Editor’s note: This column originally ran during Thanksgiving week 2005. It is being posted again this year following positive feedback from last year. “Almost everyone,” the author says now, “can relate to” it.
ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–It’s almost Thanksgiving, and there will be an empty place at our table. My father-in-law, Don Duniven, planned to join us as he has many times before. My wife could not have a better daddy. My children could not have a better grandpa. I could not have a better friend. But without any warning, on Monday, Nov. 7, Don died in his sleep. We are shocked. We are heart-broken. And we are overwhelmed with Thanksgiving. Because only Jesus could have made Don the man we will miss so much.
For the first 16 years of my marriage, my wife and I prayed for the salvation of her dad. He had left Donna and her sister when they were teens and embarked on a series of failed marriages and terrible mistakes. It reached a point where he hurt my wife so much that I was glad we rarely saw him. He lived for himself and our children barely knew him.
But in 1996, on a miraculous night in Atlanta, all that changed. I was the guest preacher at Rehoboth Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Richard Lee was pastor. My father-in-law was also in Atlanta on a business trip and for the first time came to hear me preach. When I gave the invitation, I was stunned to see him coming down the aisle sobbing. He fell into my arms and gave his life to Christ! No one there will ever forget it as I told his story to the church and we all prayed over him. Late that night I called home to Texas and told my wife, “Honey, you have a new daddy!” I heard my wife run down the hall waking up our children and shouting, “Grandpa’s saved!” My wife and children danced for joy as I wept on the phone. Don actually died that night, not a few weeks ago. A new man was born and the impact was profound.
From that day forward, everything began to change. Don’s joy became Jesus and his family. I have never seen anyone worship like Don. He was always overwhelmed by what Jesus had done for him and he couldn’t hold it in. He would lift his hands and sing with tear-filled eyes. Preston Nix, my friend who had joined us in praying for his salvation, became his pastor. Don treated Preston’s family like his own.
Don, who threw away his money for years, became as faithful a tither as there has ever been. He became the greatest cheerleader for his grandchildren, losing his voice at every volleyball or football game, and he spoiled each of them rotten. Preston and I conducted his funeral. Three people were saved, and person after person shared with us how this changed life had changed theirs.
This is what Jesus does in a life. Don’t give up on those you are praying for. Stand before the Father in faith for them and then go to them with His love and good news.
There will be tears at our table this Thanksgiving, but there will be more joy, for our God lives and so does Don. Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift! Don, you finished well, my dear friend. We will miss you so very much. Soon we will see you again. But not yet. For there are so many more here who have not yet met the One who changed you. And we are sent to them. What a privilege.
Happy Thanksgiving, Southern Baptists. Treasure your family. Praise the God from whom all good gifts flow. Live for eternal impact. And thank you for joining your lives together to help make evangelism good news again.
John Avant is vice president for evangelization at the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board.