Tuesday, October 5, 2010

+ In Memoriam Jancy Baker +

My mother, Jancy, went to be with her Lord this morning only a few months after being diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer. I have posted my open letter to friends and family below:


Dear friends and family with special words of consolation for my brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus our Lord,

Expressing grief is good. Feelings of loss, regret, and sadness are healthy. In a world that increasingly shrinks away from anything difficult or painful and insists that every aspect of life contain at least an element of fun, it needs to be said that you are not expected to feel good all the time. It is okay to hurt. It is okay to mourn. With the example of Jesus weeping at the death of His dear friend Lazarus, we need to recognize that there is nothing sinful in feeling anguish and loss when someone dies [John 11:1-44]. We can look to the example of Jesus weeping in the Garden of Gethsemane and see that there is nothing inherently wrong with tears [Luke 22:35-46].

As flawed, finite creatures we’re understandably afraid of and shaken by death. Even as Christians, death can be a daunting thing to face… but there’s no shame in that. Funerals make us uncomfortable. We have clever euphemisms to soften how talking about death sounds to our ears. We use Botox and plastic surgery to hide the ugly signs of death creeping up on us. We put off writing our wills and we push thoughts of our own death as far away from our minds as possible. We marginalize, avoid, and impugn the dignity of our elderly and fear the day when we will be like them. We go about our daily lives and do our best to distract ourselves from the subject of death as much as possible by staying busy. We don’t want to confront the harsh idea of our own frailty will give way to a final moment when we will breathe our last breath.

The judgment of our souls still looms over us and that makes us afraid. We all know that there are evil things that we have done for which we will have to give account and there are good things that we’ve failed to do that we will have to answer for [Romans 2:1-16]. Somehow we know that “Well, I tried the best I could with the opportunities that I had… most of the time” is just not going to be enough on the Day of Judgment [Matthew 25:41-46]. Regret, shame, and guilt set in. We all have a sense that perfect justice should—and will—prevail in the end. If we are honest with ourselves, we have to recognize that we are all criminals in God’s court who have committed so many wrongs against so many people. If we are honest, we are all terrified of facing the end and what lies beyond it.

So we lie to ourselves and assume that death is—while terrible and inevitable—at least distant in the far off future and not something that could happen to us at any moment. Our relatively safe and long-lived culture makes it easier to believe these misconceptions about death, but this man-made illusion is not how Scripture describes our situation. Our end comes like a thief. It interrupts our plans and it comes unexpectedly [Luke 12:22:31]. Every death, no matter how much or how little warning we may have, seems to shock and trouble us. It is abrupt, unnatural, and does not ever feel like this is how things are supposed to happen. Death is just a bad deal.

Death was not originally a part of the human condition as God created it. Instead, the creation account in Genesis describes Death as a curse, a corruption, which was not part of the creative work of God who originally made Adam and Eve sinless, eternal, and very good [Gen 1:26-31; 3:14-24]. The temptation is to blame God in times like this, but we were not created by God to suffer and die. That came later when Satan entered the picture. Deceived and tempted, Adam and Eve chose the path of disobedience, ate the forbidden fruit, and fell into sin. Through that sin, death entered the world [Romans 5:12-21].

But we’d rather not even think about all that. Our relative security and affluence here in western civilization clouds our judgment and lulls us into a false sense of apathetic comfort. Undaunted by sin and death, we have turned modern Christianity into a shallow system of vaguely Judeo-Christian moral suggestions; an entertaining, satisfying subculture where many of us think that “being a spiritual person” is little more than a system for enjoying life to its fullest and serving a God that can be summoned or invoked to serve our whims exactly like the New Age philosophy of the power of positive thinking or pagan white magic.

Christianity has cheapened itself to such a degree that we seem obsessed with living our best lives now, our spiritual progress now, and realizing our God-given potential now. We have trivialized the essence of our faith so that it is little more than drinking a spiritual energy drink or cashing in all of our frequent flier holiness miles for well-deserved prizes on occasion. The problem with this naive approach is that it is incomplete, false, and only pseudo-biblical. Authentic Christianity has always centered itself on the firm foundation of nothing less than the bold and unwavering proclamation of repentance and the forgiveness of sins through Christ.

When we ignore Christ or minimize His role throughout the entire Christian life, we place our faith and trust in the shifting sands of our own works, feelings, empty prayers, and achievements rather than in the immutable power and promises of Almighty God [Matthew 7:21-29]. It should come as no surprise then when we become frustrated by the fact that all of our hard effort is rendered futile, we fail time and time again, and the storms of life constantly remind us that so many things remain far beyond our control. It is not enough to hope if that hope is misplaced in something that is incapable of delivering on our expectations. Our hope and trust must be placed on a firm foundation that does not fail us.

