Just across the street from our church campus is an old community cemetery that our church adopted years ago in order to better manage it and increase the appearance which has a direct reflection upon our church. On a regular basis, I walk through the cemetery on my way to the convenience store in order to buy a drink and perhaps a snack (Butterfinger).
This cemetery is where my grandfather, great-grandfather, and other family members are buried. Since my time as pastor of Pray’s Mill Baptist Church where I grew up as a boy, I have preached 20+ funerals. I have visited this cemetery many times through the years. As a boy, I would pass through with my bicycle to buy a pack of baseball cards on a hot summer’s day. In recent years, I have stood before a heartbroken family in my long black coat with an open Bible as they said goodbye to their loved one. Through the years, I have learned some important lessons in this old cemetery.
Death Is No Respecter Of Persons
As I walk through the cemetery, there is one plot where three small tombstones sit in a line that catch my attention almost every time I enter the gates of the cemetery. These tombstones commemorate three infant babies that were taken by death from one family years ago. Sometimes we forget that life is temporary and that death is no respecter of persons. As I walk through that cemetery to grab a candy bar, I often reflect upon my life. Am I prepared for my funeral? I could be buried in the old cemetery by the end of the week.
I often speak of the frailty of life in my sermons on the Lord’s day because I have learned what it’s like to preach to a person on Sunday and have their funeral on the following Friday. As a pastor, it is my duty to equip people to live and prepare people to die. What about you? Are you prepared to die?
It may be difficult to fully understand, but God is the One responsible for life and death. No person lives without God and likewise, no person dies apart from God. The elderly who go to their grave at 90+ years of age are governed by the same God who watches over the infant who dies a few days after birth. Every tomb in the old cemetery adjacent to our church campus represents a life that God gave and that God took away. As Job said, in all cases, we must learn to say, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21).
People Need Hope In The Resurrection
Each time I stand before family members who are seated before a casket in those dreadful funeral home chairs, it’s a fresh reminder that we all need hope. I know what it’s like to look into the eyes of a child of God at the grave of a loved one and see their pain through their tear filled eyes. The hope they need to rest upon is the promise of Jesus’ return and the resurrection that will happen as Jesus reunites the souls of His children with their new bodies.
Likewise, I know what it’s like to look into the eyes of a lost person at the grave of their loved one. Their need is evident. Their pain is real. They have no hope and they need to find hope in the resurrection. In such moments, I have spoken of the spiritual resurrection that must happen at the new birth in order to find hope in the physical resurrection that will happen on God’s divine calendar.
In both cases – the resurrection of Jesus, the spiritual resurrection of the new birth, and the final physical resurrection of the new body brings hope to the broken hearted in a cold cemetery in January. Death has been defeated. Jesus will one day wipe every tear from our eyes, and death will be no more.
We Often Forget People
On my typical walk through the cemetery, I will stop and read a few of the tombstones. As I look at the names, occasionally I will recognize the family and start to make connections to the person. At that moment, I start to recall stories and connections the individual has to our church. Then I notice how the plot is unkept and obviously lacks attention. More troubling is the reminder that we often fail to remember the person, not just their cemetery plot. I often try to consider how many stories are buried in that old cemetery. Stories that would bring laughter and tears, good memories and tragic reminders.
As we press on through this temporal life, it would do us well to remember those who have gone before us. Their memory is important. Their legacy matters. For some, we can learn how to live. Others can teach us how to die. Still more can teach us lessons that will prevent tragic mistakes. Nevertheless, we should be diligent in trying to exhume the memories of friends and loved ones from the dirt of the cemetery.
As we continue learning how to live, we must prepare to die. May our legacy be so bright and full of Christ that nobody could bury it in the ground. Perhaps a man will be walking through the cemetery to buy a candy bar one day and stumble across your name on a tombstone. Hopefully your legacy will point to Jesus Christ!
John Owen reminds us, “We cannot enjoy peace in this world unless we are ready to yield to the will of God in respect of death. Our times are in His hand, at His sovereign disposal. We must accept that as best.”
This past Saturday, Jason Ellis, a close friend of our family was murdered. He was a K-9 police officer in Bardstown, Kentucky. He was ambushed on the way home from work early Saturday morning. Today is the first day that Amy will see her husband before the visitation begins. Tomorrow will be his funeral. Please pray for Amy and their two young boys (6 & 7), one of which is special needs. She will need the prayers of many Christians as her faith is rooted in the Lord. Amy is my wife’s best friend and what you read below is the letter that I sent to her today.
