By Lewis W. Willis
Ladies and Gentlemen, allow me to conclude our celebration of Dad’s life with these words . . .
There is no human experience so traumatic, so unforgiving, so immutable, so universal, so burdensome, so bathed in finality as DEATH!
Of those things which apprehend us in life, we have a God-given nature and strength to withstand them and to overcome. If it be a mighty storm that utterly destroys all our accumulated earthly possessions, a maiming accident that leaves us broken and bruised, a merciless disease that leaves us weak and unable; an awful humiliation that leaves us shamed and stripped of our pride and dignity . . . there is a human resiliency within which empowers and sustains us; a facet of our nature, inherent from him who created us, which enables us to endure and to rebound.
All of these too-frequently-evident calamities which engulf us are not new, unique, or unexpected. The Patriarch Job said, “Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble” (Job. 14:1).
Against these human tragedies, we lash back, sometimes in desperation; sometimes in frustration; yea, sometimes in abject futility, yet, we lash back if perchance we might salvage that which is salvageable of our shattered lot in life. Instinctively, we collect ourselves sufficiently to rebuild the life which has been so quickly uprooted.
Yet, there is an enemy before which we are power- less. No human thought, plan, or device can restrain that enemy so that its invasion into our lives is halted. That enemy, of course, is DEATH! None of those traumas al- ready mentioned leaves us so undone, so helpless. There is no void so empty; no loneliness so debilitating; no fear and apprehension so frightening as that which death thrusts upon us.
Some are caught by surprise when death invades the sanctity of their homes and lives. Others, especially Christians, live in expectation of this event. Today we have once again experienced the chilly hand of death. How we regret and resent, perhaps even hate, the intrusion.
Job, who spoke of our ever-present trouble, spoke also of death. His words identify the fact of death as the culmination of life. He said man “cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not” (Job 14:2). The Apostle Peter wrote similarly saying, “For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: But the word of the Lord endureth for ever” (1 Pet. 1:24-25).
Life is indeed a long and arduous journey. The obstacles along the way are innumerable. On almost every corner there are those who beckon us to “Come go with us.” In contrast, and in quiet solitude, there is yet another who calls unto us. He is Jesus Christ, Son of God, Redeemer, and Friend. While men offer the excitement of that which is pleasurable and popular; while men would give that which will bring present acclaim and satisfaction; nothing they can offer will afford the lasting peace and security which Christ alone can give. He offers neither popularity nor worldly pleasure. He said, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28-30).
There is a time in life when nothing is more important than rest. Nothing in this world can rival that rest and peace of mind that comes through Jesus Christ. It is a rest, not only in this present realm, but for that which is to come, for all eternity in Heaven, with God, with Christ, with all the redeemed of the ages. It is a realized peace which passeth understanding; a joy unspeakable and full of glory. Christ leads those who are his to that blessed rest.
Nevertheless, to claim that rest we must walk through the “valley of death.” Almost six years ago I wrote an article about this journey which I wish to share with you, even with all of its inadequacies.
“I Will Fear No Evil”
Of all the words written by David, none reflects the spirit of calmness, assurance, trust in God, peace, and serenity as does Psalm 23. No Psalm he wrote is as absent of anxieties, misgivings, doubts, or fears as this. J.J. Stewart Perowne said, “. . . certainly no image could have been devised more beautifully descriptive of rest and safety and trustful happiness” (The Book of Psalms 248). David introduces a remarkable transition — from peaceful recline in green pastures, beside still waters, to a walk through the valley of the shadow of death. With the Lord as his shepherd he had no want; his soul was restored. Wherever his path should lead, he feared no evil. Why? The shepherd was with him! Hear these inspiring words again: “The Lord is my shep- herd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. 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. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. 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.”
In his commentary on Psalms, Franz Delitzsch said, “This rod and staff in the hand of God comfort him, i.e. preserve to him the feeling of security, and therefore a cheerful spirit. Even when he passes through a valley dark and gloomy as the shadow of death, where surprises and calamities of every kind threaten him, he fears no misfortune . . . his enemies must look quietly on . . . , without being able to do anything, and see how (God) provides bountifully for His guest, anoints him with sweet perfumes as at a joyous and magnificent banquet . . . , and fills his cup to excess” (I:330-331).
Pulpit Commentary, on verse 4, says, “The quiet paths of righteousness and peace remind the poet of the exact opposite — the dark and dismal way through the valley of the shadow of death. Even when so situated, he does not, he will not, fear . . . The same Protector, the same gracious and merciful God, will be still with him — leading him, guiding his steps, shepherding him, keeping him from evil . . . however long and however dreary the way through the dark veil, I shall still have thy guidance and thy protection” (163). Few of us have trouble handling times of joy and gladness. It is when our path leads to sadness, solitude, and sorrow, even toward death, that we fear and despair. The successful life prepares to deal with these opposite and extreme experiences. With eyes of wisdom we can possibly see times of joy or sorrow approaching. There is time to prepare our response and action. More often than not, the change occurs suddenly — without warning. This is more difficult to manage, especially if the event is sorrowful. God instructs Christians, with the Word, on how to survive these changes.