Rather than learning and submitting to what God’s foundation is according to His own words in Holy Scripture, we like to make up divine promises that He never made and are surprised when God does not deliver on what we decided that He should do for us. A faith and confidence in ourselves and what we are doing rather than what Christ does for us is hopelessly weak and doomed to fail when it is tested. It is no wonder then that so many of us have a spiritual life characterized by ecstatic emotional highs at first that quickly fade and give way to dark crashes of prolonged confusion, depression, isolation, abandonment, and agony.

Obviously not all of the other things that we get distracted with in this life are bad. Many could be good things in moderation and proper context. It’s good to have fellowship with fellow Christians. It’s good to enjoy God’s gifts to us. It’s good to have a good time. It’s good to be optimistic and have a vision for where life could be going. It’s good to train disciples who understand good morals, productivity, and life skills. The desire to grow the church can be a good one. The problem comes when we allow the merely good works and things in life to take the place of the one best thing: The historical events that make up the saving, freeing message of the gospel of Christ [Galatians 3:1-14].

In the First Letter to the Corinthians chapter 15, St. Paul writes to the church in Corinth and makes clear what the church’s priorities should always be:

”Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you now stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.

"For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [also called Peter], then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”

This passage echoes what St. Paul writes earlier in the letter where he reminds the Corinthian believers that the entire Christian life from start to finish is tied up in a humble, single-minded focus on Christ alone. In Chapters 1 and 2, he writes:

“God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

The story of salvation through Christ and Him crucified is the Biblical definition of the gospel. The gospel of Christ crucified for the sins of man is true. Anything that could be false cannot be a part of the gospel, and, while other teachings or ideas may be true and good, they are not the gospel. The gospel is what we are to be about as Christians. We need to hold fast to the message of eternal salvation. It is always to be of first importance among us especially at times like this when death causes all other approaches, strategies, and plans to fail.

This is a teaching that St. Paul reminds us of again in his letter to the Galatians. In chapter 1, He writes:

“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

"For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.”

Why is this Christ-centered focus on the gospel so important for believer and nonbeliever alike? Because “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” [Romans 3:21-25]. Because “the wages of sin is death” [Romans 6:19-25]. Because “If we think that we are without sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us [1 John 1:8-10].” No man receives the Holy Spirit by works of the law. [Galatians 3:2] Our “…heart[s] [are] desperately wicked…” [Jeremiah 17:5-10] and our tongues are “...a restless evil, full of deadly poison…” [James 3:1-12]. We all love evil and hate good [Romans 7:15-25]. In our natural state, we are evil, alienated, hostile in mind, and enemies of God [Colossians 1:21-23; Romans 5:10-11].

In this desperate situation, Christ Jesus came down from heaven and took on our flesh to redeem a lost and fallen mankind [John 6:35-40]. In His perfect, sinless life He achieved every one of God’s requirements in our stead so that His holiness could be credited to our account [Romans 3:22; 4:3-25; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 10:10-14]. Moreover, He died on the cross for us so that the judgment and wrath that we so justly deserve was inflicted upon Christ in our stead [Isaiah 53:1-12; 1 Peter 2:24; 3:18].

On the third day, He rose from the dead and in doing so overcame death so that it no longer has any power over us [2 Timothy 1:8-12]. He mercifully sends and bestows upon us the Holy Spirit so that we can come to this knowledge of Him by faith alone apart from works so that no man can boast [John 16:6-15; Ephesians 2:8-10]. This faith in Christ comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God [Romans 10:17; Galatians 3:2]. With His Word, God graciously draws us to Himself by the power of the Holy Spirit so that our sins may be forgiven and so that we may be continually renewed and strengthened [John 6:35-46]. In baptism, we are crucified into Christ’s death so that we might rise in newness of life [Romans 6:3-4; Galatians 3:27].

These truths are not just an evangelistic recruiting tool that applies only to heathen folk, backsliders, or something that we only teach to new Christians and little kids. It’s the foundation and essence of the entire Christian faith for all people [1 Corinthians 15:3-5]. It is a message that we all need to hear constantly because we all are in constant need of God’s forgiveness and restoration. God extends love and forgiveness to everyone in Christ—even you [John 3:13-18].

