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In the Face of Death: The Meaning of “Faith” in Christian life

Posted by Dr. Todd Hall on August 16, 2017 at 9:30 AM

Todd's grandmother-1.jpgMy grandmother, Juanita Saxon, went to sleep in the Lord in May of this year. She passed after a long, strenuous battle with congestive heart failure (and other ailments). My grandmother was (as was my grandfather, “Pop”), to me, the very picture of Christian faithfulness. By her last breath she had fully formed her life into the image of her Lord, sharing in his passion in her own (as must we all), and finding herself finally to be alive and ready to be at rest in him. I was with her during the time of her passion, with my family. Seeing her suffer and then pass into her rest has been the cause for much reflection for me. Perhaps most profound of these reflections has been the meaning of a word that we Christians often throw around far too easily: Faith. I offer this reflection here.

Faith is hard. Faith is what remains when all else is stripped away. Too often we Christians speak the word “faith” easily, lightly, without realizing the depths of commitment the word requires. Jesus came preaching “repent…” and “believe….” (cf. Mark 1:15) This is the essence of the gospel’s call upon us. But what does it mean to “believe”?

For 2000 years the church has struggled with the inter-relation of faith and works. Paul of course argues that Christians are “saved by grace through faith… not by works, lest anyone boast” (Eph 2:8–9). And James tells us that “as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead” (Jas 2:26). Since the Reformation the battle has raged between Protestants and Catholics, and among Protestants, as to the relation between faith and works. I think that, while a theologically relevant discussion, this debate draws focus away from what is key to the term “faith,” and the living out of a “faithful” Christian life that so many Christians are searching to lead.

Perhaps we need to re-think the translation of “faith,” for I believe that the term “trust” might, today, more aptly shed light on the concept. Trust is a relational term, and this is precisely what Paul and James have in mind. To trust someone or something leads, inevitably, to the adjustment of actions and attitudes. For instance, because I trust in gravity I don’t jump off of buildings. When my wife tells me “that shirt doesn’t flatter you” I lose the shirt, because I trust her. We see in these fairly trivial matters the kind of call the gospel offers: re-think (repent) your entire understanding of life, and trust in the good news (cf. Mark 1:15). This is a life-long process of learning to trust in the God of Israel to the extent that we rely solely on him.

This has been heavy on my mind for the last few months, since the passing of Grandmother. For her life has served, for me and for many, many others, as an example of what it means to trust in the gospel of Jesus Christ. She was a servant who, by the end of her life, loved without bounds (truth be told, I never knew of a time that this wasn’t true). She taught the gospel to hundreds of people in prison ministry and elsewhere, and to thousands more in her kind and loving spirit. She was the embodiment of the quote attributed to Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” She rarely had to use words. She lived in the Bible (especially the Old Testament, her favorite), and the Bible lived through her.

Hers was a relationship of trust. She sacrificed so much, gave of herself to so many, because she trusted her Lord. And even in times of testing, she drew strength from that trust. She lived through the depression, the second world war, the Texas City explosion, the cultural upheavals of the ‘60s, the 80s (ugh!), and everything else. She’d dealt with hardship, all while learning to trust the gospel.

Todd's grandparents young.jpgTodd's grandparents old.jpg

But I was with her in the garden of her greatest testing, in that great dark night of struggle. She had moved in with my parents a few months before, and she was steadily declining. For weeks, we stood on a knife’s edge, visiting with her and wondering if we were at the end. For weeks she soldiered on, struggling to breathe, to talk, to carry on. Many times when I would drop in to say hello I would find her lying in bed on her side, her Bible held very close to her face as she read it for hours a day. She struggled with dignity as she prepared for the end of her life in this place.

When the day came, my father texted my brother and me to come by and see Grandmother, explaining that she had only hours to live. When I entered the room, I could feel the struggle. There was in that place a palpable energy as this saint struggled for the last hours of her life.

My mother sat with her, holding her hand, openly weeping but showing great strength. I sat with grandmother and held her hand. She would regularly become aware of my presence and speak to me, but I couldn’t quite understand her. Mom would translate for me. I told her I loved her, and she told me the same. She wrestled, presently, with things left “undone.” We told her we’d finish them up for her, and I prayed a prayer with her that a friend had passed on to me and that we’d been praying for a few weeks:

Lord, it is night.

The night is for stillness.

Let us be still in the presence of God.

It is night after a long day.

What has been done has been done.

What has not been done has not been done.

Let it be.

The night is dark.

Let our fears of the darkness of this world and of our own lives rest in You.

The night is quiet.

Let the quietness of your peace enfold us, all who are dear to us, and all who have no peace.

Let us look expectantly to a new day, new joys, new possibilities.

In your name we pray, Amen.

“What has not been done has not been done. Let it be.”

As the end drew near, however, she entered into her own personal passion, almost as if she were alone in the room. As breathing became difficult, she would lift her head from the pillow and cry “Help me, Lord! Help me!” and lay her head back down. I had to leave the room several times during this struggle to recover my strength (mom and dad and my brother stayed with her; they have more fortitude than I).

But I saw in her faithfulness and in her passion the illustration of a life devoted to the gospel. Here is faith. Here is trust. All else is stripped away, all that remains is to cry out to the God of her salvation, the God who had walked with her throughout her lifetime. And she did. She cried out to him, and to no one else. “Help me, Lord!”

Ultimately the opening battle with death is unsuccessful, of course. But she trusted the God to whom she called out: trusted that he would be with her, that he would hold her to himself, and ultimately that he would win the war against death. And she was at peace.

And the character that she’d built through her life of devotion remained: in a moment of clarity, with her final words, she looked to my mother and father and said quietly, weakly, but in keeping with whom the Lord had formed her to be, “Y’all go get some rest. I’m not afraid.” Maranatha.

That, brethren, is the hard edge of faith. That’s the faith that Jesus calls for: the trusting faith that manifests itself throughout the dark night of struggle and emerges on the other side unbroken, and unafraid. May we each live into that life of faith.

Read Part 1 of my

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Austin Graduate School of Theology is an Austin seminary offering B.A. and M.A. ministry degrees, and Austin Grad is accredited by the same agency that accredits Abilene Christian University, Baylor University, Southern Methodist University, Texas A&M University, Texas State University, The University of Texas, and others.  Austin Grad -- one of the top Christian colleges in Texas and among the top seminaries in Texas -- is affiliated with the Church of Christ and is in conversation with all who confess Jesus as Lord. Austin Grad promotes faith seeking understanding and is committed to providing a high quality education for those who desire to be equipped to expand the Kingdom of God.

Topics: On-Topic Today, Personal, Relationships

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