When the Answer is No

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I stared at the mortuary pamphlet in my hand. Dates, times, places. Death — the death of my grandfather, Emmett. My eyes scanned the page and froze at the name under Officiant. It was my name — not a minister, but Emmett’s granddaughter.

Three days before, my grandfather succumbed to emphysema. Only a handful of relatives had known he was in a nursing home, and the same few would show up to pay their respects. So in making the arrangements, my parents wisely simplified: a graveside service, a single spray of flowers, no minister. Would I, instead, write and read a composition in Grandpa’s memory?

Edging nearer the casket at the gravesite, I reluctantly unfolded a poem — a personal collection of memories. The paper and my voice quivered as I recalled spending holidays with my grandparents, collecting rocks for Grandpa to polish, and walking with him in the mountains.

But the last memory stung the most: My grandfather’s refusal to accept Christ.

Tissues and handkerchiefs were tugged from purses and pockets, trying to muffle the sobs. My composure crumbled as well. Despite the record heat that July day, the family shivered in the finality of my grandfather’s death.

I opened my Bible and read aloud that though darkness and death had won this battle, they would ultimately be defeated (Isaiah 25:8). I finished the service with 1 Corinthians 15:25, 26: “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

I refolded the poem, stuffed it into my Bible, and slowly threaded through hugs to the limousine. In its plush silence, I unfolded another collection of memories: the times my family and I had talked to Grandpa about Jesus Christ. Did we miss something? I drilled myself. What more could we have done? If the angels in heaven rejoice when one sinner repents, what are they doing now?

Neither a pang of regret nor a void of unfinished business answered my questions but, rather, a bath of peace.


Sow and tell

I waited for God to unroll the list of things we could have done better. But He didn’t.

Instead, He unrolled a list of church pageants and programs my sisters and I had been in as children — times when our grandmother beamed from the pew and our grandfather scowled, times when Grandpa attended church and heard the gospel. After each presentation, he strolled out of the church as if he had just been to a museum.

Years later after Grandma died, Grandpa sank into a bottomless pit of grief. We thought he might be more receptive to the gospel, so I phoned him one night. I waited and prayed while Grandpa cried in little-boy sobs. Then I spoke. “Grandpa, Jesus knows what you’re going through. He knows how sad you are. He can help.”

My grandfather’s reaction revived mental pictures of his stoicism in church. “I just miss Helen,” he choked out — and closed the conversation.

My family and I also practiced the gospel before Grandpa. When Grandma died, she left him helpless in running the household. So Mom taught him how to write a check and make out a grocery list. I wrote detailed instructions on how to operate the washer and dryer. Many times we took Grandpa to lunch. We talked. We listened. We cried. We hugged.

We sowed. A year after my grandfather’s death, I read the parable of the sower. “A farmer went out to sow his seed,” Jesus began in Matthew 13:3. I’d heard preachers expound on the different types of soil Jesus went on to describe, yet they stepped over His first thought: The farmer sowed.

As the farmer sowed without thought of the soil, so the prophet spoke without thought of his listeners. In His call to Ezekiel, God said, “Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you and you live among scorpions. Do not be afraid of what they say or be terrified by them . . . You must speak my words to them . . .” (Ezekiel 2:6, 7).

Ezekiel’s job was to communicate. Following this call, his book unfolds into a message of doom, judgment, destruction, and restoration. But all God required of Ezekiel was that he speak.


The right to choose

Before Ezekiel could summon breath, God warned him, “The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says.’ And whether they listen or fail to listen — for they are a rebellious people — they will know that a prophet has been among them” (vv. 4, 5).

Jesus shaped the same truth in different words. In His parable, once the farmer scattered the seed, he lost control. The response to the seed went one of four ways. In the first scenario, the seed fell along the path, but before it could take root, “the birds came and ate it up” (Matthew 13:4). In other words, the Evil One snatched away what was sown (v. 19).

As I thought about God’s warning to Ezekiel and Jesus’ parable, I recalled my grandfather’s response to what we spoke and sowed. After he moved into the nursing home, Mom visited Grandpa on one of his down days. Clasping his wrinkled hand, she crouched next to his chair. “I remember the lines of an old hymn,” she began. “‘O what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.’”

A defiant stare dried the moisture in Grandpa’s eyes, but Mom kept speaking. “You know what that song says? That God is a big God. He wants you to bring everything to Him — including your heart.”

My grandfather’s eyes shifted from Mom to the TV. “I don’t want to live anymore.”

“I know you miss Helen,” Mom persisted, grabbing the remote and switching off the set. “All this time God could have been helping you. He waits for you to ask Him. Do you know you don’t have to be in church to accept Jesus in your heart? You can do that right here.”

But Grandpa reclaimed the remote and revived the TV screen. “I have everything I need.”

A few days before Grandpa died, Mom spoke once more to him about his need for Christ. “There is a place beyond this side of the grave,” she said. “If you accept Jesus in your heart, that place will be with Him.”

But my grandfather answered in those familiar flat tones. “That’s not for me.”


Peace and satisfaction

Nearly thirty years have passed since Grandpa’s death. My parents and most of those at Grandpa’s funeral are gone. When I think of our attempts to witness to him, I never fail to sense God’s peace. I better understand Jesus, who grieved over Jerusalem’s rejection of Him (Luke 13:34), yet faced death satisfied that He had revealed His Father to others (John 17:6).

The experience with my grandfather has given me a more holistic view of evangelism — that satisfaction is not limited to seeing a harvest of souls but doing all God expects of me, regardless of the results.

Sherri Langton
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Sherri Langton has been on the editorial staff of the Bible Advocate since 1989 and is associate editor. She’s also a freelance writer and represents the BA at a number of Christian writing conferences. Sherri lives in Denver, CO.