[1Co 15:55 KJV] 55 O death, where [is] thy sting? O grave, where [is] thy victory?
My uncle Stanley was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer in October. He went to be with Jesus the morning of January 21, 2019. Once he figured out that his cancer was terminal, he set his sights on Heaven, and in typical Uncle Stanley fashion, he was in a hurry to reach his destination. He began planning for his departure as though a diagnosis of stage four lung cancer was a get-out-of-jail-free card.
All who knew and loved my uncle Stanley, know that he was a man with a mission — always! Whether he was preaching, visiting the sick or bereaved, making his famous salsa, planning a family get-together — or dying — once he had a mission in mind, he never wavered. Several years ago, he was recovering in the hospital following surgery. Impatient to go home, he was explaining the logic of his mission to his devoted daughter, Jennifer. When the surgeon walked in, Uncle Stanley simply switched his focus of attack to the surgeon. Without hesitation, Jennifer, who had learned a thing or two from her laser-focused dad, turned to the doctor and said, “I’m pretty sure we discussed my wish that you remove the ants from my father’s pants during surgery. It is apparent that you have failed in your assigned mission.”
I’m guessing that Mr. Ants in His Pants started planning his “Operation Heaven” mission soon after his beloved Shirley died a year ago, on December 23, 2017. It was just one day — or as Uncle Stanley liked to tell it, a mere ten hours — before their sixty-seventh anniversary, and two days before Christmas. Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, plans for an anniversary party and Christmas festivities had to be discarded and replaced with plans for a funeral. All who have read my post, “Angel Unawares,” know that Uncle Stanley, Aunt Shirley, and Jennifer are all very dear to us. If you haven’t read it yet, might I suggest that you make reading it your mission? In it you will find the story of how Stanley, Shirley, and Jennifer made numerous trips between Texas and Northwest Arkansas to minister to our family during some of the most difficult moments of our lives. Such selflessness drew all of us into an unshakeable bond that goes much deeper than mere family ties. How could we do any less when we were apprised of Uncle Stanley’s diagnosis?
My sister, brother-in-law, husband, daughter and I made our trek from Northwest Arkansas to the Fort Worth area as soon as we heard the news. My sister, who loved to tease Uncle Stanley, took him some bright, gaudy super hero pajama pants, and, though he was weak, he went straight to his bedroom to put them on. Our life-long friends (and family by choice), Nancy Benton Smith, John Smith, and their four practically perfect children joined us at his apartment while we were there. They sing bluegrass gospel and all play several instruments. Uncle Stanley fell in love with them when we invited them to play at one of our family reunions. When he found out they lived near him, he invited them to sing at the church he had founded at his retirement facility, and he quickly claimed them as family too. They played and sang several songs for all of us, and it was an awesome, joyful gathering of friends and family. Stan, Stan the preachin’ man enjoyed every minute of it. It saddened us to see that he was too tired and weak to sing along and flash his usual exuberant smile, but sometimes, to our delight, he just couldn’t help himself.
I had the opportunity to have a nice long talk with him about Heaven. He told me that every day he opened his eyes and realized he was not yet in Heaven was a disappointment. He was so excited about going home that it felt like I was closer to Heaven than Texas while I was in his presence. When I mentioned to my sister, Stacey, that I felt like he already had one foot in Heaven, she responded that, in typical Mr. Ants in His Pants fashion, he is in a hurry for his other foot to complete the journey. He had even made up his mind that God was going to take him home exactly one year after his beloved Shirley had died. When December 24th rolled around, and he was still here, he was a little miffed. He might have even pouted just a wee bit.
Even among strangers, believers can easily spot fellow Christians. Believers are the individuals who often exhibit serenity, grace, joy and strength during difficult circumstances. Evidence of their genuine hope and faith cannot be denied, and it cannot be duplicated by anyone who must experience trauma and tragedy without the Holy Spirit’s whispered comfort and assurance. Those who have never taken the steps necessary to becoming a Christian often recognize something different in the way believers process tragedy or trauma, but they don’t understand what they are witnessing. They are confused by how an individual who is facing such pain and heartbreak can still express such joy and hope. My mother had that dying grace. My father had it. My uncle Stanley had it. His hospice nurses said they had never been at the death bed of a more peaceful man. The same nurses told my cousin, Jennifer, that they were amazed by how calm she was as her father was dying. She pointed to a picture of our Grandpa and Grandma Cover and said that those two had left a legacy of faith that has prompted all of us to serve others in need. They also left a legacy of hope and assurance that death is just the beginning of an eternity of joy for all who have accepted God’s gift of salvation.
2Co 5:8 KJV – We are confident, [I say], and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.
I have both experienced and witnessed such hope, serenity, and unshakable faith as I was honored to journey beside many loved ones who faced death, but my last visit with my uncle was different. The only way I can explain it is to say that my uncle seemed to shimmer with grace during our visit. He glowed with it. Perhaps because of the intensity of his longing, it almost seemed as though he became a little translucent, exhibiting more of the spiritual man than the physical man. His benevolence, his benediction, his absolute joy and child-like eagerness to step into eternity left me feeling like I was touching Heaven while I was in the glow of my uncle’s presence. We had journeyed to Texas, hoping to bless Uncle Stanley, but we left having received the greater blessing, and we left feeling even more homesick for Heaven — for home. What an unspeakable joy and fathomless blessing it is to witness such devotion, such assurance, such grace at the threshold of death — and of eternity.
Life has become a little less sweet, death a little less bitter, heaven a little more real. ~ Puritan Proverb