"Behold now is the accepted time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation." 2 Corinthians 6:2
I was finishing up a Bible study when my phone vibrated. I excused myself from the discussion to take Jessica's phone call. Jessica said quickly, "Pastor, I hope you are not too busy. The hospice nurse said that Dad should pass some time today. Could you come to the house and pray with our family soon?"
We set-up the agreed upon time, and I arrived at the house. The family was in the bedroom with Bill, Sherry (his wife of 50 years), his daughter Jessica, the hospice nurse, and Bill's sister Sheila (and her husband, Larry).
As I walked into the room, I greeted Sherry with a hug. Jessica introduced me to Sheila, and she blurted out: "I know you! You are the guy from the video that told Bills' salvation story." I chuckled. "Yes, I am. When did you see the video?" I replied. Sheila told me how Jessica has been sharing the video clip with the other family members and friends. I was blessed to hear how the video clip encouraged her heart. I had just published the Go & Tell Great Commission Study Video series the previous month. I then asked Sheila and the others in the room to join me as I held Bill's hand to pray. Jessica called me a few hours later to share that Bill passed peacefully at home with the family.
The family had Bill's Celebration Service the following week. As I welcomed everyone to the service, we began by singing Amazing Grace. My heart was comforted as we sang the second verse:
"Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved:
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed."
After several family members shared their eulogies, I began the funeral sermon by telling how I got to know Bill over 10 years ago. When I taught Special Education, Bill's wife was my favorite substitute teacher. Sherry and I began praying together for Bill's salvation a decade earlier. I faithfully prayed for Bill's salvation almost twice a week for the next several years. Bill eventually visited our church one Sunday. Afterward, we began to meet regularly and I learned many things about Bill:
He was born in Goshen, Indiana, and moved with his family to Elkhart as a youth. Bill graduated from Elkhart High School and went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree from Indiana University of South Bend. He was a soldier in the United States Army, attained the rank of First Lieutenant, served one year in Vietnam, and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for heroism in ground combat. Bill's first date with Sherry consisted of dancing and laughter that continued for 50 years. He has two kids: Jessica (Matt) and Josh (Deb), and a grandson (Jacob). Bill had a lifelong love of music, literature, and writing (he was a published author of two short stories). He was an avid fisherman and loved spending time at his cottage on Irish Lake. He also enjoyed many sports, especially San Francisco Giants Baseball, Notre Dame Football, and IU Basketball.
I also learned that Bill grew up Methodist, and Sherry's background was in the Catholic Church. I eventually asked Bill, "May I ask you a spiritual question?" He assured me that I could. I asked him: "Bill, if you were to stand before God and he was to ask you why He should let you into heaven, what would you say?" He replied: "Wow. That's a huge question, and I assume I would say because I'm a pretty good person."
As we continued our spiritual conversation, he eventually shared with me that he was a sinner, separated from God, and was destined for hell. I then shared the gospel clearly with him and explained that Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead to take away his sins and forgive him. I could see he was not ready to profess faith in Jesus, so I asked him if we could get together every 3 or 4 weeks to explore the gospel story.
We began to do just that. We met regularly, laughed, shared coffee, and talked about Jesus. Several years after the first time we discussed sin and salvation, he came to the church to see me. The first thing he said to me was: "Jim, I want you to know I have not repented, and I am still going to hell!" I laughed and said: "Thanks for getting that out of the way! By the way, Bill, how was fishing yesterday?"
Three years progressed, and the family asked me to come to their house on a Sunday night to pray with Bill for his upcoming heart surgery. Before we prayed, I shared the gospel of Jesus one more time. Afterward, Bill looked at me and said: "Jim, I guess I'm just supposed to say a prayer, and I'm going to be OK with surgery."
I replied, "That's not it at all. Bill, you must repent of your sins. You must trust only in Jesus for your salvation. Bill, I will say a prayer of blessing for your surgery right now. But when you repent of your sins and profess faith in Jesus, when God gives you a new heart, when you are born again, I want you to call me and tell me your story."
Two days later, I was in Kalamazoo for a pastors' meeting. I had just finished the gathering and saw that Bill was calling me. I took Bill's phone call. I heard a man with a broken and humble heart for the first time. He told me that he saw what he had done to God and his wife the previous night. He asked Jesus for forgiveness, and he repented of his sins. He professed faith in Jesus as his Savior. He asked me to come to see him before surgery and pray with him. I happily agreed to visit him the following day.
Bill, Sherry, and I prayed together for his upcoming surgery. Afterward, he asked me: "Jim, I have a question for you. When I repented of my sins yesterday, it was like a 100-pound weight was lifted off my shoulder. Have you ever heard that before?" I replied, "No, Bill. I've never heard that before." I laughed and told him that is what everyone says. I shared how God gave him a new heart. I told Bill; you had been born again. We rejoiced together over his salvation.
I shared Bill's salvation story during the Celebration Service. I sensed the peace of the Lord come upon those in attendance. I shared that I have one more account about Bill to share with them. Bill loved to go to family events, but he also seemed to love being the first to leave.
When he was at family gatherings and was finished with the occasion, he would tell the kids to make the obligatory hugs/kisses to the family. He knew it would take a half-hour to say their goodbyes to Sherry's extended family. He would often point to his watch and say: "It is time to go!" He would often go to the car when he was ready to leave and wait for the family to join him. As I shared this particular and funny trait about Bill, I closed the service by asking: "Bill is now waiting in the car. He is asking: Are you ready to go home?"
As always, Bill was the first in the family to leave to go to his heavenly home. He got in the car before you but wants everyone here to get in the exact vehicle. There is only one way to salvation, and that is by you repenting of your sins and professing faith in Jesus Christ's death and resurrection. I imagine Bill is in heaven, pointing to his watch and asking: "Are you ready? It's almost time to go home!"
"Behold, now is the accepted time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation." 2 Corinthians 6:2 (In loving memory to William Ray Lankford)