By O.C. Birdwell, Jr.
“If we had only hoped in Christ in this life, we are of all men most pitiable” (1 Cor. 15:19).
When one stands beside the open grave of a son who is near his twentieth year of age these words have a deeper and more profound meaning they have ever had before. In 1 Corinthians 15, where the above passage is found, the apostle Paul presents the gospel of Jesus Christ and proclaims the resurrection of Christ as a vital part of that gospel. His resurrection is the basis for the abiding hope of men and women of faith that they and their sons and daughters will be raised. The apostles “witnessed of God that he raised up Christ.” Paul affirms that God also, by Christ, will raise us up. This is what faith in Christ is all about. This faith and hope becomes a sustaining force when one looks into the face of a cold and lifeless body and contemplates the finality of death, knowing that there will never be from him another smile, or touch, or embrace, and there will never be another “I will see you later” from his lips. It takes some time for one to set over expecting to hear his voice, see him come into the house, or find him in his bedroom or in his regular places. indeed, our hope in Christ must reach beyond this life.
On June 1, 1972, our son Gary died as a result of a commercial accident at his place of summer employment. It was almost exactly sixteen years before the time I began this article. Many have had a similar loss, and if time continues many others will have like losses. It may be that some of the things I have learned and some of the emotions I have experienced will help another under similar circumstances. Consequently, I would like to share with the readers of this journal some of the things I have learned.
I have learned that death comes at all ages. Yes, I knew this before, but it was not impressed on my mind with the same meaning. At Gary’s death I continued to ask, “What difference does a few years make?” In my immediate family there had been death all the way from a tiny infant to a grandfather near ninety-five years of age. Now my son was dead at age twenty. I learned that emphasis should not be put on mere length of life, but on the quality of life. It seems that some live, but only to mark time. They do not glorify God, serve Christ, or help others, and often they do not even please themselves. Without repentance, a long life for such a person is of no value to anyone. Let us learn to use every day we have as if it were our last. It may be our last.
I learned the concern of some and the carelessness of others. At his summer job, Gary cleaned railroad cars and dosed the bottom doors. This required his working under the car. Three loaded cars that were up the track were accidently released. They rammed the one under which he worked, pinning him underneath the car. The call came from Maury County Hospital, “Your son is seriously injured.” We rushed over to find that a local surgeon had provided some relief from pain and applied bandages. He told us that Gary had internal injuries, and that if he had a chance it would be at Vanderbilt University Hospital which was forty miles away. He was placed in an emergency ambulance. I sat by the driver. Just beyond my arm’s reach at Gary’s head was a young man holding an oxygen mask, and at Gary’s side was a young woman constantly checking his vital signs. They were both near Gary’s age. I never see an emergency ambulance with lights flashing that I am not reminded of the question I asked over and over as we were speeding toward Nashville. “Why will the drivers in these cars not get out of the way?” Many would not pull their cars over, although our lights were blinding and sirens deafening. I learned that I ought to get out of the way of emergency ambulances.
I also learned that professional people are often emotionally involved in their work. We were about rive minutes from the hospital. There was a little flurry of activity by both attendants. Suddenly they became still. There was ample light so I could see into the face of the young woman. She looked at me and did not say a word. She did not need to say a word. Her face was white as if every drop of blood had drained away. Her expression told me the complete story. Our son was no longer among the living. At the emergency room he was removed from the ambulance with my assistance, and rushed into an adjoining room. I gave information to the hospital attendant and was joined in the waiting room by a young man whom I thought was a hospital employee. The doctor returned to tell me what I already knew; our son was dead. As I waited I told the young man that on many similar occasions I had been with others and had offered advice and tried to comfort. Now I must apply to myself the advice I gave and counsel I offered to others. As I left I learned that the young man who was helping me by listening was a hospital chaplain.
I learned to accept comfort and help from friends and relatives. Jesus came to a city called Nain. Luke says, “Now when he drew near to the gate of the city, behold, there was carried out one that was dead, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow: and much people of the city was with her” (Lk. 7:12). The Lord saw the widow and had compassion. It is notable in this account that “much people of the city was with her. ” This, no doubt, was a help and comfort to her in her time of sorrow. Loved ones, if possible, be there to give comfort in time of such need. Also, those who sorrow should accept the comfort of friends and relatives. Do not draw into a shell, isolate yourselves, and close others out. A great friend and brother in Christ came to our house and sat for a long period of time. He, by nature, is a quiet man and little was said. He confessed, “I don’t know what to say.” I responded, “You do not need to say anything. Your being here says it all.”
