Sunday, January 13, 2013

In Memoriam

When I was about twelve years old, my brother, my best friend and I set a field on fire. It wasn't an accident, and since I'm confessing, I can tell you unequivocally, that it was a lot of fun. We got into a lot of mischief back then, and we rarely got caught. From stealing fish from a basket tied to the dock, to being randomly questioned by the police in a parking lot, we were always up to something. We ran from dogs, hid from cops, broke bones, jumped bikes, caught frogs and a litany of other things boys so often do. One day, we were playing in the woods near our neighborhood, exploring the area and looking for trouble, when suddenly someone produced a lighter, and suggested we start a fire. We thought this to be a great idea, so we collected some garbage and small sticks for kindling, and went out from under the canopy of the trees, over to the tall dry grass of a neighboring field. It didn't take long to light the fire. It took even less time for it to grow out of hand. Within minutes our little flame had grown to a large and angry blaze, having already scorched a circle a few feet in diameter. We tried to stomp it out, to no avail, and quickly realized that we were going to be caught and in deep trouble if we didn't get out of there pronto. Retreating back into the woods, we ended up hiding behind the trunk of a fallen tree and watched from a distance as, after a few minutes, a fire truck rolled up and made quick work of our fire. They looked around, puzzled as to what or whom had been the cause of the combustion. We waited in the woods long after they'd gone, for fear of being found out, and finally headed home post-haste.

It wasn't always trouble we got into, though. We had a lot of fun, many adventures and more than a few conversations that were pretty deep for 12 year-old boys. The friend from my story was named Justin. My brother was first to meet Justin, upon moving into the neighborhood, but Justin was my age, so we became fast friends. We didn't necessarily have a lot in common. Justin was excellent at sports. I was excellent at science. Justin loved to fish. I loved to read. He was chubby and strong. I was skinny and scrawny. Somehow, though, we made the friendship work. I have so many wonderful stories from that time of my life, and most of them involve Justin.

One day, Justin and I were walking to Doc's, a local convenience store / truck stop, where we would walk as often as possible to buy soda and chips, when the conversation took a serious turn. We started to talk about God, the devil, Heaven and Hell, life, death and eternity. It was a really weird conversation for us to have stumbled upon. Neither of us were religious. Neither of our families attended church. However, there we were, two pre-teen boys, discussing death and deity. At one point, Justin confessed to me that he was afraid to die. I confidently told him that I wasn't. This wasn't bragging. I was trying to reassure him of something. He asked me why I wasn't afraid, and I told him that I wasn't scared to die, because I knew that I was going to go to Heaven. Again, this was strange, because, as I said, I wasn't a religious person. I didn't go to church. I had no "personal relationship with Jesus." To be honest, if I'd been hit by a bus in that very moment, I don't think that I would have gone to Heaven…and yet, I was certain…as if, in His grace, God was already working in my heart, drawing me toward him, bending my heart toward matters of faith (and He was…) Justin told me that he wanted to be sure that he was going to Heaven, too. He asked me what we needed to do about it. I thought we should go to church. So we did. We made plans to meet that next Sunday and go to church. There was a large church near where we lived, so we walked by on our way home from Doc's (Pringle's and a Blue Nehi, in hand), and checked the sign to see what time the service started.

We got dressed in our nicest clothes, and met on the street outside his house at around 8:30. We walked over to the church, and followed someone in who looked to be about our age, pretending we knew the drill by heart. Nothing could have been further from the truth, though. We had no idea what we were doing. The youth led us into what ended up being a Sunday School class. However, neither my friend nor I knew the difference. We just thought that this was an unconventional church…or perhaps that they didn't let the youngsters participate in the real service - the kind we'd seen on TV. Here's what I assume really happened, though. We arrived too early for the service. After the Sunday School class all those other kids made their way into the service with their parents, but we just left, thinking that was all there was. We'd done it. We'd been to church. It was a triumphant, albeit disappointing experience. There was always a part of me that wanted to go back. I didn't have many friends, and there were a ton of nice kids in that place, but Justin never mentioned wanting to go back again, so I never brought it up either.

Justin died a couple of weeks ago. After a long fought battle, he lost the war to brain cancer, a war he'd been fighting for years. He and I hadn't spoken in about 14 years. His mother contacted mine after the diagnosis and before his first surgery. She wanted to tell us. We'd been such a big part of his life when he was a teenager. And even though we'd gone our separate ways, we still considered each other family. My wife and I contacted his wife, after the surgery. We became Facebook contacts, and asked her to keep us posted and to let us know if there was anything we could do to help. He was vegetative for quite a while, and was never the same after the surgery. The cancer had been too aggressive. They'd had to cut out too much brain. He was never the same man, again. This gentle husband, loving father, hard-working devoted man was forever changed. There did end up being needs, and by God's grace, we were able to help meet some of them, but even after this re-connection, I was never able to speak to Justin again. He and I still hadn't talked since we were teenagers…and now he's died. It's a strange thing when a peer dies. As I get older, it gets more and more common - a harsh reminder of mortality.

As a teenager, Justin had been scared to die. Now he has. I told him that I was certain I was going to go to Heaven, and now, as a Christian, I have even more cause to believe so. It's this belief that causes me to write. I know that there are some who may think this insensitive, but it is my desire that others come to know God that compels me. I've been told that somewhere toward the end Justin embraced faith in Christ, as he was able. Truly, though, there's no way of knowing whether or not he is in Heaven. I only hope that in God's mercy, it is so. I realize that to many this will sound harsh. "He was a good man", they'll argue. "Of course he's in Heaven." However, contrary to popular belief, it's not good men who are admitted through those gates. It is only those who have put their faith in Jesus Christ who end up citizens of His Kingdom. The Bible says that "there are none who do good" "there is none who is righteous - no not one" "surely I was sinful from my mother's womb". And Jesus says, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father, but through me." Then the Apostle Paul writes, "But now a righteousness from God…has been made known…This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus."

You, too, can be certain of your eternal destiny. You can be assured of citizenship in God's heavenly kingdom. Through faith in Christ, God will forgive you of your sins, obliterating the impenetrable wall that stands between you and He. It doesn't matter what you've done. It doesn't matter who you are. All that matters is that you humbly look to Christ, accepting by faith, the sacrifice he made on your behalf. You don't have to change yourself. You don't have to clean yourself up before you come to Jesus. On the contrary, Jesus is the only one who can clean you up! Come to Him in faith, pray to Him, learn from His Word. He, himself, will change you. He will transform your heart from one of stone to one of flesh, and will grant you admittance into his Kingdom, an eternal home, where you will dwell with Him who saved you, for all time.

The field is on fire. The blaze has been set. This world is temporary. Will you come? Will you come, in faith, to the only One who can douse the flames?

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