2245) Unfinished Business (part one of two)

Jamison and Kathryne Pals Family


            The eleventh chapter of Hebrews has been called the Faith Hall of Fame.  The great deeds of many Biblical heroes are listed, each one beginning with the phrase, “By faith.” 

            For example, beginning in verse eight it says:  “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.  By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country.”  There is that phrase two times in two verses.  There are 40 verses in the chapter, and the phrase ‘by faith’ appears 21 times.  “By faith, Noah built an ark… By faith, Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau…  By faith, Moses left Egypt… By faith, the people passed through the Red Sea…  By faith, the walls of Jericho fell… And so on, through Gideon, Samson, David, Samuel, and more.”

            And those all are from only the Old Testament.  We could continue the list with those many faithful people in the New Testament, beginning with ‘By faith’ Mary and Joseph believed in the promise of a miraculous conception, by faith John the Baptist announced the coming Messiah, and by faith Andrew, Peter, John, James, Paul, Barnabas, along with all the rest, went out from Jerusalem to proclaim Christ to the world. 

            The list could continue down through the last two thousand years of church history.  By faith, the early martyrs went out to face the lions still singing praises to God, by faith Augustine taught people who saw the ruin of the so-called eternal city of Rome about the true hope of the eternal heavenly city, by faith Martin Luther said “Here I stand; God help me,” and changed the world, by faith John Paton converted the cannibals of New Hebrides, by faith Mary Slessor went all alone to preach the Gospel into the darkest jungles of Africa…

            How about one more?  By faith, Jamison and Kathryne Pals felt the call of God to be missionaries to Japan.  By faith, Jamison quit his job in Minneapolis and the couple began the necessary training to be missionaries at the Christ Bible Institute in Nagoya, Japan.  By faith, they made a long term commitment, sold all their belongings, and headed west with their three children, all under the age of three.  On July 31, 2016 they were on their way to a final training session in Colorado when their vehicle was rear-ended by a truck in Nebraska.  The entire family of five died in a horrific fiery crash.  By faith they had left everything to follow what they believed was a call to serve God– and they did not even get the chance to begin. 

            What can we, by faith, say about that?

            Thinking about the Pals family I was reminded of a funeral I did several years ago.  It was for a young man only 34 years old.  Jim died about this time of year, of a heart attack, while unloading a load of hay.  Jim was on the wagon, putting the bales onto the hay elevator to go up into the barn.  His 12-year old son Luke was in the hay barn, stacking the bales, one by one as they dropped down.  Then the bales stopped coming.  The boy was at first relieved to have a little break, but soon began to wonder what was taking so long.  He shouted for his father, but heard nothing.  Then Luke came down out of the hayloft and went over to the wagon, where he saw his dead father.

            Luke was the oldest of six children, the combined total of the children of his father and step-mother, this being the second marriage for both of them.  I had done their wedding.  Luke’s mother died seven years before this.  In those earlier years, his dad would always be the first one up and would go out and milk the cows.  Then the mother would get up and get the kids ready.  One day, the kids got up before their mother, and started to play.  Then they got hungry, and Luke went in to wake his mother.  But she did not wake up– and never would.  She had died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. 

            What kind of world is this where by the age of twelve a boy can lose of his parents, and worse yet, be the one to find both of them dead?

            I went out to the farm as soon as I heard the news of Jim’s death.  I will never forget that the first thing I noticed on the farmyard was the half-unloaded hay wagon.  It struck me as an image of what this life is like.  So often it is that death comes right in the middle of things—in the middle of work to be done, things to accomplish, plans to make, obligations not yet completed.  For Jim, it was the unloading of that wagon of hay, the raising of six children, and a whole lot of other things that a man is in the middle of at the age of 34.  There was so much “unfinished business.” 

            I used the phrase ‘unfinished business’ as the theme for the funeral sermon.  Many years later, when I was back to that congregation for its anniversary, John’s widow told me she still remembered what I said.  She was remarried and the kids were all grown, but the image of that half-full hay wagon was still with her.  “That’s how life is,” she said. “So much remains unfinished and incomplete.”

            I always begin graveside committal with these words:  “In the midst of life, we are in death.  Of whom may we seek comfort, but of thee, Oh Lord?”  It is indeed in the midst of life that death comes, and one by one we have to leave here, and everyone else has to just keep going.  Despite all the loose ends that remain, life goes on.

            As I said, that terrible crash that killed the Pals family last week reminded me of Jim’s sudden death.  Both families had so much ahead of them, so many depending on them, and so much to do.  And we all live our lives knowing such things could happen this week or this day to any one of us.  Some of you have already had your life turned upside-down by such tragedies. 

            Again, what can we say “by faith” about this?  Does God plan all this out ahead of time, or does God simply allow such things to happen?  I don’t know.  I don’t have that all figured out yet.  God is all-powerful, so he has something to do with it.  He certainly could have done something, but did not– not about Jim’s sudden death or that accident that killed the Pals family.  Why not?  Well, there are reasons, explanations, speculations; all sorts of things one could say.  And such theology can give us some helpful handles as we try to make some sense of it all.  But there are no completely satisfying answers to any of this.

            So what should we do?  When your turn at tragedy comes, should you get mad at God and blame God?  Well, you could.  You would be in good company. There is a much of that blaming God and complaining to God in the Bible.  God even honors it sometimes, because even when such anger or blame is directed at God, you are still bringing it to God, still talking to God, and have not yet turned away—just like Job, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and the Psalmist– even Jesus himself who from the cross said, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”

            But then, just like Jesus and all the others, don’t forget to continue bringing it all to God—whatever you have to say.  Whatever you do, don’t let go of God, and don’t let go of faith; because then you will be all alone and without hope.  You will still have to endure the loss, and you will still be heart-broken; but without God, you will then also be without any hope at all.  (continued…)