In 1957, my youngest brother, at twenty-one, died in an automobile accident. My mother was forty-four when he was born and at his death was sixty-five. I was preaching in Arkansas and left immediately when news came of his death. On the way I stopped and tarried for several hours with two other brothers. When I arrived at my parents’ home my mother was in bed and extremely distraught. I lay down beside her and began to talk to her. She became responsive and with my help and the comfort from other sons, she soon got up and began to greet people. I have so often regretted my delay. I should have gone immediately to her side and have done what I could to comfort. I now understand more fully her despair and deep sorrow.
I learned that during times of such sorrow one could be influenced to interpret Scripture in keeping with his situation. I mean by this that one might, under emotional stress, interpret passages in keeping with the supposed spiritual condition of the deceased loved one. I was not tempted to do this, but I have talked to others who were. I have been blessed with the knowledge that, while our son had made grievous mistakes, he had repented of them and worked diligently to make corrections. He was active in worship and spiritual work. Some time before his death, and while I was away in a gospel meeting, he spoke one Sunday evening where I regularly preached. We have what he said on tape, but since his death I have not had the courage to play the tape. We could not know, however, his spirit, and therefore we could not know without any possibility of mistake his true relationship with God. Many have not been blessed with confidence and hope as have we. Some are extremely distressed, and feel that their sons died outside of Christ or unfaithful to Christ, and are, therefore, eternally lost. Indeed, this is a possibility in every case.
I have learned that following death one should not be anxious about the spiritual condition and state of the deceased, and definitely should not judge the deceased. This is not our prerogative. God alone shall judge by Jesus Christ. Let us teach, admonish, and warn while there is life. When death comes let us be content knowing that all opportunities have passed and are out of our hands. His spirit is now in the hands of the all-knowing, everlasting God, who does all things well. Remember too, that in the eternal scheme of things one soul is as important to God as another. May God forbid, but if my son or your son should be lost, maybe we can live and work to have influence to the saving of another soul that is just as valuable in the sight of God.
Dear friend, what I am saying is that we should not accept Calvinistic doctrines such as the imputed righteousness of Christ, continuous cleansing apart from repentance and prayer, and salvation for those who do the best they know, in order for us to feel good about the eternal state of our loved ones who have died. One cannot successfully change the doctrine of Christ to fit his own situation. This practice might be called “situation doctrine,” but like “situation ethics,” is not Bible doctrine and is just as unacceptable.
I learned that sincere, well-meaning, loving people will try to comfort by making uninformed and unscriptural statements. Some will say, “The Lord saw fit to take him.” My answer is, this is true only in the sense that he allowed it to be done. God did not decide to take the life of our son with a railroad boxcar. Let us not blame God for something he did not do. We live in the flesh. We suffer the maladies of the flesh. We work in dangerous places, with heavy equipment, and even drive dangerous vehicles. The natural consequence of this is death from diseases, accidents, and numerous other sources. If anyone is to be blamed for this condition it is Satan and not God. Yes, I know, Job said, “Jehovah gave and Jehovah hath taken away; blessed be the name of Jehovah” (Job 1:21). Again I say, God allowed it to be so with Job. The same is so with reference to our sufferings. Let us not sin by charging God foolishly (Job 1:22).
I have learned more insight into such passages as Romans 8:28. Some would say that, for the Christian, such tragic events are “good,” since the Bible says, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God” (Rom. 8:28). I want to answer that position and close this article with a lengthy quotation from a long letter written to my wife Frances and me the day after the funeral. The letter is from a preacher friend and loved one who, without doubt, has done more to help me in my preaching work than any other person. His comfort, advice, and counsel continue to be appreciated. During the intervening sixteen years, his insight into the matter has proven to be completely correct.
An incident like this is one that you really never get over. There is no point in kidding ourselves about that. There will be a certain blight over your life for the remainder of your days. Probably the experience will so affect your heart that you will be able to reach out to people in a way that you never quite could do so before. I believe that a lot of brethren have severely misapplied Romans 8:28 and try to make whatever occurs as “good” where as Paul specifically was talking about suffering for Christ being for our good. Such an accident is one of the misfortunes of life. I know you had such high hopes for Gary and the use he would make for his life. No doubt in my mind, he would have followed in your steps and preached the gospel, which intention itself is a noble tribute to both of you. So many preachers have murmured and complained about their sufferings as preachers until preaching is the last thing their sons would want to do.
I wish so badly there were somehow some way that I could lift a part of your burden and bear it for you, but as we both know, there is no real way that such can be done. I can only weep with you as you weep. Beyond this we seem to be unable to go. There are apt to be days when the burden may tempt you be become bitter and cynical, but resist that temptation as much as possible. The admirable way that you conducted yourself during the funeral service makes me even hesitate to mention that admonition. Perhaps I am only thinking as I might think, in similar circumstances.
This admonition, advice, and comfort is the kind I would like to give to our readers and to all who may suffer. I would that I could do it so ably and so eloquently.
Guardian of Truth XXXII: 17, pp. 527-529, 550
September 1, 1988