We learn from Scripture that divine forgiveness is not some abstract concept that we pull out occasionally for nostalgia’s sake and it is not something that we can just gloss over. We need to constantly revisit it and be transformed over and over again by what Christ has done for us. This constant returning to repentance under the cross of Christ is what it means to be a Christian and not all these other things we get distracted by. Rather than arrogantly writing off any evangelistic message as something we have no use for because we have already heard it before, we are called to recognize that everything that is good in our lives in the Body of Christ is caused by, springs out from, circulates around, finds inspiration in, is vivified through, speaks explicitly about, and draws us back to this amazing life-giving message of the cross and the empty tomb.

In times like today, it alone is the only true comfort for our grief and fear because the proclaimed word of the gospel is the only message that carries in it the Holy Spirit and the very promises of God that offer true relief, faith, and salvation to hurting sinners in need and the means by which those sinners are forgiven, restored, and uplifted [2 Peter 1:16-21]. The gospel is for the whole world—including you [Matthew 24:13-14; 28:16-20; Mark 16:15-16].

Christ said, “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance [Luke 5:31-32].” Christ said, “Does [a shepherd] not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and search for the one [sheep] that went astray [Matthew 18:10-14]?”

We need to remember that what we consider to be the great “evangelism” letters like Romans and Galatians were actually written directly to specific groups of Christians and churches [Romans 1:7; Galatians 1:2-5] as the rule of expression for the faith so that the explicit gospel messages that they contain would be a divine promise that should be read aloud and declared constantly to all people: believer and unbeliever alike. This is where we find a true mystery of the faith: that the work of Christ on the cross is for everyone because it is in Christ that each one of us lives and moves and has our being [Acts 17:28].

This centrality of the gospel message in the life of the early church was so important that nearly all of the letters in the New Testament take great pains to explicitly remind believers of what Christ has done and they present this truth of gracious mercy as the foundation and standard of the life for the Christian so that the gospel message is presented as the fount from which all other teachings flow and the reality by which all other teachings and good works are to be framed. It is not as though this teaching appears in only a few places so that it can be safely ignored or trivialized [2 Cor 2:14-4:6; 5:11-21; 13:1-10; Eph 2:11-22; Philippians 1:27-30; Col 1:11-24; 2:6-15; 1 Thess 1:2-8; 2 Thess 2:13-17; 1 Tim 1:15-20; 2 Tim 1:8-14; 4:1-5; Heb 2:1-18; 10:19-25; 1 Peter 1:3-25; 2 Peter 1:8-21; 1 John 1:5-2:6; 4:1-6; 5:1-12; 2 John 1:7-11; 3 John 1:1-4; Jude 1:1-8; 17-23; etc, etc]. It is this faithful clinging to the message of Christ crucified for our sins that is presented by the apostles as the standard by which the health of any Christian, pastor, or congregation is to be judged (and not by merely by outward things such as wondrous signs, clever presentations, worldly wisdom, external growth, or zealous piety.)

I say all of this so that, as you mourn, you keep this same gospel message in mind and realize that you don’t need to worry about my mom. She is in a better place. And I don’t say that because I’m some sentimentally religious sap who desperately wishes to feel better by imagining or hoping that maybe there could be something good after all this but I lack any clear evidence to prove it. Unfortunately, there are many funerals where I cannot truthfully say such a thing because the deceased was not in the one faith that saves sinners from hell. Thanks be to God, this is not one of those times. Eternity is as daunting and terrible thing. I do not believe in life after death because it is therapeutic or useful to me here and now. I believe it because it is true.

I know that eternal life for Christians is a fact. As evidence for this claim, I am able to present the corroborated actual testimonies of multiple eye witnesses to the life, death, and miraculous resurrection of the historical man Jesus of Nazareth who demonstrated His divine authority by performing miracles that no contemporary witness was able to refute and modern science still cannot duplicate. This man claimed to be God in human flesh and that He had come to save us from hell by faith in His all-atoning sacrifice on the cross. His coming had long been foretold by hundreds of years worth of prophets [John 5:37-47; Luke 24:25-35] and from the very mouth of God Himself in the Garden of Eden [Genesis 3:12-15].

While all other religions depend merely on human opinion where you have to take the prophet’s word for it, this Jesus proved His authenticity, truthfulness, and ultimate power over all created things by His crucifixion, death, and miraculous resurrection from the dead just as He had predicted about Himself on numerous occasions. As much as His detractors and enemies hated this Jesus, they could not find persuasive evidence to discredit Him during His public ministry and could not present any evidence or witnesses to disprove His bodily resurrection despite their enormous influence, wealth, and authority in Judea, Greece, and Rome.

