Monday, December 3, 2018

Absent from the Body, Present With the Lord

Gib is the gentle giant on the left.
Years ago, the rock band MercyMe recorded the hit tune, “I Can Only Imagine.” It later served as the inspiration for a theatrical film, telling the story behind the song and its message which ponders what heaven must be like. Don’t you sometimes wonder about this yourself?

These words take on deeper meaning when a dear friend or loved one who follows Christ passes away and it occurs to you that their wondering and imagining are over. For them, as the classic hymn “It is Well With My Soul” declares, faith has become sight. 

A couple weeks ago my friend, Gilbert (Gib), ended his year-long bout with cancer when he quietly drifted from this life to the next in his sleep. Over the months following his diagnosis and numerous treatments, Gib had voiced concern about the dying process, but never once did he fear the prospect of death. Many times he told me and others, “I can’t wait to see my Jesus.”

Even more than fishing, Gib loved
"fishing" in the name of Jesus.
When people learned Gib was dealing with cancer, they would predictably respond, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” He usually took this as an open door to tell them there was no reason for feeling sorry, that he was looking forward to going to heaven. Then he would kindly – but directly – ask if they had the same hope.

His hearers often marveled at his confidence; some called it courage. But as we studied the Scriptures together, Gib and I had talked about what the biblical term “hope” actually means – earnest expectation, confident assurance. And this is what Gib possessed until he drew his final breath. There was no hint of the tentative “hope-so” that comprises the best some people can muster as they consider their eternal destiny.

In 2 Corinthians 5:8, the apostle Paul writes, We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord." Gib could have written these words as well, and at last the Lord has granted this "preference." No longer encumbered by disease and earthly limitations, my friend is experiencing what I like to call the other side of eternity, since the Bible teaches that eternal life actually begins before death for all who have received Christ as Savior and Lord. "I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life" (1 John 5:13).

Gib was truly a gentle, congenial giant, the kind of man who never knew a stranger. Armed with a wonderful sense of humor, and a deep, resonant voice that could carry across the room, he thought nothing of striking up a conversation with anyone nearby, offering compliments and other pleasantries. Whether as an Uber driver, bass player in the church band, eating at a local restaurant, or sitting in a chair receiving his periodic chemotherapy treatments, he saw himself as an ambassador for his Lord. And he did his job well.

In the Bible we occasionally come across seeming imponderable statements, making us want to stop, scratch our heads, and ask, “Say what?” The declaration of Psalm 116:15 is one of these: Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints." 

How can a loving God delight in the death of His children? How can someone’s death be described as “precious”? I puzzled over that myself, until I realized what we perceive as the end of someone’s life is actually the beginning of a new one, unfettered by sin, pain, sorrow and all the hardships of our temporal lives.

But there’s another aspect to it as well. Think of a parent eagerly awaiting a beloved child’s return from a long stay in a distant land. I truly believe it’s that way with God the Father. As His children pass from this life, He is ready to welcome them, maybe even giddy with excitement. We talk about people “going home to be with the Lord.” According to the Scriptures, that’s exactly what it is, our heavenly Father with open arms receiving us to our real home.

I do wonder what is was like for Gib, as well as many other friends and loved ones, to be in the Savior’s presence for the first time. What a marvelous experience that must be, one that will never fade for all eternity. As 1 John 3:2 tells us, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” Imagine that, Jesus looking at us and instantly seeing an undeniable family resemblance!

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