Last week was kind of tough around here - our family lost a neighbor and friend whom we've known and grown to love for nearly twelve years. About two weeks earlier his health had taken a turn for the worse and the family let us know of his condition.
"Bud" was a member of the Greatest Generation. Born near a small town here in central Michigan his family never knew riches or wealth. He grew up on a farm and learned to work with his hands. He could fix just about anything. He was a hard worker who up to the end still heated his home with firewood that he cut, split and hauled. He loved to garden and tend to his fruit trees - in fact, he was out plowing the garden a couple of days before he died. Often he would share some of his bounty with us: asparagus, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, melon, sweet corn, and raspberries. He also gave of his time and energy to help our family clear downed trees after a severe windstorm, trace an electrical problem in our house, and occasionally care for our pets when we were away. You couldn't ask for a nicer neighbor.
Over the years we learned some things about his life. He didn't have much of a church background and at one stage actually turned his back on the church due to the behavior of those in the church. He was known to say something like, "I don't have anything against religion but I don't have much use for the church. There's too many hypocrites in it." But even with that as his stated opinion he wanted me to do his funeral.
Bud was a WW II veteran who spoke sparingly about his service to our country. On one occasion he told me that he was attached to an armored unit and did reconnaissance (I had been reading Citizen Soldiers by Stephen Ambrose and asked a few questions). One of his most vivid memories was losing two comrades on Christmas Eve 1944 when their jeep hit a mine. Their unit was trying to find shelter for the night and Bud's jeep was in the lead. For some reason the mine didn't detonate when his jeep passed over that spot and much to his shock and dismay his friends were killed. I think that he was haunted by that memory for the rest of his life.
When his obituary was published I learned a few more specifics about his military service. I learned that he served with the 712 Tank Battalion attached to the 90th Infantry Division (Tough 'Ombres under General Patton). His first day in combat was July 3rd, 1944. Here is an account of that day July 3, 1944 712th Tank Battalion World War II. I'm pretty sure that the sergeant from San Mateo, California who was killed by mortar fire was Bud's sergeant -- he specifically told me about losing a sergeant to mortar fire (direct hit). He served with that unit until the end of the war. Though he was wounded two or three times by shrapnel he declined receiving the Purple Heart. You can get an idea of what he experienced by visiting this site and reading what another soldier wrote that chronicles the same time period, Letters From the Front - Morse Johnson, 712th Tank Battalion [Archive].
At the funeral I preached from John 11 and the account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. I explained what made Jesus weep (11:35) and made it clear that death was not normal nor God's original intent for humanity. I went on to explain the seven "I am" statements from John's Gospel and ended with Matthew's words, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest " (Matthew 11:28-30).
As I reflect on our friend I am reminded of the brevity of life. Moses said it well when he wrote, "For all our days pass away under your wrath; we bring our years to an end like a sigh. The years of our life are seventy or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly way...So teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom" (Psalm 90:9-10, 12).
The 'Teacher' of Ecclesiastes also has much to say as well: "Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes, But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment" (Ecclesiastes 11:9-10).
"The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring very deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil" (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).