When trouble and death overtake one who is not a Christian, he is without hope (1 Thess. 4:13; Eph. 2:12). It is a real test, even for faithful Christians, when it is time to pass through the valley of death. What will be the nature of our death? Will it be sudden? Or, will it be long and painful in coming? Will we retain our dignity, or be stripped of it? Will we be safe in that realm to come? Will we gain the ultimate victory, or suffer the ultimate defeat? Will our soul be saved eternally, or lost? If death comes slowly or suddenly, can we face it with calmness, assurance and peace? These are the questions. We wonder about the answers. In facing death, we seem so alone. Not so for the faithful Christian! Albert Barnes wrote, “The dying man seems to go into the dark valley alone. His friends accompany him as far as they can, and then they must give him the parting hand. They cheer him with their voice until he becomes deaf to all sounds; they cheer him with their looks until his eye becomes dim, and he can see no more; they cheer him with the fond embrace until he becomes insensible to every expression of earthly affection, and then he seems to be alone. But the dying believer is not alone. His Saviour God is with him in that valley, and will never leave him. On his arm he can lean, and by his presence he will be comforted, until he emerges from the gloom into the bright world beyond. All that is needful to dissipate the terrors of the valley of death is to be able to say, ‘Thou art with me’” (Psalms I:212).
I cannot imagine walking the valley of death without this confidence and hope. Why would anyone knowingly approach the valley unprepared? Why would any thinking person inflict upon his loved ones the despair of knowing he was not ready to meet God? When God has offered us his hand, assuring safe passage, why would we try to walk that way alone? I do not know when or how I shall die, but one thing is sure, I want my Savior to lead me to the safe harbor of the soul — into the presence of God. Let us join together in preparing for this inevitable journey, for “. . . it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27).
For the child of God, eternal rest is a desired reward, but getting to it, walking across “the chilly Jordan of death,” seems so lonesome and fearful, in spite of the assurances found in David’s poetic message. The words of a beautiful old song, written by Charles E. Durham and Thomas Ramsey, are especially poignant, appropriate, helpful and meaningful to us today.
When I come to the river at ending of day, When the last winds of sorrow have blown; There’ll be somebody waiting to show me the way, I won’t have to cross Jordan alone.
Oftentimes I’m forsaken, and weary and sad, When it seems that my friends have all gone;
There is one tho’t that cheers me and makes my heart glad, I won’t have to cross Jordan alone.
Tho’ the billows of sorrow and trouble may sweep, Christ the Savior will care for His own;
Till the end of the journey, my soul He will keep, I won’t have to cross Jordan alone.
I won’t have to cross Jordan alone, Jesus died all my sins to atone;
When the darkness I see, He’ll be waiting for me, I won’t have to cross Jordan alone.
Our sins, which bring us under condemnation by God, are forgiven when we believe in Christ and the gospel message, repent of our sins, and when we are baptized into Christ for the remission of those sins (Acts 2:38). Only then is salvation realized. When one knows that his sins have been cleansed by the blood of Christ; that his is a new life in Christ; that the splendor of Heaven is his ultimate destination; his is a contentment, satisfaction, and peace of mind that few men ever come to realize.
His entire life soon bespeaks the essence of that for which responsible men long. He knows that the torturous darkness of sin has been dispelled with the glorious light of God’s Holy Word and in forgiveness. No longer must he grope painfully and hopelessly in confusion, for that which will supply the deeper needs of his immortal soul. The Word of Jehovah, as a beacon in the darkest night, has illuminated his path and it is the light of his life. He does not search in futility for that upon which he might lean. Christ is the anchor of the ship of his life and he finds refuge and safety in the Master’s protective, loving hand. His is something that no man can give; a blessed reward that no man can steal from him. The God of Heaven awaits to bestow that eternal blessing in which the redeemed of earth shall forevermore bathe themselves. And, let men praise his Holy Name!
Yes, the journey of life is fraught with frustrations. But, make no mistake, it is not an impossible venture. Scores have launched upon it and have found satisfaction for the deep-seated longings of their souls. Not all of these are faceless, nameless people in distant places and times. Some are our relatives, neighbors, and friends with whom we have trodden this time-worn earth; fellow travelers with us unto the grave; yea, even unto eternity. Today we honor the memory of one triumphant soul who has safely made his journey home.
