April 8: The Death of a Christian

The Rev. Harold Samuel Laird was one of the giants among the conservative Presbyterians in the early 20th-century. He was the pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church, Wilmington, Delaware and a leading voice in the struggle against modernism in the Church.  What follows is his testimony, centered around the time of his wife’s death from a blood disease contracted early in April of 1958.

So I spake unto the people in the morning: and at even my wife died; and I did in the morning as I was commanded.” – Ezek. 24:18.

The spring, summer and fall of 1958 will long stand out in my memory as a time of severe testing and trial.  It was early in April that, in the infinitely wise and loving providence of our Heavenly Father, my life companion was smitten with a very rare blood disease, from which, though for about two months she seemed to be recovering, she really never did recover.  She went home to be with the Lord, whom she so devotedly loved and so faithfully served, in the evening of the last day of September.

While those past six months were indeed a time of severe testing and trial, the experience they brought resulted in great spiritual blessing to my own soul, that possibly could not have come by any other means.  At the beginning of the illness, when the condition was so critical that the doctors advised that I cancel all my immediate engagements, aware for the first time in our life together, of the possibility of her being taken soon and suddenly from my side, I began to pray earnestly for just one thing respecting her.  That was that God would spare her to me.  I knew that He was able to do this, for, if the Bible teaches anything concerning God, it teaches this, that “He is able to do exceeding abundantly above anything that we ask or even think.”  Being fully aware of my unworthiness, I plead the mercy of God and poured out my heart to Him concerning my need of her continued companionship in my life.  As I vividly pictured my life without her presence, I seemed quite persuaded that I could not go on without her.

One day, as I was pouring out my heart to the Lord, I suddenly became aware of the fact that I was really not trusting the Lord.  I was pleading with Him to heal my companion, because I knew that He was able and felt that I could not go on without her.  I had been thinking only of the infinite power of God and had forgotten for the time the further revelation of His infinite wisdom and love.  I began to see that He wanted me to trust His wisdom and His love, even as I was trusting His power.  Immediately I began to alter my petition and prayed that He would heal her, only if in so doing He could glorify Himself more than in taking her from me.  It was then that I began to come into real victory, the victory of faith–faith not only in the infinite power of God, but also in the infinite wisdom and the infinite love of God.

But it was what I witnessed during the last five weeks of that long illness, as I sat or stood day by day by her bed ministering to her as best I could in her isolation, that my own faith was strengthened by the testimony of her great faith.

Late in August, due to her apparent improved condition, the doctor gave his consent to my keeping an engagement, which she wanted me to keep, in Cicero and Chicago.  It was upon my return from that engagement that I learned from the doctor that there were signs of the return of the old blood disease and that there was now no hope of recovery.  I think it was upon my first visit with her, following my return from Illinois, that she was telling me of a conversation she had just had with the doctor before I entered her room.  She had been witnessing to the doctor concerning her own conviction of the love of God for her.  The doctor had responded with the query, “But isn’t that difficult to believe  under certain circumstances?”, thinking no doubt of the long illness and great suffering to which, as her physician, he had been a daily witness.  To his question she immediately replied, “No”, Doctor, “not when I remember that He died for my sins upon the cross.”  It was then that I said to her, “That would have been the Apostle John’s answer, also, for you remember his word in his first epistle (I John 3:16):  “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because He laid down His life for us.”  Here is one of the great declarations of the incarnation.  It was God who shed His blood in the death of Christ on the cross.  As the great theologian Anselm put it, “The incarnation was necessary, because God could not die, neither could mere man atone for the sins of men.”  To be sure the incarnation is a great mystery.  As someone else has said, “It is something to be acclaimed, not to be explained.”  And my beloved companion was that day from her bed faithfully proclaiming the great doctrine of the incarnation.

It was soon after this, perhaps later the same day, that she asked, “Dear, is the doctor telling you anything that he is not telling me?”  To this I replied, “Well he is telling me something that you already well know.  That is that the old blood disease is back again.”  I realized that she knew this, for she had already called my attention to the bleeding through her skin again.  It was then that we remembered what I had read from the doctor’s medical book about that disease back in the month of April, as we discussed the strange disease one day in his office.  The book stated that, if through treatment the blood did not quickly come back to normal condition, the patient would not recover and that the longest period any patient with that disease had ever been known to live was six months.  Immediately she began to count from April to September–six months.  Then she said, “This is the last month.”  It was then that she asked me, “When are your meetings to begin in Pittsburgh?”  When I told her that I was scheduled to begin there on Sunday, October 5th, she immediately remarked, “Then there is plenty of time, isn’t there?”  She meant, of course, that there was plenty of time for her to go without interfering with my ministry of the Word of God.

Then it was that, being fully aware of the fact that she was very near the end of her life, she said to me, “Here I am just sixty-five years old and my life is all over.  How short the span!”  Then with increased earnestness, such as one sees only on the part of those who are speaking last words, she added, “Dear, plead with our boys and with all our loved ones that they give all that they have to Christ and give it now, for this life is short, and the world and all it has to offer is nought but vanity, and much of its pleasure and attractiveness is satanic.”

