An Affirmation of Faith in Time of Bereavement

Century House Evangelistic Foundation, Inc.

Les Woodson Ministries

The following statement was made in a sermon delivered by the Reverend Dr. Leslie H. Woodson. The occasion was the untimely death of his young wife, Gloria, who died of cancer ten days earlier. This affirmation of faith is here put in printed form with the prayer that its hope may be contagious for others who, as a loved one treads the chilly waters of Jordan, are experiencing the dark night of the soul.

Bristle GrassAN AFFIRMATION OF FAITH IN TIME OF BEREAVEMENT

I preach this sermon on the occasion of the bitterest experience that I have ever known. The substance of my remarks must be concerned with that which brought this bitterness and grief to my household. Therefore, it will be understood why this discourse is more emotional than eloquent and why oratory must give place to tears of weeping.

In the course of my earthly sojourn I have faced many trying situations, but for the first time in my life I have found it difficult just to breathe. Living has become a chore, the heaviest burden in the world. At eight twenty-five, on Thursday evening, March 3, 1966, I wanted to die. Never before had I entertained the least thought of desiring death. Life had always been a possession deeply cherished. But, on that night I would have welcomed gladly the grim angel of death. It was at that time that a flood of adversity engulfed me. I felt the waters rising and knew that I was going under the deluge. Jesus warned about these times when the rains descend and the floods come and the foundations of our lives are shaken. In 1929, there was many a man who awakened one morning to discover that everything he owned was gone. But, no man in those days of financial depression ever sustained a greater loss than I realized on the morning of March 4. When I awakened from my sleep, I was aware that all the plans we had made, all the dreams we had dreamed, and all the hopes we had dared to cherish were piled in a heap of wreckage which was irreparable. My wife was dead and I was left with the care of our three young children!

As a minister of the Gospel of Christ, I had been through it hundreds of times with others, standing by the bedside as one approached the valley of the shadow, pacing the lonely corridors of the hospital with the family of one who was entering that world from which no traveler returns, sitting with the bereaved near the bier which contained a loved one’s lifeless body and there were times when the tears came like floods to my eyes. Shakespeare, however, is correct when he says, “It is not difficult to bear another’s toothache, but when your own jaw throbs it is quite another matter.” Surely, no one can challenge my right to speak on this subject for I speak not from observation, but from personal experience. I have been through the “valley of the shadow of death” and I have relinquished to the will of God that which I thought I could never surrender.

There is no need for me to act brave and pious or even wise for I do not understand what has happened! Christ did not understand everything that happened to Him: The Master never found His life easy. It was always extremely difficult and awesome with possible tragedy. On that night in the Garden, when He took His cross and turned it over and again in His hands, looking at its every ugly facet, it was incredible to believe that God was asking that of Him! Why was it necessary that He should so soon die on a cross with all the life still in Him? With great stress and pathos in His voice, we hear Him saying, “Is this what you are asking of Me? Must I accept this cup and submit to this cruelty? Why, Father? Why?” And that night, as my wife lay dying, I picked up my cross and, as I looked at it, all I could do was sob, “O God, is this what you are asking of me? Why? Why?”• I have no answer yet. Perhaps, I will never have an answer in this world. But someday I will understand God’s pattern. Someday He will explain why He has pulled certain colorful threads from the tapestry of life while He has allowed other duller threads to remain. God has a purpose, a purpose we cannot see. But, if God could bring salvation to the world out of the grim cross of Jesus Christ, He can handle my cross and somehow transform it into a thing of divine beauty.

It was the Son of God who gave us our only clue to a sustaining hope for times such as this. Shortly before He died, He said to His disciples, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Ye believe in God!”• This is our sole hope, but is it enough! Indeed, we do believe in God and this makes all the difference in the world. We believe that God is just, that He does not tantalize His children with hopes which cannot be fulfilled or dreams that cannot be realized. He does not encourage us to reach for heaven and then disappoint us with oblivion. We further believe that God isrational, that He would not make the human spirit for a mound of earth in a burial ground. Dr. George Palmer, after the death of his beloved wife, Alice, pondered over what had happened, “Though no regrets are proper for the manner of her death, who can contemplate the fact of it and not call the universe irrational if, out of deference for a few particles of disordered matter, it should exclude so fair a spirit?”•We also believe that God is good, a truth which I have proclaimed for a score of years. But, upon the death of one, whom we love deeply, our faith in that goodness is put to its severest test. I can still say, without qualification, that God is good!

Archibald Rutledge returned home one evening to find Galboa, an old slave, lying in a state of semi-consciousness near the garden gate. When Galboa did not respond to his call, Rutledge began bathing his face with cool water from a nearby stream. As he regained consciousness, he said with a smile. “Someday God is gonna take me. Yassuh, God is good enough to do anything.” We often complain of the cruelty of the Lord when He takes our loved ones away. We would be more reasonable to commend Him for His goodness in taking our loved ones out of their suffering. Had my wife lingered, the future would have been a time of extreme suffering which neither she nor her family could have borne.