Onan J. (O.J.) Willis, of Woodlake, Texas, was born on June 20, 1908 at the Kinley Ranch on Highway 94 just outside of Groveton, Texas, and he died while a resident at Villa Hermosa Care Center in Fort Worth, Texas, on August 2, 1999, at the age of 91 years, one month, and thirteen days. He was preceeded in death by his oldest son, Homer Cecil, who died in 1997. He is survived by his beloved wife of 68 years, Wilhelmina, and by his children: Donald and Marilyn Willis of San Antonio, Texas; Lewis and Joyce Willis of Akron, Ohio; Ouida and Billy Stover of LaPorte, Texas; Sue and Forrest Morris of Alvin, Texas; Mike and Sandy Willis of Danville, Indiana; and Barbara and Johnny Coleman of Decatur, Texas. He is survived by 81 blood-descendants: including 26 grandchildren and 48 great-grandchildren. He is also survived by one sister, Irene Mochman, of Bryan, Texas.
Many years ago, Dad surrendered himself in obedience to the Lord, becoming a Christian. Before long, he lost his way spiritually and wondered back into sin. I do remember that Cecil preached his first gospel meeting in Groveton in 1950, when Ouida and I obeyed the Gospel ourselves. At that meeting, Dad was also restored to faithfulness in the Lord, and he never looked back again toward sin. I remember his prayers through the years, in all of which he confessed his and our sinfulness, and asked for God’s forgiveness. And, friends, Dad prayed often! In this way he kept himself in a forgiven, saved relationship with God.
Today myriad thoughts about Dad flood our hearts and souls. Those special thoughts are as individual as we our- selves are. Allow me some personal reflections.
He was always “Dad” or “Daddy” to me. He never tried to be anything else toward me than “Dad.” I never doubted his love for me, nor his essential dedication to my success and well-being. He was always one of my most ardent supporters. He felt the same toward all of his children; he was without partiality. I remember the times when I deeply hurt and disappointed him. He would come home in the evening from a hard day’s work, we would have dinner, and then there was “business” that had to be handled. All through the day Mom would discipline us until she could do nothing more. She would then pronounce, “When Daddy gets home . . . ,” and we all knew what that meant! We were so good the rest of the day; even angelic at the table, anxious to help get the dishes cleaned after dinner. “Per- chance, perhaps Mom will forget to tell Dad . . .” But, No, she hadn’t forgotten. Soon Dad would call the threatened offender to the back porch, pull off that l- o- n-g belt (he was a big man!), get hold of the arm and swing the belt. It wrapped around us about twice, it was so big. Candidly, I cannot recall that it hurt all that much, but we cried as though our lives were ending.
The punishment was even greater if you were the second or third child that had to go out on the porch. The “torture” out there would still be resonating throughout the otherwise quiet little community of Woodlake (We Willises always had big mouths, especially as children. I’m certain we could be heard screaming for miles). No, in case you are wondering, none of us suffered any lasting physical or psychological damage from those experiences, unless it was Dad! We all made it through those days intact as a family, with love abounding. God’s way worked in our home!
There was never any doubt about Dad’s devotion to Mom; they loved each other dearly! The interest of each was always for the other; they were not selfish, staking out their own territory. They were a unit — one flesh, as the Bible defines marriage — and their children and friends all recognized that fact. They shared more than 68 years of marriage. I cannot begin to imagine Mom’s life without Dad.
Dad was an alarmist about the health of Mom and his children. If one of his kids was sick, something was done about it now! Those of us who are older (that’s all of us now, isn’t it?) remember Dr. Curry. He had a little Ford coupe which he drove for “house calls” in those days. If you weren’t the one who was sick, you still hated to see Dr. Curry’s car drive up out front. The medical solution to every childhood malady in those days was the newly discovered medicine, penicillin. Dr. Curry would pronounce, “O.J., I’ll need to give this one a shot of penicillin. And, since the rest of the kids will likely get the same thing, I think we ought to just go ahead and give them a shot too!” Yep, all of us were lined up and given a shot you know where, with the same needle! But, Dad got us well as soon as possible. I don’t know how many of those shots I got during my childhood. I do know that I am seriously allergic to penicillin today!
I also remember Dad as a worker. He worked hard in the trucking and timber business, beginning when he was but a young man. In those days, there were no big machines to do the job. Logging was back-breaking, hard work. Crosscut saws, teams of horses bunching and loading logs, double-bit axes, those were the tools in those days. Dad could swing an ax so effectively that he could almost cut a small log in half as fast as one might cut it today with a chain saw. I always marveled at this because I could never hit the same spot with an axe twice. I remember thinking that Dad could put that axe in the same groove for as long as he wished; he was that good with his tools.
