HER NAME WAS Martha, and I got to preach her funeral, a few years back. When she died, she was old and frail … and she finished well.
She taught the junior boys class when I was a kid, in the musty old basement of a little neighborhood church — every student a personal missionary project, I suppose you could say. I’m not sure Sunday School for Junior Boys was an idea God thought of, because of the way Junior Boys seem to be put together. When God created Junior Boys, he included wiggles, and whispers, and wonderings-out-loud about what makes kites fly, and how do frogs jump so good. God let Junior Boys see the world through a difference lens than older people use when they look at the world. Junior Boys see fences that need to be climbed, and races that need to be run. It’s difficult for a Junior Boy to hear what God has to say in a musty, old basement of a tiny church and a wrinkled grandma-type standing up front next to a flannel-graph.
She must have known that, because on more than one occasion, she abandoned that basement tomb and lead the Junior Boys in her class outside into the morning sun, looking for all the world like Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt and into The Promised Land. We would take walks through the neighborhood (yes, during class time on Sunday mornings!), spying our the land, looking for treasures and listening to the sounds of God’s creation. She seemed to take particular delight in teaching boys, who wondered about everything, lessons about the God who created every wonder.
Once, we made slings and pretended we were David, slaying Goliath. (And I accidentally hit David Cook with one of my five, smooth stones.) Once, we climbed a grassy knoll and laid on our backs looking up at the clouds and practiced saying the Twenty-third Psalm. She could almost make me see the sheep on the Galilean hillside as those cumulus clouds rolled by, and she told us about shepherds and sheep.
When I was growing up, my family was convinced that the place to be on Sunday nights was in church. My young eyes were almost always sleepy before the preacher even got started, and I would often slumber through the preaching. But I can still picture Martha, down at an altar at the close of the service. She always chose the same spot to pray, down on the left, in a corner by herself. She always took her Bible. And when she prayed, I was convinced God Himself was sitting in a chair, with rapt attention, listening to everything she had to say. It was at her side on one of those sleepy Sunday nights that I asked Jesus to be my Savior.
He still is.
Years later, when she learned that I would be going away to school to study for the ministry, she called me to her humble little house for a farewell before I left.
“I want you to know that I will be praying for you every day,” she said. “I will pray for your wisdom, not for your wealth or fame or anything else. If Solomon needed wisdom and prayed for it, it must be a good thing to have. And so, I will pray that God gives you much wisdom and insight in your future ministry.”
During my time at school, I received many letters from Martha, encouraging me and telling me she was still praying for me and for wisdom.
When I learned that she was gravely ill and probably would not survive the week, I made arrangements to fly from California to Illinois to see her and say good-bye. She was hospitalized, and I made the drive from the airport to the hospital hoping she would still be there when I arrived.
I walked into the room and saw her frail frame lying in a bed that was designed for someone much bigger. Gray, thin hair pulled back into a tight bun, lovely pink gown, with baby-blue ribbon ties. Feeble face of weathered life. Lines etched in that face, lines drawn by the seasons– winters of mourning and summers of caring. She looked asleep, but a coma caused her quiet serenity. I could not help myself. I smiled. I stood, a grown man yet a boy next to her bed, and for many moments, I looked into her old, wrinkled face and I smiled. I smiled for two reasons.
I smiled when I saw her because I remembered her sense of humor and her faith and her person. The memory of her life was in full bloom in my mind, and I enjoyed and savored the aroma of her faith.
The second reason I smiled was because, as I stood there in her room, I sensed that Martha was only hours away from an event she had waited for and longed for all her life. She was almost there — almost finished — and she had lived and trusted and walked before God in faithfulness and excellence. A Scripture verse ran through my mind as I stood there looking into her weathered face. It was delivered by another old war-horse of the faith, just before he left for Home:
“The time has come for my departure.2 Timothy 4:6-7
I have fought the good fight,
I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness,
which the Lord, the righteous Judge,
will award to me on that day– and not only to me,
but also to all who have longed for His appearing.”
There is much to be said, I think, for living life with a goal of … finishing well.