They knew what it was like to live in a dry and desolate land, a harsh country, that lacked any mercy, one led by religiously intolerant and oppressive dictators. Paul spoke to those longing for the trumpet to blow so they could move onto a better land. Of course, the better land that Paul was speaking of is Heaven. How wonderful to know that one day, either through the clouds or caskets, we will be called to pick up our tent stakes, pack up, and move on to a better country that was not made with human hands but the love of God!

Lastly, the word for death employed by Paul could speak of a ship headed to its final port. In my 14-year military career, I spent my first year onboard a vessel in Alaska, scrubbing barnacles off buoys in the Bearing Sea. That entire year, I didn’t have time to take pictures of the glaciers, fish in the streams, hunt in the forests, or paint the Aurora Borealis; no, I labored away my entire year waiting for my stint to be over. That day came when my new orders were received, and I was told I had but one more month left onboard, that when we ported in Oregon, I would be able to attend school in sunny California. Just knowing I only had 30 days left made that month go by much faster and even seemed more pleasant. Paul was saying to his readers that while this life can be challenging, it will not be long as we have boarded that great ship of salvation and are headed home; our next port is Glory!

As you read this, I am sure you have burdens beyond your resources, trials that have captured your tears, hidden pain that refuses to go away, nights marked with tossing and turning, and anger over the state of our sin celebrating culture. But please know this, “death has been swallowed up in victory” (I Cor. 15:54, KJV), and very soon, we will walk through that door and be home, a better land where there is freedom, rest, and eternal victory. Hold on just a bit longer; I promise you this, one day you will be able to declare with a heart of integrity; it was worth the wait!

Scripture: “I am hard-pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” -Philippians 1:23-24

Question: Have you been so entrenched with life lately that you’ve taken your eyes off the prize?

Prayer: Father, I am weak, weary, and worn. Please give me the strength to endure, the faith to regroup, and the vision to see the future you have planned for me. As I navigate in this harsh world full of sin, sickness, and sadness, may I rejoice in the future I have with you. As I think on that glorious day when I enter your presence, may it be enough to revive my heart that I may remain faithful in this life until the end. May your words of my future home be sufficient that I count it all joy no matter the circumstance knowing I am headed to a better land. Thank you for loving me now and for wanting to be with me forever. I love you. In the name of Jesus Christ, I pray. Amen 

A Crack in Time

Fearful over death? Are you anxious about when that day will be?

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Another day in bed, unshaven, unshowered, and unwilling to move, I seemed to enjoy this depressed and discouraged state; it became a safe place for me to curl up in the blanket of my misery and misfortune. This dark place had been the spiritual and mental prison I checked myself into for about two weeks in 2009, a place of no prayer or hope.

About two weeks prior, the emergency room doctor admitted me to the hospital for a herniated disk, yet the doctors also found a surprising side diagnosis; polycystic kidney disease; a non-treatable and incurable condition where the kidneys and liver are covered with innumerable cysts that will eventually cause them to shut down, requiring dialysis or a transplant. An ambulance had transported me to the hospital for a back injury, a reward for trying to lift a large speaker, by myself, for an upcoming church service.  During the imaging on my back, the technician saw thousands of cysts covering my kidneys and several dozen stones inside them. Once discharged, all I could seem to dwell on were dark and daunting questions that challenged my faith, haunted my mind, and attacked the foundation of my worldview. Questions like; “Who will take care of my children?”, “Will, my wife, find a man that will love her more?”, “What will become of the church I started?”, and most striking, “Where is God?”. I could not help but think about everything that potentially could fall apart if I were to die so early in life; I had just turned 40 and felt like I had so much left undone both personally and professionally. So, I remained in bed, surrendered to the darkness of my pity, resigned to the fact that death was upon me.

My phone rang; it was either the first time in a week that someone had called or the first time I paid attention to it; either way, I listened to the message once I received my voicemail notification.  One of our church members was in the hospital, and the diagnosis was potentially life-threatening. At first, my flesh shouted, “you are hurting as well; why are people not reaching out to you?” but within minutes, I started to pray and cry out to God for this dear saint I had come to love. Then it hit me, I would leave my house, for the first time in over two weeks, so that I could visit and pray over this church member. Pain marked that entire ride, physically-as I was still recovering from a herniated disk, and spiritually-for the thought of my death continued to consume me. Parking in the clergy space at the local hospital, I remained in my car for what seemed an hour or more; praying for the courage to be around people, the strength to focus on someone besides myself, and the faith to put aside my focus on death, even if just long enough to pray over someone. 