After He ascended into heaven, His apostles and disciples went on to perform similar miracles, signs, and wonders in the name of this Jesus and proclaimed the story of Jesus that they had witnessed to anyone who would listen. They encouraged anyone who doubted their story to go speak to all of the other witnesses who were still living at the time confident that the truth would be made apparent as one investigated deeper into what actually happened. With nothing to gain by their insistence on the factual accuracy of these events and everything to lose, they each went on to endure torture, imprisonment, exile, and unspeakable methods of execution and none of them wavered in their accounts of what they saw take place. These testimonies still ring true in spite of two thousand years of skeptical criticism and vain attempts to discredit their veracity. None of the other hundreds of actual witnesses to the resurrection of Christ ever came forward and presented an alternate explanation to refute the claim that Jesus Christ was the Son of God.

This dedication to the truth continued after the death of the apostles. The converted followers who remained, many of them first hand witnesses themselves, were equally stalwart in the face of religious purges and willingly submitted to being burned alive on poles or fed to wild animals rather than renounce the events that they had seen and experienced. Speaking from a purely intellectual standpoint in view of all of the historical, textual, and archeological evidence, we can be as sure that Jesus Christ lived in first century Palestine and rose from the dead with the same degree of certainty that we can have regarding any other historical event that ever took place.

So I am not guessing, speculating, or grasping at straws here. My hope is not misplaced. Christ rose from the dead. I know for a fact that He has saved Jancy and that she is now in heaven because the testimonies about Christ and His promises are trustworthy.

And it’s not as if Jancy went to her grave foolishly thinking that she going to go there because she was “basically a good person” or “faithful and dedicated enough”. Not at all! Rather she has been rescued from death’s grip solely because the crucified and risen Jesus purchased her with His blood; not because she had some desirable quality, inner strength, pious decision, or secret spiritual discipline, but because of His great mercy in spite of her undesirable sinfulness and frailty [Titus 3:3-8]. We serve a God who says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness [2 Corinthians 12:8-9].”

Of all the blessings, valuables, and gifts that she enjoyed in her life, my mother possessed a single treasure, a pearl of great price [Matthew 13:45-46], and she cherished it: She had her Savior, Christ Jesus. Let all other treasures pass away and be rendered worthless by comparison. She’s in paradise right now because of Jesus.

I say all of this so that, as you consider that your own death is approaching, you will resist the lies of the Devil and remember that the assurance of your eternal salvation does not require that you hit a set “heavenly entrance standard” regarding your own worth, morality, or dedication to God. Rather assurance rests solely in the promises of God and the faithfulness of the same Jesus who didn’t abandon His apostles even though they abandoned Him [Matthew 26:55-56].

Jancy was purchased and cared for by the same Jesus who reached down and pulled St. Peter up out of the sea when the disciple miraculously walked on the water out to meet Christ only to sink because of his “little faith”. As Peter cried out “Lord save me!” Jesus did not abandon him to his pitiful fate, but pulled His beloved sheep, Peter, to safety [Matthew 14:22-40].

It is this same Jesus who is faithful to His sheep [John 10:11-18]. Jesus Christ freely handed Himself over to evil men to be killed on our behalf. “…God made Him who knew no sin to become sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God [2 Corinthians 5:18-21].” The wage of death that we have all earned for our many sins has been paid in full so that we no longer bear our damning guilt in the eyes of God [Romans 6:20-23]. Instead, His own perfect Son, Jesus, willingly received our punishment on the cross [John 3:10-16].

And all of the good that Christ did on our behalf has been credited to our account so that God looks at us and sees RIGHTEOUS instead of SINFUL, PERFECT instead of FLAWED, HOLY instead of WRETCHED, and ETERNALLY SAVED instead of WORHTY OF ETERNAL DAMNATION. There’s nothing left for us to do to win God’s favor, prove ourselves worthy, or merit this divine favor from God. Jesus has done it all for us already.

We need to do away with all this unbiblical, foolish talk that always seems to place the ball in our court, hang the heavy lifting in our human hands, and cause us to doubt when adversity strikes. In whose strength and faithfulness should we place our trust: in Christ or in our own abilities? Do we hope in a false hope or is our hope in Christ? In many ways this “me generation” has gotten the person doing the work and the person for whom the work is done completely backwards so that we are expected to hope and trust in what we have done or are able to do to cause God to love and forgive us. This is wrong.

Times like this demonstrate why we must place our faith in Christ Jesus alone and return Biblical Christianity back to its proper way of speaking.

