Brenton’s voice over the phone was troubled. My heart sank. “Dad died early this morning,” his words faltered as the worst realisation suddenly sank in. “Oh, NO!” Holding the phone to my ear, my head sank to the desk. Rebecca hurriedly entered my office, and placed a comforting arm on my shoulder.
I have worked and travelled extensively with pastor Phil for so many years, and now with so much unfinished business, his death seemed so untimely. That’s what it seem for us, in this life, in the here-and-now, but of course not from God’s perspective. In the past few months, Phil had confided in my how much his heart’s chronic failure was rapidly deteriorating. On signing out of the online Zoom Bible Study last time, he half mischievously said, with an undercurrent of seriousness, “I’ll see you later, or I’ll see you later.” While his jovial but prophetic words weren’t lost on me, I wanted and chose to believe otherwise. A few days later, after a surgical procedure at the Adelaide hospital, he called me from the hospital, his voice in an unusually serious tone, saying that “it had went well.” He also went on to explain the doctors’ verdict: his heart was beyond repair and likened to a “blown engine”.
Rebecca and I flew to Adelaide for the funeral last Friday. By then, we had shed our tears, and it was time to remember and celebrate the life of a Godly man. Phil loved the LORD, loved God’s people, and gave his life to the service of the church, the Kingdom of God in microcosm. It was Phil’s desire that I facilitate the main funeral message. I spoke for a few minutes on the only subject I know at a time like this – resurrection hope, reflecting on the many years we’d worked together, and the love of the Lord Jesus Christ that characterised Phil. Of the 150 faces in the auditorium, most were relatives and friends I had not previously met. The rest were church members from near and far.
In the days since the funeral, Rebecca and I have spent the time with the brothers and sisters in Christ in Adelaide, talking, dining out, answering questions, discussing where we move from here and how we pick up the momentum. We were blessed to stay with Michael and Erin; they also offered us the use of one of their cars. I really enjoyed speaking with the local leaders there, sensing an overwhelming commitment and willingness to share the work of moving church life forward.
Before flying back home to Western Australia today, Rebecca and I visited Phil’s grave site one more time. Again, we wept. Not because we don’t believe, and not because we don’t have hope. We wept and hugged each other because we will dearly miss him. I loved him. I enjoyed working with him. I valued our numerous phone and Skype video calls each week. We worked well together, supporting each other, giving good counsel to each other, and vision casting to where we would one day have multiple pastors and elders forming an Australian ministerial council.
We were intent on raising up new leaders in the church. This is without dispute a process that takes time, wisdom and discretion. And because in our church family as elders we’re so few on the ground, servicing such a large continent, his passing seems so untimely and unfair. Besides, I’m not sure anyone is ready to step into shoes so big and established. Somehow we get thrust into service, as someone put it. I was happy to have Phil at the helm. He was the man for the moment. But, it is what it is. We’re all stewards for just a short time. And thus, I’m all the more aware of my own mortality and responsibility to raise up more Godly leaders. When Brenton originally called me, I reminded him of what someone one said about being a son in “being the strongest person at your father’s funeral.” He seemed to understand, and confirmed the commitment to continue the work his father had begun.
Now, we must let grief morph into gratitude, listen to the comfort and counsel of the Holy Spirit and love and comfort those around us. I believe the church in Adelaide is well and truly capable to take the baton and run.
While I have written extensively about resurrection hope, preached numerous sermons on the subject, as well as having written various articles over the years, nothing can quite prepare one for the rawness of death. Death is an enemy, introduced by the Devil in the Garden of Eden. Although the Tree of Life was freely available then, the first humans chose otherwise. And thus the reigning curse of death could only be remitted by the author of life, the righteous Judge, the Lord Jesus Christ. The law of God is perfect, holy, just and good, as it is true and righteous, but as such it condemns us all to death. The law can’t save us. But the Lawgiver can and did and does. And because of that we have victory. Phil ran his race. He fought his fight. Now a crown of righteousness awaits him on that day of resurrection glory.
That day, Jesus will descend from heaven and with a loud shout, call Phil’s name from the grave. In one of the oldest passages of scripture, it was the patriarch Job who asked, “If a man dies shall he live again? All the days of my service I would wait,” before crying out, “You will call, and I will answer you, and you will desire the work of your hands.”
By then, he’ll also be calling my name from the grave. If you’re read this far and nodded in agreement, he’ll probably also be calling your name as well!