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FIRST-PERSON: What to say to someone facing death

KENNER, La. (BP)–One afternoon recently, I picked up Bob Edwards on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” as he interviewed a reporter somewhere in Iraq with the American military. The reporter said, “It’s night here and I’m in the chaplain’s tent. It’s the only place where I can turn on my flashlight. We’re not allowed to have a light of any kind outside because the snipers will see it and fire on us.”

At the end of the interview, Edwards asked, “Is the chaplain there with you? Put him on.” The two men exchanged greetings, then Bob Edwards gave the man of faith an open mike to share the gospel with the world. He said, “Chaplain, you’re talking to men and women about to go into battle. Some of them may be killed. What do you tell them?”

There was a slight pause, then the chaplain said, “I tell them to trust their weapons. And trust their buddies.”

Long pause. Edwards waited patiently for him to get to the faith part, but that was it. He was through. I almost drove off the road.

In an attempt to salvage this disastrous exchange, Edwards asked, “Chaplain, what is your religious faith?” The man said, “I’m a Christian. A nondenominational Christian.” And the interview was over.

Baptist Press news stories told recently of military chaplains baptizing hundreds of men and women in our armed forces who are headed into battle. Surely we are safe in believing some of these ministers are getting it right and introducing our sons and daughters to the Savior. Not all our military chaplains have neutered their message to the point where they no longer have anything to say to someone facing death. But, alas, some have forgotten their message, if they ever had one.

“Why do you think so many people on military bases find churches in town?” an Air Force veteran told me. “Most of our chaplains have to be so politically correct they’re afraid to say anything of value.”

This semester, I am participating in a course on interpersonal relations for students at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Recently, we recognized two members of our class who are in chaplaincy training and whose units were about to be called up. The two men told their stories.

Both had been enlisted servicemen who put in a full terms in the military before deciding God was calling them to enroll in seminary for theological training and appointment as chaplains. They had hearts for God and a hunger to help these young men and women find a solid faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

The class prayed for them, for God’s leadership and blessings and protections. I sat there praying that they would not become victims to the system, that they would not neuter their message to the point where they had nothing of value to offer the troops. Longtime chaplains say the pressure to conform can be enormous.

Pray for our military chaplains. Pray that the Father will guide them in walking that line between respecting all faiths and obeying their superiors while presenting the Gospel of Jesus Christ without compromise.

During the Vietnam War, a reporter interviewed a medic returning from the battlefront. “How do you keep your sanity?” he asked. “You’re out there in he field treating men dying from every kind of wound. It must be horrendous. How do you stay sane?” The medic said, “It’s simple. Never look a dying man in the eyes.”

That is precisely the job assignment of ministers in the military and pastors stateside who shepherd the people of the Lord and preach the message of Jesus. Long ago, one put it this way: “We are to preach as dying men to dying men.”

On any given Sunday, as I stand to preach in the pulpit in our church, I have no way of knowing who among us will be next to face death. Everyone appears so healthy and well-dressed, they are so involved in life, that any talk of death seems lurid and out of place. But there are certain folk in our community who know the statistics. The newspaper reserves two pages in every edition just for obituaries. A dozen mortuaries and funeral homes stand by to receive phone calls from hospitals or distraught family members. Death is alive and on the job.

Our people will walk out the doors, get in their cars and drive onto the interstate highway. They will work on the river or in the Gulf of Mexico, tend to the nuclear power plant, maintain equipment in the chemical factories up the Mississippi, and service the planes at the New Orleans airport across the street from our church. And the phone calls will come just as one did early Sunday morning. “My sister died in the night,” said Catherine. The funeral is Thursday.

A man said to the pastor, “When are you preachers going to quit talking about death?” The man of God answered, “Just as soon as people quit dying.”

That day, incidentally, is coming. On the first day of every week and each Easter, we celebrate the death of death. By His death on Calvary and His resurrection the third day, the Lord Jesus Christ took on the greatest enemy of mankind, descended into Hades with it, and left it there. When He arose in victory, the Lord carried in His hands the keys of death, hell and the grave. “Whoever believes on the Son of God has everlasting life” has been our message ever since. There is no other group on earth with a message that comes anywhere close.

All around us, people are dying and dying to hear. Those who know how to live forever have an obligation to tell. Those who do not should find another line of work. Revelation 21:4 tells us that in heaven there is “no more death.” Until then, our job is to tell people how to get there.
McKeever is pastor of First Baptist Church, Kenner, La., and a featured cartoonist on BP. Check out his cartoons at BP Life Lighter Side, www.bpnews.net/bpfun.asp?ID=JM.

    About the Author

  • Joe McKeever