One day later on, as she thought of leaving me, she said, “Dear, I wish that you could go with me.”  To this I replied, “I wish that I could, but God alone controls that.  However, it will not be long until I join you, for I am sixty-seven years old.”  Then she said, thinking of herself in heaven, where time shall be no more,  . . It will not seem long to me, but it will seem longer to you.  But you will be busy with what you love to do (my preaching and teaching of the Word of God) and the time will go faster for you.”  There is no word of all she spoke that has meant more to me than that remark, for it proved to me that she knew that my love for her was great.  Then she added, “We are going to have many more good times together, and it will not cost us anything.”

One Lord’s Day, still nearer the end, as I was feeding her what little she was able to eat, she asked me, “Are they having a sacred concert  in the hospital?”  “No,” I said, “why do you ask?”  To this she replied, “I hear singing.”  “What are they singing,” I asked.  She replied, “Holy, Holy, Is What the Angels Sing.”  Knowing well her appreciation of music, I then asked, “Is it good singing?”  To this she replied, “Wonderful.  It is like that which we used to hear at Ocean Grove.”  She referred to the great chorus which we enjoyed there in the early days of our life together during the summers.  Desiring to ascertain just how real this music was to her, I then asked her, “What is the accompaniment, organ or piano?”  To this she replied, “Orchestra.”  A little later she spoke again, asking, “Do you hear them singing now?”  “No”, I said, “What are they singing now?”  She replied, “They are singing, ‘Hallelujah! ‘Tis Done!”  Then presently she began to sing along with those she said she heard, “Hallelujah! ‘Tis Done!  I believe on the Son; I am saved by the blood of the Crucified One.”  Then she began to cry, and I asked her, “Honey, why are you crying?”  To this she replied, “Because it is so wonderful, and I am so happy.”

There are two poems that she had often heard me recite.  Several times during those last weeks in the hospital she asked me to repeat them.  She would say, “Recite again that verse about ‘stepping on shore’.”  And I would recite the following:–

“Think of stepping on shore
And finding it Heaven!
Of taking hold of a hand
And finding it His hand!
Of breathing a new air
And finding it celestial air!
Of feeling invigoration
And finding it immortality!
Of passing from storm and tempest
To perfect calm!
Of waking and knowing
That I am Home.”

The other one that she loved and asked for again and again was that splendid poem by Dr. Maltby Babcock:–

“Why be afraid of death as though your life were breath!
Death but anoints your eyes with clay, O glad surprise!
Why should you be forlorn?  Death only husks the corn.
Why should you fear to meet the thresher of the wheat?

Is sleep a thing to dread?  Yet sleeping you are dead
Till you awake and rise, here, or beyond the skies.
Why should it be a wrench to leave your wooden bench,
Why not with happy shout run home when school is out?

The dear ones left behind!  O foolish one and blind.
A day–and you will meet,–a night–and you will greet!
This is the end of Death, to breathe away a breathe
And to know the end of strife, and taste the endless life.”

In the providence of God the final illness came in the north in connection with a visit to our elder son’s home in Ohio, where we arrived on the evening of July 3rd, the evening when she was taken in our car with a severe coronary thrombosis.  As early as the first week of July I had said to her, “Should you pass away here in the north, we shall bury in Wilmington, Dela. (the place of our ministry for nearly twenty-five years) and I shall take the service myself.”  I could see that this pleased her.  One day later, as we talked together about the funeral service, she said, “Dear, you will not talk about me in the service.”  “No”, I replied, “I shall talk about your wonderful Saviour and your wonderful faith in Him.”  I had already told her what a time I was having witnessing concerning the Lord to people as I spoke to them of her faith.  Then it was that she said, “But it is nothing to be boasted of, for it is a gift from the Lord.”

How well do I realize that!  How I thank God for MY faith, for it is the only thing that sustains and gives real victory in the midst of such experiences as are now mine.  It is the victory of which the Apostle John wrote in I John 5:4, “This is the victory that overcometh the world, even OUR faith.”  When we remember that John was writing as a Christian to Christians, we understand that the faith of which he wrote here is the faith of the Christian.  It is that faith that has as its ground and basis the one and only living and true God, who has revealed Himself in the Bible as the Triune God–Father, Son and Holy Ghost.  Such is the faith which is the victory that overcomes this world.  It is a faith in God the Father, Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and the Sovereign Ruler of it all.  It is faith in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who being God became man that He might die on the cross for our sins according to the Scriptures.  It is faith in God the Holy Ghost, our great Paraclete, who alone unites us to Christ and distinguishes us from the world, which is outside of Christ.  This is the faith of which, in the familiar hymn, we sing–

“His banner over us is love,
Our sword the Word of God;
We tread the road the saints above
With shouts of triumph trod.
By faith, they like a whirl-wind’s breath,
Swept on o’er ev’ry field;
The faith by which they conquered death
Is still our shining shield.”

Harold S. Laird
Largo, Florida
Nov. 21, 1958.

[excerpted from The Reformed Presbyterian Advocate, 92.10 (December 1958): 117-119.]


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