He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death. --Rev. 2:11
An early fall breeze slipped beneath the trees, sweeping brittle, browned leaves in tiny swirls before it. The leaves scratched their protest on the sidewalk before disappearing into piles pressed up against the chapel where Jesse James' stepfather preached his sermons. The chapel's stone walls dammed the wind's efforts to create a river with leaves, so I shifted my gaze to the right.
I was stalling, of course, hoping I could will away a goodbye waiting inside the home on the grounds of this tiny church camp in Holt, Missouri. It was the summer of '76, the start of my final year of college.
Knock or stall, knock or stall? I opted to stall.
On the crest of the hill, visible from the chapel's back door, stood three rough-hewn crosses placed there a decade earlier by a gaggle of nine-year old boys earning merit badges in summer camp. To the left of those crosses, rusted barbed wire pinned itself against the headstones of the cemetery where "Myrtle's ghost" slept. Myrtle liked to visit campers sleeping in the three wooden cabins some Stephen-Kingish planner devilishly decided to build right next to a graveyard. There, for decades, boys and girls spun scary ghost stories with Myrtle as the star. Happily, I was one of those talespinners.
Even with school in session and the campgrounds empty, the aromas of the past swept memories forward under duress. The smell of damp canvas tents, their musty odors always strongest in the dewy dawn, drew me back to a time when, despite evidence to the contrary from the cemetery next door, I just assumed everybody lived forever; especially giants like my friend and mentor waiting in the house.
I looked down to the field where cancer first made its effects known to us just a few short months before. Three of us were raking a field, and Francis was laughing as hard as I ever saw him laugh. As usual, I was the cause of that laughter. Grumbling about the crows and rabbits rousting his garden, Francis called them "d--- rascals"; and the stunned look on my face caused him to burst out laughing. "Preachers shouldn't swear," I said in shocked disbelief at what I'd just heard. He wanted to answer, but he couldn't because he was laughing too hard. "Oh, Randy," he'd say as he tried to catch his breath, but then he'd look at my face and bust out again.
Suddenly, he grabbed his side and winced; Francis never winced.
Like the browned and brittle leaves scraping the sidewalk to resist the wind's push, no amount of prayer or protest stopped the sweeping reality of the next few months, when cancer shoved Francis up against the walls of time, planting him inside the home where he waited to tell me goodbye.
I'd worked all that final summer caring for the campgrounds that were his charge. Though Francis led me to the Lord as my pastor, he moved on to be caretaker of a church camp, and I spent every summer and many weekends being his helper while he taught me my faith. Climbing off the tractor, I'd find Francis sitting in his study, brass quintets blasting Gospel music as he rested with his eyes closed, sometimes praying, sometimes sleeping. We'd listen to his favorite Christian radio shows while we waited for Norma to finish dinner; I grew intimately familiar with the de Haans and the Epps and all the older radio heroes of the faith sitting in his study waiting for dinner.
All these thoughts raced through my head as I waited to go inside to tell Francis I had to head back to college; I didn't want to knock because I didn't want to go. More than that, I didn't want him to go, either.
It was Norma who drew me back to the present as she opened the door. "Randy, come on in; he's excited to see you." I hugged Norma, the silent witness all these years to the bond forming between Francis and me, and she smiled the same smile I saw in the good days. I wanted to say something memorable, but I couldn't speak, so she did: "He knows you love him. I do, too."
For nearly an hour I stood by the hospital bed they'd moved into the living room. For nearly an hour he laughed and laughed at the stories I told on myself. Then, as he got tired, we got serious, and he spent his energy rounding off some rough edges he still saw in my faith. I listened, even as I tried to sort out how to say goodbye.
He stopped me before I got the chance. "You remember, Randy, what I've always told you. We have nothing to fear from the story of life because we know how it ends. I'm not afraid. You go do what I've taught you."
Francis had the same twinkle in his eye this last day I saw him as he had the first day I met him. It was once said of Winston Churchill that "he had no defeat in his heart."
Frances didn't either.
Who led you to Jesus? Who helped you grow in your faith? What ways have you found to thank them? How do you honor their gift to you? Do you tell the story to others? Are you passing it on?
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37-39)