I also remember those early hours when he left for work. In the heat of an East Texas summer, Dad made an attempt to get a full day of work in before “it got hot” in the afternoon. That meant he got up about 3:30 or 4:00 in the morning and went off to work. He wore khaki clothes, those tan colored shirts and pants. By 9:00 o’clock in the morning, Dad’s clothes would be totally saturated with perspiration; they’d be “brown” then instead of tan. He would cool off while driving to the mill with his load of logs. That was extremely dangerous work in those days and Dad limited severely what he would let his boys do. I also remember something else that we “city dwellers” can scarcely imagine. Dad would be driving a loaded truck to the mill when he would meet a funeral procession en route to the cemetery. He likely did not know who had died, but he would pull his truck to the side of the road, get out of the cab, remove his hat, and stand in respect as the family made their way to bury their dead. I personally think we have lost something valuable because we no longer show that kind of respect.
Dad’s career extended through this nation’s arousal of awareness concerning racial issues. I must confess that he used the highly-charged and insulting language used to refer to black people back then. Almost everybody, including blacks, used that terminology here in East Texas in those days. I would have thought Dad had a special prejudice toward blacks except for one recurring thought. He worked many black men in his logging business. If a black man was willing to work, Dad had respect for him. But if black man or white would not work, he had no use for them.
In rainy, winter weather when no logging could be done, hard times fell on the people working in the logging business. Unable to work, there was no income; no wages. I often remember Dad taking whatever money he could get, sometimes going to the bank to borrow it, and distributing it to his crew (both black and white) because “they have families to feed.” I treasure that remembrance about his fundamental thoughtfulness and fairness in dealing with his people.
I think I would like to have had Dad for a neighbor, except for the noise and confusion of a family with seven children in it. In stature, Dad was a giant of a man in his prime, yet he was the most kind, considerate, happy, and gentle man you could ever know. He was always helpful to his neighbors; respectful toward them and taught his children to be respectful as well; and he was never a threat in any way to the folks next door. That was the way of country, community life, young people, when we were children at home.
Dad was never much of a public person. I suspect the nearest he ever came to public action was his involvement in the worship of the church. Though all four of his sons would preach the gospel, and though his daughters would marry men who themselves would be very active in the church, Dad preferred to let someone else “take the lead.” Because he had such a limited education, completing only six years of schooling, he always thought that someone else could do the leading in worship better than he. However, because he attended small congregations without many men, he was thrust into a public role. He led prayers, the singing, made announcements, and officiated at the Lord’s table.
His practice of religion was different than is witnessed in too many Christians today. We used to ask him to take us someplace (perhaps to visit relatives in Lufkin, only 25 miles away. Dad would say perhaps “we can go three Saturdays from now.” Later we would even venture so far away as Houston; about 100 miles away.) But, not on Sundays. If we left, it meant a big decline in attendance and it took away those men needed to conduct the worship. He would say, “If we leave, who’s going to open and close the building?” So, we were in our place on the Lord’s Day. As a preacher, I long for families with that depth of commitment to the Lord and the Church.
I could continue with my reminiscences, but I’ve spoken long enough. I do not wish to over-burden you.
Cecil once defined sympathy as “entering into the feelings of another.” Until and unless one has encountered a circumstance exactly like that of another, I am persuaded that it is impossible to fully grasp how that person actually feels. It has not been long since we in this family had the stench of death all over us (Cecil died just two years ago), nor have we forgotten what it is like. All of us here are struggling to comfort and console one another through sympathy; to share our pain and grief. We have been praying for one another for months; we must not stop praying now.
For the family, let me express to you, our friends, relatives, and brethren, our gratitude for your deeds of kindness and thoughtfulness on this sad occasion. Thank you for caring! Thank you for sharing our time of grief. Your presence here will mean pleasant memories in the quiet, lonesome days ahead.
To the family, let me say something. We now have lost three of us, first Frankie, then Cecil, and now Dad. We are “going the way of all flesh,” and with age, we will be gathering for more and more of these sad vigils, with ever greater frequency. I do not know the condition of your soul, but I implore you, get right and stay right with God, if you need to do that. Do not inflict your death on us while you are unfaithful to the Lord! As you surely know now, death is almost too difficult to bear when the one who has died was faithful; it is almost unbearable if the dead loved one is lost eternally. Don’t do that to yourself or the family.
This family has rendered a great service to the Lord through the years; through the grace of God, we will continue to do all we can to save ourselves and those around us. We are yet needed in the Kingdom. I appeal to us all to “be faithful unto death.” If we do so, a crown of righteous- ness awaits us. Our prayer is that Dad now has his crown. Now, let’s work God’s works of righteousness and claim our crown as well. Dad, Cecil, and Frankie are waiting for us over there.