WHEN A WARRIOR FALLS

When a pastor’s phone rings late at night it is never good news. That was true one year ago this week, when Marilyn, the wife of my friend Hank called from the local emergency room, clearly in distress. I jumped in the car, heart racing, uttering the only prayer I could manage: “Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.” I knew from past experience that when the nurse had me turn left, into the staff lounge, instead of right, to the exam rooms, that Hank was gone.

I have lost so many youngish friends and family like this, suddenly and without warning, that making sense of it has been a lifelong endeavor. You know the deal: a few seconds one way or the other, a decision to go left instead of right, a slight medical miscalculation, fragmentary details that tip the balance between life and death. That huge two letter word IF. Who can calculate the odds? And what does it mean?

Some things can only be understood by faith. I want to share my conclusions about that shortly, but first I want to remember my friend Hank.

Hank the Warrior
Hank gave a talk at our 2014 men’s retreat on success and told us about several occasions with various companies where he had been given the privilege to, “resign to pursue other opportunities.” He said that most of us would share that privilege and told us how to handle it: “Never lose your confidence. Get up, brush yourself off, and say, ‘Well, that was fun,’ and get back in the game.”

For that and many other reasons, I saw Hank as a warrior. Not a Seal Team Six kind of warrior. Hank was a spiritual warrior, an Ephesians six kind of warrior.

Eph. 6:10-12 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Hank was the kind of guy that the world could just throw stuff at and he could stand there and take it, and not lose his cool, and not betray his Captain, Jesus, and then lead.

For me and our church he had so many of those spiritual warrior qualities that a Church and a pastor need: A cool head, sober judgment, sound theology, engaging personality, the gift, with Marilyn, of hospitality, the abilities to teach, and lead and administrate. Hank was a good and faithful steward of everything that was and is our church, and all that with the heart of a servant. Because of that he was my personal friend and mentor, a guide stone when I was clueless, and a true partner in faith and ministry.

So what do you do when you lose a man like that? What do you make of it? Here are some of the conclusions I’ve come to.

When a Warrior Falls Remember:
That Hank and you and I and every other follower of Christ serve the Creator of the universe in the Great War between good and evil. Jesus is our great Captain and we serve at his pleasure, in life or by death. He chooses the day we depart.

That He loves us beyond anything that we could ask or imagine.

That He takes care of his widows and orphans. How well I know this.

That in his own life of poverty and service, and unjust and brutal death, Jesus has identified with all who suffer, with all who are taken “before their time.”

That His resurrection proves that this life is not all there is. That Hank now lives in a world more real and so glorious that when we see it, all of life on earth will seem a mere shadow.

When a Warrior Falls Remember:
What the Apostle Paul wrote in the last few days before his martyrdom:
For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day– and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (2 Tim 4:6-8 NIV)

Remember that he goes to a reward, to be with his Captain. Remember to long for Christ’s appearing.

When a Warrior Falls Remember:
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. (Phil 1:21-24 NIV)

I know that Hank prefers his current location over this world. And I have this great fear that I’m going to outlive everyone that I love. But that is up to my Captain. Either way, I will keep doing what he made me to do.

When a warrior falls remember to keep doing what your Captain made you to do.

Hank became an elder at our church in 2005 and I wouldn’t let him resign until 2014. Our board meets twice a month and begins every meeting by praying; first for the needs of people, then the various ministries of the Church, and finally for ourselves and the things before us a board. We go around the table and pray.

It’s easy for prayers like that to become perfunctory, like saying grace at meals. Sometimes you’ll hear yourself or another man drop into a pattern and you wonder if he’s “checked out.”

Hank developed a pattern over that last year, a close to his prayer that sounded a common theme, but it was never perfunctory. In fact it was so urgent within him; it was coming from such a deep place, that it became at once a riveting call as well as a benediction from my friend. It went like this:

“Father, no matter what we are able to do as a Church, no matter what we get involved in, never let us lose sight of Christ. Always draw us back and keep us centered on Christ and his Cross; the salvation and grace that come through him alone.”

And now dear friends, we cannot tell you how much we long for you to have the same hope and to follow the same Captain that Hank now knows face to face.

FINDING HAPPINESS

How do you find happiness? Apparently, more and more young Americans are finding less and less of it each year. At least that’s the opinion of author and political philosopher J. Budziszewski, who has had a ring side seat to rising generations as a professor for thirty-four years at the University of Texas at Austin.

In a recent World Magazine interview, Budziszewski (pronounced Bud-a-Chev-ski) says college kids are running in to the “hedonistic paradox” much sooner than previous generations. Hedonistic paradox is the title for the law of diminishing returns as applied to pleasure. The professor explained, “If you pursue truth and friendship for their own sakes, you will enjoy pleasure. If you pursue pleasure for itself, pleasure recedes and you are likely to find pain. Eventually you burn out … so many of these young people have started in on hedonism so young, and thrown themselves into it so thoroughly, that the paradox kicks in very early.”*

Budziszewski’s words struck a nerve because I had recently finished a sermon series on the book of Ecclesiastes whose author, King Solomon, knew more about the pursuit of pleasure than anyone. Solomon went after pleasure with the intensity of Peyton Manning dismantling an NFL defense. He had more sex partners, more and bigger parties, more financial success, more fame, and more of everything else than most of us could imagine. His conclusion? It’s emptiness, the vain pursuit of a slippery breeze.

So again, how do you find happiness? How do you find happiness that won’t burn you out and leave you in pain? Here are a few of the answers I’ve found. It has less to do with how and much more to do with who.

The who begins with God. Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and all these things will be added to you.” C. S. Lewis said, “Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first and we lose both first and second things.” I’ve found this to be true. When my relationship with God is first, every other pleasure is enhanced, like eating dark chocolate with black coffee, the combined experience is better than either one alone. Every good thing is a gift from my loving Father and I enjoy it more knowing it came from him. But when I put pleasure first even the good things are diminished.

Worship, the abandonment of all concerns and self-thoughts in praise and adoration, fills me with happiness and peace. Ditto prayer that has said all that needs be said and that does not end with “amen.”

The “who” continues with others: I’m never happier than when I’ve made my wife smile or laugh, than when I see her or my children flourishing in their gifts (she is always happy when she is creating beauty). Seeing others flourish, family, friends or fellow-believers fulfilling the calling and expressing the gifts the Creator gave makes me happy.

Communicating truth, whether in the pulpit, in a song, in this blog or face to face, telling the eternal truths of Scripture energizes me. I’m doing what my Father created me to do, and like Olympic runner Eric Liddel said of his gift of speed, “When I run, I feel his pleasure.”

Sex with the wife of my youth, sex without shame and without fear, absolutely certain that our intimacy and vulnerability with each other is protected by covenant loyalty and blessed with innocence by our Creator, makes me deliriously happy.

The where and what include motorcycle riding in the mountains on a spring day, especially with friends. I find myself singing thanksgiving songs as I throw it through the curves.

A good meal with good friends, helping others solve their problems mechanical or spiritual, these things give me joy.

All the above accompanied by beautiful music performed with excellence, or just music all by itself.

All of these things are gifts from the hand of a kind creator who gave us this promise:

“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ John 7:37-38.

If you thirst for happiness, if you long for joy, go to him and drink and you will never thirst again.

*J. Budziszewski: Generation disordered. Q&A | The sexual revolution has left many college students with empty lives, but there is a longing for something more. By MARVIN OLASKY “Off the grid,” Sept. 5, 2015.