Today is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it (Psalm 118:24). The fact is Amy, Saturday was a gloomy day and one that you have dreaded since Jason became a police officer. However, it was a day that the Lord made as well. Sunday was the first day after your husband died and it was extremely difficult for you. The Lord made that day as well along with the new mercies that He delivers every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23). Monday was another day made by the Lord and it was also Memorial Day. We remembered Jason’s faithful service and want you to know how thankful we all are for his dedication to provide us with freedom.
Tuesday was another day made by the Lord and one that you provided great glory to Him through the press conference. Jason would have been very proud to see your strength and your reliance on God. Today is Wednesday, another day made by the Lord. Today is the day that you will see Jason again for the first time since he left the ball field last Friday night to go to work. Today will have challenges and blessings, sadness and peace. Through it all, remember that you will have your mother who loves you, your brothers who will stand with you, and many close friends to support you. Remember through all of the pain that you have another One who sticks closer than a brother (Proverbs 18:24) and He has promised to never leave you nor forsake you (Hebrews 13:5) and His name is Jesus Christ.
Tomorrow is Thursday and it is another day that the Lord will make. It is also the day for the funeral service of Jason – your faithful husband, dedicated father, committed family man, and highly respected police officer. It will be a day of many emotions that will flow like raging rivers. You will experience sadness, grief, pain, disappointment, and even anger. Behind the veil of sorrow will be a peace that passes all understanding as God accompanies you down the aisle. “Be strong in the Lord and be of good courage, your mighty Commander will vanquish the foes.” You will have hundreds of people there to show respect for Jason and support for you and your boys. Remember that in that large crowd of people, the Lord of glory, the maker of heaven and earth will be present. Trust in Him Amy!
The day following the funeral will be Friday. It will be another day made by the Lord. It will come with added challenges and new mercies created by the Lord specifically for that day. Find your refuge and hope in Christ Jesus our Lord. Saturday will be another day made by the Lord and will likewise have new mercies delivered to you from God. As the Psalmist said:
I love you, O Lord, my strength.
The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer,
my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised,
and I am saved from my enemies (Psalm 18:1-3).
As the Lord causes the sun to peak over the trees on Sunday morning, remember it is the day that the Lord has made. Sunday is a special day – often referred to as the Lord’s day. The reason is rooted in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Jesus was brutally murdered. His body was disfigured. He was hung on a cruel Roman cross in a shameful way – completely naked – a place where the most severe criminals died. As He hung there He had the sins of all of the people who would ever call upon the name of the Lord for salvation laid upon Him. He suffered, bled, and died on the cross.
On the third day after His burial, Jesus was resurrected from the dead. As He stood in victory, murder was placed under His feet. Death was placed under His feet. Sin was placed under His feet. The devil himself was placed under His feet. He stood as the Victor over death and the grave. He has given us this hope that we too – all of us who have faith in Him – will one day have a resurrection to reign with Him as the joint heirs of glory. I love the way the Bible describes that in Revelation 21:4, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
Amy, may God cause the root of your soul to run deep into the well of God’s sovereignty during these days. May it be the truth of God’s unshakeable sovereign grace that provides you strength when you are weak, comfort when you are hurting, a smile when you are overcome with sadness, peace when you are unable to rest, and joy in the morning (Psalm 30:5)! Remember, God’s justice never sleeps nor slumbers and the person or people who did this horrific thing to Jason will be brought to justice. It will happen in God’s court and His vengeance is far greater than any earthly judge (Romans 12:19).
Just days after his children had died at sea through a shipwreck – Horatio G. Spafford penned these words:
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
You know that our family loves you and we are praying for you. If we can do anything – anytime – please call us.
What does James 4:14 have to do with our American “Tax Day” of April 15th? On April 15th 2003, God taught me a massive lesson about the “mist” of life. Life is here today, and we are not promised that it will be here tomorrow. Scripture has plainly spoken of this reality, but unfortunately many times we are caught off guard when death visits our friends or family.
It was 10 years ago today that my friend William Harrell died suddenly in a car accident. I will never forget receiving the late night phone call informing me that William had died while traveling home from having dinner with his brother. It was a shock that I can still feel today as I rethink those moments. I recall having fear, doubt, questions for God, and sadness in my heart for his wife who was only 10 weeks pregnant with their first child.