There are times when I feel like running away, times when I want to crawl into bed with the cover over my head. If I live a thousand years, there will always be days when this helpless, lonely, hollow feeling returns. But, we cannot run away. “To whom shall we go” in our flight? There is nowhere to go except to God. How pathetic it would be for us to lose a loved one, to take all the suffering, and fail to learn the lesson which the Lord is seeking to teach us. How sad it is when men become bitter and resentful rather than mellow and mature. In every exigency of life, our sense of God’s goodness should be deepened. About a week before my wife died, she said to her mother-in-law, “Mom, it is possible to know about God without knowing God, isn’t it?” When she heard the expected, affirmative answer,shereplied,“IthinkIknowHimnowasIhaveneverknownHimbefore!” Withoutdoubt,astheChristian nears his departure he becomes better acquainted with his God. Assuredly, I know Him better now, too!

Some will ask how my faith can be justified in view of the sermon preached one month before my wife’s death, a message of hope in which my reasons were given for believing that she would recover her health by the direct touch of God. These persons want to know how I can reconcile my assurance received in answer to prayers with the grim fact of reality which has now taken place. At the time these strong statements were made, I had no doubt that she would get well. One hour before she died, my nine year old son, who had spent the afternoon with his mother, suffered an emotional trauma unlike anything he had previously experienced. With tears running down his face and frantic questions upon his lips, the weight of his heavy heart was added to mine and, in desperation, I turned to my delirious wife and cried, “Honey, you’ve got to get well!”•While she had made no response to any of my overtures of concern for several hours, she now opened her eyes widely and, looking straight into mine, uttered the last rational statement she ever made. With an expression of unbelief that I could think otherwise, she said, “Why, I’m going to get well!”•

She did get well. For if I understand what Jesus has taught about the home to which she has gone, there is no sickness, suffering, disease, fear, or death. In a letter from Dr. Frank B. Stanger, President of Asbury Theological Seminary, received a few days after my wife’s death, the following observation of comforting truth was made, “We will never know why Gloria was not healed. But we do have this assurance, that God wills wholeness for every one of His children. And so our faith triumphs as we realize that the wholeness which God purposes for Gloria has had to be realized beyond the limits of mortal existence. Hers is truly the healing of eternity.” Perhaps, now I understand prayer better than before. It has finally dawned on me that there are some prayers which can be answered only in the next world. And this was the Lord’s way of healing Gloria’s lymphosarcoma, acute leukemia, and uremic poisoning. This must have been the way she wanted it at the last. If anyone wanted to get well and remain with her family, it was she. Yet, while in a comatose state near the end of her life, one of the words which she kept repeating at the exhalation of each breath, was, “Okay … okay … okay.” This was her way of saying to God, “It’s all right. I’m ready. In happy surrender, I accept Thy will.”•

Is it possible that her work was done? She was only thirty-nine years of age and had three young children who desperately needed her. And yet, she crammed seventy years into those forty years save one. Christ lived only thirty- three years and when He died on the cross no one who loved Him believed that His work was done. There seemed to be so much left for Him to do. However, when we look back on Calvary’s crowning day and upon the short, earthly life of Jesus, we are quite aware that His mission was finished. Some of us are like Methuselah who lived almost a

millenium but left nothing to show for his long life. We work so slowly that it takes us a long time to get anything done.

The older I get the more certain I become of the scriptural teaching on life after death. I thought that I had always believed this great truth, but when I placed my dearest possession in the grave I no longer just believed in Christian immortality, I knew that there is life on the other side of the grave. There are some in theological circles who still debate the question of life after death. I am beyond that. I know that there is more to follow, that life will continue; that death is only intermission time and not the end. For me, there is now no more terror of dying for death is nothing more or less than the beauty and joy of the Father’s House. Heaven is closer to me today than it has ever been. The Master wisely noted, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” My treasure is in heaven now, and my heart is there. Let us never again sing about heaven as a “home far away.”•Put a torch to that lie! The Father’s House is very near and the mansion occupied by my wife is numbered in the same square in which I reside. Henceforth, when I affirm, “I believe in the communion of saints,” I will know of what I speak. This is a blessed truth which none can fully appreciate while the family circle is intact. Now we wait for the homecoming. And the time will come when we will be reunited. William Jennings Bryan, just before his death, eloquently remarked, “Christ has made of death a narrow, starlit strip between the companionships of yesterday and reunions of tomorrow.”•

If I am to be honest with you, it will be necessary for me to admit that I am heart-broken and grief-stricken, but I must also confess that my grief is entirely selfish. I keep thinking of what I have lost when my thoughts should be of what she has gained. The road ahead for my children and me will be a long and lonely one, but for Gloria, she hardly will have looked around before the four of us will burst into her presence. I should, therefore, prefer my loneliness than that she should miss one bit of the splendor which God has given to her. So my prayer is “O God, in spite of my heartache, do not for my sake deny her anything!”•

Meanwhile, let there be no weakness, but let us move forward with our mission and the proclamation of life beyond the grave. In her more rational moments, when she was inwardly conscious of the imminence of death, she braced me with her strong and courageous spirit saying, “Don’t you ever let this get you down. Don’t you ever!” And by God’s grace and her sustaining, spiritual strength I won’t!

Let us pray: O Lord, grant us courage and strength for all the demands which life can make upon us. These are times of strain and heart-break for many of Thy trusting children. Let us never doubt Thy loving-kindness when tragedy strikes our families. But, give us strong faith and willing acceptance of Thy ways with us. And, when these feverish days are over and the shades of the evening of life fall across our path, give us a safe conduct through the darkness and a bright exodus on the other side. Amen.