He is the one who has chosen you [2 Thessalonians 2:13; John 15:16]. He has revealed God the Father to you [Matthew 11:27]. He has dedicated Himself completely to you [Isaiah 53]. He has granted the gift of repentance to you [Acts 11:18]. He purchased you [Acts 20:28; 1 Corinthians 6:19-20]. He brings you to faith [Ephesians 2:8-10]. He will never leave or forsake you [Hebrews 13:5]. You have been invited into fellowship with Him [1 Corinthians 1:9]. It is He who works sanctification in you [Philippians 2:13]. He invites the weary and heavy burdened to come and receive rest in Him for His yoke is easy and His burden is light [Matthew 11:28]. He is the one who has done all the work. “It is finished [John 19:30].”

My mother knew this to be true and clung to it even in the final, difficult days of her life. These things were proclaimed to her and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the gift of faith was given to her, she came to believe, and was held fast in that faith until the day she died. While many of us who knew her were hoping and praying for some spectacular miracle that could only delay her inevitable death for a few decades, God had already performed the greatest miracle in her heart which few bothered to recognize: the miracle of salvation by faith in Christ Jesus.

The lesser miracle that did not happen would have restored her physical body to some semblance of temporary health only to face death again later on in the future, but the greatest miracle—the perfect healing—that did happen restored her body and soul to a healed relationship with her Lord through the cross. The lesser miracle that did not happen would have seemed spectacular as it would have returned her to temporary health for a short period of time only to face death again later down the road, but the greatest miracle that did happen was mysterious and unseen as the Holy Spirit gave her life eternal in heaven so that the grave had no victory over her because the gift of faith in Jesus.

This perfect God-Man, Jesus Christ, overpowered the grave. United with Him in His death, we who are poor miserable sinners are also united with Him in His resurrection [Romans 6:5-11]. The grave stands defeated, bound, and killed by Christ. Death has been swallowed up in victory [1 Corinthians 15:50-58]. Death, that terrifying thing that breathes down our neck every day as a specter, a thief, a sudden destroyer, and an unknowable pit, is now a toothless doorway into life everlasting in heaven for all who believe in God’s promises by faith.

What a blessed hope it is in all circumstances to know that in the face of our overwhelming sin we have an advocate, Jesus the righteous, who now sits at the right hand of the Father [Hebrews 12:1-2]. Scripture says that the Holy Spirit “helps us in our weakness for we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words [Romans 8:26-27].” By the Holy Spirit through faith in Christ Jesus, God has adopted us as dear children and heirs of the kingdom of heaven [Ephesians 1:3-10].

What a wondrous miracle of healing and life! By faith, my mother is resting with her Lord as I speak. By faith, she has been rescued from sin, death, and the devil. Where she is now there is no weakness. Where she is now there is no cancer. There are no tears. Instead there is the Holy City where the triune Godhead dwells surrounded by the angelic host. My Granny Baker is there along with all of the saints of God from every time and place to include all of your loved ones who have died in the apostolic Christian faith [Revelation 7:15-17].

Dear friends, take comfort in this: Goodbyes between Christians are not permanent. Those of us who are in Christ will see Jancy again.

And we must never forget that the Last Day will come where Christ will return as a triumphant, conquering king. On that glorious day of days, Jancy will be raised from the dead and will live again in the flesh just as Christ rose from the grave though He was stone-cold dead in the ground for three days. Her flesh will be perfected and glorified and she will live body and soul for all eternity in heaven.

1 Thessalonians chapter 4 says:

“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”

We will remember Jancy and everything that she has done for us. We should celebrate her life. More importantly, we should above all celebrate the God-given gift of eternal life that she now enjoys in Christ Jesus Our Lord [1 John 1:1-3].


Mike Baker


Paul McCain said...

Dear Brother Baker, I'm very sorry to hear and learn of this news. Thank you for sharing your beautiful letter.

May the *peace* of Christ, who *is* the Resurrection the the *Life* comfort and sustain you in your grief!!

You will be in my prayers.

Mike Baker said...

In February 2009, I asked on this blog "What sharpens, deepens, and improves prayer?"

A wise theolgian of the cross turned my way of thinking upside down when he replied with one word: "Affliction".

The last year and a half of my life has been a journey into the depths of this great mystery that you spoke of... a journey taken very much against my will I might add! I am only now beginning to really understand everything that your answer meant.

Thank you, Pr McCain, for your prayers, guidence, and words of comfort.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this letter. It shows me how beautiful your mother has always been. My daughter was in Kids Island. She has touched my daughter in so many ways. Thank you