The Bible says the following in James 4:14 – “Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” Who can boast of tomorrow? Who can boast of plans they have for next month? The reality is – no person is promised tomorrow. In fact, Proverbs 27:1 says, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring.” John Owen said these words, “We cannot enjoy peace in this world unless we are ready to yield to the will of God in respect of death. Our times are in His hand, at His sovereign disposal. We must accept that as best.”1
This past week, I was in the remote mountains of Ecuador with a mission team from our church. We traveled into small remote villages to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. As my team and I went up this small path to a house, we were greeted by two women (a mother and her adult daughter). As we started to share the gospel, the mother was resistant, but the younger woman was interested in hearing the message from the Bible. After a very lengthy presentation and conversation on the gospel of Jesus Christ, it was clear that these two women were not willing to repent and trust Jesus Christ for their salvation. As we were preparing to leave, I handed a Bible to the women and pointed to the book of John as a good starting place. Before we walked off, I asked, “What was your view like this morning?” The older woman responded, “It was clear, but the clouds came in suddenly and surrounded us.” This particular village is located at approximately 10,000 feet of elevation and the clouds will often encompass the entire mountain causing it to be like a thick white fog of mist. After hearing her answer, I said, “That is exactly what the Bible teaches us about life. Our lives are here today, but they may not be here tomorrow. Therefore, it is extremely important for you to turn to Jesus Christ today for salvation.”
As I spoke to that woman, I was speaking from personal experience. I had a friend named William who loved Christ and was a man who challenged me in the Word of God. On April 15th 2003, his life proved to be like a mist – it was in front of me – and then it passed away. That same thing shall one day prove true about my life. In comparison to world history, my life span will prove only to be a short mist. It suddenly arrived and departed from the scene of humanity. Although my life has lasted longer than my friend William, it is nevertheless a short mist that will soon be driven away by death. It would do us all well to consider how quickly life is passing by and how soon we will be in eternity. It would be foolish to be constantly setting our plans in order and marking our calendars with life events without first considering the reality that we may be in eternity tomorrow. Are we prepared?
Luke 12:16-21 provides a graphic illustration regarding the fool’s lifestyle:
And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, 17 and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ 18 And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ 20 But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
Did you know that in the Bible the word “fool” appears 76 times in 72 verses – most of which are found in the book of Proverbs (wisdom literature)? It would be an extremely foolish thing to live as if you are going to be here tomorrow. We must be prepared to die. A quick walk through any cemetery will prove that young people die and are buried right alongside the elderly. How many people do we know who are speeding through life unprepared to stand before God? How many Christian men are speeding through life without preparing their children and wives spiritually? How many Christian mothers are racing through life on their i-devices while neglecting their children? How many pastors are going to die tomorrow without preparing their churches yesterday through the gospel? We must understand that life is short – like a mist – it is here today and gone tomorrow. Are we prepared to stand before the Lord of glory?
Pastor Josh Buice
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1. John Owen, Meditation on the Glory of Christ, Preface.
Often death catches us by surprise, and then takes our breath away in the process. Death can leave us feeling cold, exposed, fearful, angry, confused, and bitter. Sometimes, death brings all of these emotions at once! I still recall receiving the horrible phone call around midnight on April 15th 2003. My pastor was on the other line when my wife answered. She gave me the phone and I still recall hearing him say, “Josh, I have some bad news. William was killed in an automobile accident tonight.” I remember just becoming completely numb. It was the last thing I expected to hear. After all, we had prayed earlier that day that his meeting with his brother would be profitable! He was going to share the gospel with him after work. I was planning to talk with him about the meeting after arriving at work the next morning. That never happened – William was suddenly taken away.
I spent months questioning God on the reasoning behind such a horrific accident. He was a young preacher. He had a young wife who was 10 weeks pregnant with their first child. Why would God allow such tragedy? While I have never heard a voice from the clouds – I have become absolutely convinced that God’s ways are often mysterious but we can trust His sovereign will to the end. God’s purposes always bring Him glory. Even through the death of hymn writer’s daughters at sea. God gains the glory through the selling of a younger brother off into slavery. God has gained the glory through the suffering of Paul and the martyrs of church history. Jerry Bridges writes, “In His infinite wisdom, God allows trials in order to develop perseverance in us and to cause us to fix our hopes on the glory that is yet to be revealed… Our faith and perseverance can grow only under the pain of trial.”