Every step on the sidewalk leading up to the hospital entrance received the drops of my tears; I couldn’t stop thinking past me, my death. “God,” I cried out in an audible burst, uncaring of the audience and crowds, “please help me; I need you.” And God responded. A scripture I had given in counseling and through prayer to many others over the years shot in my mind and found a home in the fertile fields of my hopeless heart; “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27, ESV). That word, “appointed” hit me like never before as my foot landed on a crack in the pavement; God has a date set on his calendar for my death. Time seemed to freeze as I stood there, foot on that crack, contemplating that verse and praying for its roots to take hold in my heart; hoping for a fast-growing tree whose cover would bring relief from the torching fire of my fears. It was there, on that crack, the joy of my salvation was restored because of the message received; God was not done with me yet! My death is on God’s calendar, not mine. And, until that day comes, medical diagnosis or not, I am bulletproof. I can show you that crack to this very day; it is my Crack in Time, the place where God reminded me of His sovereignty and where I recommitted my life of service to God. 

Walking into that hospital was one of the best days of my life; I could not wait to enter that hospital room and share the hope that was within me with the struggling church member. Once beside her bed, she told me the diagnosis was cancer, and the doctors didn’t give much hope. We prayed. Back in my truck, I prayed again, with confidence, “Father, if this is not the time on your calendar for your daughter, please give her the joy that has overwhelmed me in this very place” I then drove to my office, ready for a day of service to my Father with a focus on others. Oh, the sweet lady the doctors didn’t give much of a chance to live but another few weeks in 2009? I texted her the other day; she is doing well and remains a beacon of joy in this hopeless world.

Scripture: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” (Hebrews 2:14-15, ESV)

Question: Do you fear death? 

Prayer: Father, I have struggled with the issue of dying, of leaving my family behind, wondering what will happen to those around me when I am gone, worried things might fall apart, and the people I love might need me. Please help me see that because of your Son, death is no longer something woeful to fear, but something too wonderful to face. Remind me that until you call me home, here is where I will remain, and when that day comes, you will take care of everyone I leave behind just as you have taken care of me throughout my life. Thank you for overcoming death and making it the door that ushers your children into our forever home. In the name of Jesus Christ, I pray, amen.

Short-Timer

This is not your best life.

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In the military, there is a term; short-timers attitude; it merely describes a soldier that is nearing the end of their tour with just weeks or months left before a transfer. One particular tour of mine that I felt the full effects of this label was while stationed on the United States Coast Guard Cutter Sweetbrier in Cordova, Alaska. Even the best of writers would be hard-pressed to romanticize my tour there, scrubbing barnacles off of buoys in the Bearing Sea 12 plus hours each day for a year. Yet, I will never forget what I heard over the ship’s intercom system that day, “Seaman McCracken, please report to the Yeoman’s office,” for the only reason that announcement would come was that the command had approved my transfer request to Radioman school. Leaving the Yeoman’s office with my orders in hand, I ran, literally ran, back to my bunk, drew the curtain, opened the envelope, and read-word for word-my orders. I was to report to Training Center Petaluma California for Radioman School in 30 days. Once word got around, I only had 30 days left; my shipmates labeled me Seaman McCracken the short-timer.

Still, that label didn’t mean anything to me until one event, and from that moment on, I got it. It came around 0300 (that’s 3 AM!) when I was jolted out of a dream by the ship’s general quarters alarm system, a shriek that resonated through the ship like a screaming banshee before a death. Not too far off as our ship had taken such a severe roll in a storm that the next announcement was “prepare to abandon ship.” I made my way up the ladder to the Muster Deck and past open lockers exploding their contents on the ground. By the time the ship’s crew were mustered on the deck with our life jackets and we unsecured all the small boats, the danger had passed, and the Captain dismissed us. On the way back to my rack, I remember vividly announcing to myself with a voice that purposefully carried to anyone listening, “I only have three more weeks of this!” and at that very moment, I realized I was a short-timer!

From that moment on, nothing bothered me like it used to; being woken up in the middle of the night to cover a shipmate’s bridge watch because he was sick, no problem-only three weeks to go, cleaning up someone else’s vomit in the paint room because I was the lowest ranking sailor on deck, no problem-only two weeks to go, boarding a Japanese vessel in the dark of night, rounding every corner wondering if it were my last, no problem-only one week to go, being dropped off by helicopter to an isolated island lighthouse for solar conversion, even though I am scared of heights, no problem-I am leaving for sunny California tomorrow! Then, it all came to a head when the Chief Boatswain’s Mate put me on the cleaning crew to remove the rust from the ship’s hull while in dry dock in Oregon with a needle gun the following week. No problem, “Hey Chief, not me; I am flying out to California tomorrow morning!” I was able to put up with almost anything knowing that my days were numbered and that I had a much better destination in my future. That is what being a short-timer is all about.