In the book of Job, we see that he experienced great trial and suffering. The first chapter is a testimony of the trials he faced – under the sovereign plan of God. Job experienced:
- The Sebeans’ Attack
- The Fire from the Sky
- The Chaldeans’ Attack
- The Wind from the Wilderness
Job suddenly lost employees, possessions, and his children in one sweeping bitter providence. Yet, under the heavy hand of suffering – Job does something completely out of the ordinary! Rather than going down the dead end road of bitterness and being overcome by the cloud of confusion – Job worships God. The Bible tells us that Job worshipped and trusted God in the midst of his tragedy.
Job 1:20-22 – Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.
I have personally watched William’s wife Kerri follow the pattern of Job. Rather than going down a dead end road of bitterness – she has trusted her God through every difficult moment following her tragic loss of her husband. God has since blessed her with another man to be her husband and the father of her daughter with William. Not only has God blessed her with her husband Chip Thornton, but He has also blessed them with 3 additional children.
William Cowper wrote the following in a hymn – God Moves In A Mysterious Way
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
Our God is good, and He will always gain glory in our suffering. In the midst of this bitter providence of William’s death – God has truly hidden a smiling face. Although our trials and suffering moments in this life are often difficult to handle – we must turn to our God for comfort and find genuine peace in His absolute sovereignty.
Charles Spurgeon writes, “So surely as the stars are fashioned by His hands, and their orbits fixed by Him, so surely are our trials allotted to us: He has ordained their season and their place, their intensity and the effect they shall have upon us.“2
Pastor Josh Buice
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1. The Practice of Godliness, NavPress, 1996, p. 112
2. Morning and Evening, Morning: March 8
This week has been an extremely draining week of ministry for me. As a pastor, you are supposed to be ready to pray, preach, and comfort those who are gripped by the aftermath of death. That’s really easier said than done. This week, I have spent time in the hospital visiting with a man from our church who is near death due to an infection that has overtaken his body. It’s a difficult thing to watch family members who are crushed by the power of illness and the looming threat of death.
Just yesterday, I found myself rushing down the road to comfort a lady named Barbara who is a member of our church. She received that dreaded phone call from someone in Tennessee informing her that her husband had collapsed while making a delivery. Apparently, his heart stopped beating and they were unable to revive him. He was pronounced dead on arrival at the local hospital. He was in his early 60’s and death was uninvited and completely unexpected.
Today, as I plan for the funeral of this man in our church and seek to comfort his widow – I am reminded that today is April 15th. It was this day 8 years ago that my best friend and fellow preacher of the gospel was suddenly taken by the grip of death in a car accident. He left behind his wife and unborn child in her womb. I still remember receiving that phone call from my pastor late at night to inform me. My wife and I rushed to her house to do the very thing that I found myself doing yesterday – seeking to comfort a new widow.
What do you say to a new widow? What comfort can you provide? As a pastor, I dread those moments. However, I have the promise of Scripture to share in times of sorrow and grief! As death overtakes our hearts, crumbles life’s plans, fills our minds with fear, and literally turns our lives upside down – we must turn to Christ for comfort and peace. He is the only genuine hope we can cling to in such dark and sorrow filled moments.Since the tragic day of April 15th 2003, I have watched the “hidden smile” of God appear in the lives of Kerri and her daughter Libby after William’s death. William Cowper wrote about that by saying “Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.” I am quite certain that God has hidden a wonderful smiling face behind this bitter providence in the life of Barbara – the lady who found out her husband died yesterday. However, at this very moment – the only thing she continues to see is the looming clouds of death’s darkness.
When Kerri experienced her tragedy – no words of man were good enough to bring comfort. It is the peace of God that passes all understanding that is capable of bringing true hope in the midst of such deep pain. How can a widow, a son, a daughter, or a friend find comfort in death? It’s only possible to find true hope in the death of Christ!
Romans 6:23 – For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Because of our sin, we all deserve to perish – to experience the second death (Revelation 21:8). However, it is only through the brutal death of Jesus Christ that we have been reconciled to God the Father. The blood of Jesus Christ has literally covered the sin of every person who has faith in Christ. Therefore, the penalty of sin is paid, the judgment of God is averted, and the condemnation of God upon our guilty lives has been reversed. It was all accomplished through death – the death of the cross – the death of Jesus Christ!
A man named Horatio G. Spafford once received troubling news about his family. It was in the days prior to modern text messaging and cell phones. He received a tragic telegram that informed him of the death of his daughters at sea. They had been traveling with their mother by ship across the sea when their ship collided with another vessel. The only one who survived was his wife. His four daughters died that day. It was unexpected and extremely bitter news. This hymn writer was shaken by the tragedy but moved with the foundational truths of God’s grace to write a hymn. The words are famous and we sing them often in our worship services.
When peace like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like the sea billows roll; Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, ‘It is well with my soul.’
Tho’ Satan should buffet, tho’ trials should come, Let this blest assurance control, That Christ has regarded my helpless estate, And hath shed His own blood for my soul.
My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious tho’t!— My sin, not in part, but the whole, Is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more, Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
And, Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight, The clouds be rolled back as a scroll, The trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend, ‘Even so,’ it is well with my soul.
Chorus: It is well with my soul, It is well, it is well with my soul
How can we find hope and comfort in the midst of death? We can run to Jesus and find absolute hope and comfort in the death of Jesus Christ! He didn’t die just any death. He died the humiliating death of the cross. He died the excruciating death of the Roman execution system. He died as the perfect sinless lamb of God who takes away our sin. As Horatio G. Spafford put it – “My sin-oh, the bliss of this glorious thou’t!- My sin, not in part, but the whole, Is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more, Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!“
The true Christian finds hope in the fact that Jesus’ death has defeated our death. If you are not a Christian – there is hope. Hope doesn’t exist in the world – but it does exist in Christ. Turn to Jesus and He will take away your sin and your sorrow.Today my heart is full of sorrow and I really miss Stephen. I still miss William. However, due to God’s sovereignty over death – I have absolute hope of a reunion that will take place in Heaven because of the finished work of Jesus’ death. Until we meet again – It is well with my soul.
Pastor Josh Buice
Today is April 15th, otherwise known as “tax day” here in America, but to me it is a day that has greater significance. Rather than remembering “Uncle Sam” I am filled with the memory of a man named William Harrell. It was on this day in 2003 that my best friend, William Harrell, went home to be with the Lord through an unexpected car accident. As I think about the tragedy each year on this day, I also have the privilege to see what God has done since that horrible day in the life of his widowed wife and daughter who was not yet born at the time of the accident. As I consider the bitter tragedy today, I am reminded of the last poem / song written by William Cowper in a famous hymn he penned in 1773:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.
The words that he wrote, “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, But trust Him for His grace; Behind a frowning providence, He hides a smiling face” provide a great summary of the tragedy that surrounds William Harrell’s widowed wife, Kerri, and her unborn daughter. It was a knock on the door that William’s wife never wanted to receive. The police officers informed her of William’s death. She was literally brought to her knees in the pain of the overwhelming tragedy. She was left with many questions of how she would face life as a widow. She was faced with the stark reality that her daughter would never meet her own father. It was a very dark and painful night!
While it was a horrible tragedy by any measure, as we understand the sovereignty of our God, we realize that it was likewise a frowning providence. In other words, we realize that God must have had some plan in William’s death. As we look at the life of Kerri and their daughter Libby, we see that behind the frowning providence on April 15th 2003, God hid a smiling face. Today in the life of Kerri and Libby, we see that smile shining bright. It is a testimony of God’s sovereign goodness.
A few years later, my wife would introduce Kerri to a man named Chip Thornton. Chip was a man we met after moving to Louisville, Kentucky for Seminary. It would not take long before God would bring them together as husband and wife. Today, they are married and have been blessed by God with two additional children in their family – Boaz and Titus Thornton. Chip has now finished his Ph.D. work at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and they are serving the Lord faithfully through their local church. Chip is an unpaid elder who preaches and teaches in their local church, and Kerri serves in different ways through women’s ministries as well. God is using their family to reach people in the southern Louisville community as they await God’s direction as Chip pursues an opportunity to transition into full-time pastoral ministry.
Jonathan Edwards once said, “There has been a wonderful alteration in my mind, in respect to the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, from that day to this… God’s absolute sovereignty… is what my mind seems to rest assured of, as much as of anything that I see with my eyes… The doctrine has very often appeared exceeding pleasant, bright, and sweet. Absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God… God’s sovereignty has ever appeared to me, [a] great part of His glory. It has often been my delight to approach God, and adore him as a sovereign God.
“Why would God allow a young preacher to die? Why would God allow a young pregnant wife suffer so much under the pressure of losing her husband in a car accident? If God was not sovereign over death, it would be hard to walk through the valley times of life. God allows us to realize that even behind a frowning providence, somewhere and somehow, He has hidden a smiling face there.
May God bless the Thornton family – dear friends of the Buice family!
The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Selections, p. 59, 67, Published by the Banner of Truth Trust, Carlisle, PA 17013.