Folks, I know this world is getting worse. Every morning we hear about how COVID cases are rising, of another political scandal, violent protests in our streets, racism, murders, sex-trafficking, and much more. We have to say goodbye to friends and family that have lost their fight with cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Our bodies are marked with pain, our minds are filled with anxiety, doubt, and fear, and our spirits are troubled, causing our eyes to shed more tears than we ever anticipated. However, let me remind you, Christian, you are a short-timer. Your days on this earth are numbered by God (Hebrews 9:27) and are promised to be short-lived as a vapor (James 4:14). Christian, this is not your home; you are a stranger, a pilgrim, a tourist! Therefore, don’t let this world get you down, hinder your walk, impact your faith, or impede your purpose. And, not only are you closer to home each day, but you have received orders to a place even better than sunny California; you’re bound for Heaven! So today, as you navigate this sinful world, do so with confidence and joy, knowing you’re a short-timer with a heavenly destination.

Scripture: “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” (I Peter 2:11-12, ESV)

Question: Am I getting discouraged over the things in this world because I have forgotten my true home?

Prayer: Father, my heart needs to be encouraged. This world is getting to me, I have lost my joy, and I am struggling with all that is going on. Please help me remember that this world is not my home, that this life is not as good as it gets. Father, I ask for you to give me the strength and faith to have a short-timer’s attitude so that I can be that patient and long-suffering giver of grace that this sinful world needs in times like these. Thank you for the gift of tomorrow, and may I live today in light of that very gift. In the name of Jesus Christ, I pray, amen.

Death Becomes Him

How can death be precious?

My eyes opened after a night of sleep; I focused on my wife across the room, who was marked with sadness. She spoke, “There is something I have to tell you. Mike Ledbetter passed away last night.” My heart sank, my mind quickly retrieved special memories, and my eyes teared up. Mike was my friend. He had joined our congregation about seven years ago, and as a retired missionary, both he and his wife proved to be a tremendous evangelical asset to all of us. But today, his story changed.

With over a quarter of a century of experience, I can say with certainty, over the next few days, I will hear, “We lost a good man,” and, “I am so sorry for your loss.” Those statements irk me as they are not accurate, and they chisel away from the message of love and what the Gospel can do. Mike is not lost; in fact, he is more found than he has ever been. The bible is very clear that for the Christian, the next life is far better than this one, which is why David cries out in Psalm 116:15, “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.” (NIV)

Streets of gold, walls of jasper, the foundation of precious stone, gates pearl, angelic beings worshipping around the throne of God, a peaceful river, the Tree of Life uprooted and replanted from the Garden of Eden, Jesus Christ Himself standing and ready to personally receive each of us (Rev. 21), and the list goes on and on. The next life is better. But, is Mike Ledbetter lost now? The Apostle Paul answers this very question by encouraging all followers of Jesus that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (II Cor. 5:8).

You see, when I opened my eyes this morning, I became inundated with all of the reminders of the effects that sin has over this world, from the news on the television to the argument in the street outside our camper. I woke up to another day filled with violence, politics, child pornography, protests, and sex trafficking, just to mention a few. Mike closed his eyes down here and opened them up to be with his Savior forever. Mike, lost? No, he is more found than he ever has been. Mike is home, happy, healed, and healthy, and there is no amount of convincing that will ever bring him back; he just waits for us all to join him. That is what the power of love and the Gospel can do!

Perhaps you’re struggling with the recent passing of a loved one. Or, you may be anxious about your death, what will become of you? Friend, may this devotion today provide you with peace and joy in either situation; to know the truth is to set you free.

Scripture: “Having the eyes of your heart enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:18 ESV)

Question: Am I allowing my feelings to drive me, or are my eyes wide open to the truth of God’s promises concerning the next life?

Prayer: Father, when those times of sadness and missing overtake our lives, please remind me of your truth and of the hope we have through your Son. May I focus more on what my loved one has gained and to celebrate the difference that they made while on this earth and that I have the opportunity to be with them again very soon. Thank you for loving us so much that even death is not something to fear but a gift of love. In the name of Jesus Christ, I pray, amen.