True to the End

Fred Smith writes of his father – a man of God and a friend to man. Are you living your life with eternity in mind?

By Fred Smith

My father stayed with his calling to the end. On June 1, 1959, between 12:50 and 3:15 A.M., I sat with my father's corpse and wrote a tribute to him for a friend who didn't know him:

I find myself unconsciously telling you about my father. He never owned a home or a share of stock. His estate is $1,000 of life insurance. His salary range for life was from $125 to $300 per month. On this he raised five sons after tithing the gross plus a generous "gift" above the tithe, along with charity to all who asked. If he had two suits, he looked for someone who needed one. He never graduated from college or held a degree. There were no honors significant enough to mention in his obituary. He never held an office of any responsibility within his profession. Dad walked the slums like a padre, carrying home the drunks, feeding the bums until Mother hid the food, visiting convicts, riding ambulances with fighting and feuding families, visiting the sick, marrying lovers, and burying the dead.

When his neighbors were hungry, he couldn't eat. When they were sad, he cried, and when they laughed, he out-laughed them.

Through the funeral parlor poured people of all stations and status—the poor, those energized by poverty to move out and up, from the wealthy president whom Dad saw converted from a young infidel in a charity TB hospital to the widow who asked to sit alone with him and to relive his great comfort in her past sorrows. In the line were the reclaimed of the rough stuff of life, recounting their experiences with him, and those who felt his great Irish temper he self-indulgently termed "righteous indignation." They all came and sat for hours. No tears were there ... just victory. Vicariously they felt victorious over death. Because he lived, they knew heaven exists. Where else could he be? A spirit so big could not vanish.

Because he was there they felt a friend at court awaiting them. The atmosphere of triumph was great and positive. No generated hysterical quality. No tears to appease any guilt. Only love, returned to one who truly loved, loved so much that it could be described only as a gift like a talent.

Yes, I realized how great the artist of love was who had shown them the result and not the labor. I knew how often his soul was tired, how many nights he prayed to keep from quitting, how he struggled for thirty-five years in and out of debt to feed his family, how he suffered because he couldn't contribute to his children's education. But there were prayer and encouragement aplenty. The family separately and unanimously decided our greatest witness to his life could be expressed by the absence of grief. If we believed the "blessed hope" he preached, we certainly needed to express it now. Temporary separation, yes—permanent, no.

Late tonight he and I were alone for the last time. I felt he was asleep. He must be asleep or we would be matching wits. I can't remember when that started, and it never ended. He was never awake but what we were debating, his hobby and greatest achievement in school. It was my honor to be chosen his permanent adversary, even though it might have kept our personal relations in a defensive position. We neither asked nor gave quarter, or conceded defeat.

As he slept in his casket, I studied the mammoth right arm of a former blacksmith who could throw a horse and muscle out two large sledgehammers, holding each by the end of its long handle. Outstretched, his arms, like giant tree limbs, could hold his entire family of five sons; arms so large and powerful that a visitor to the hospital asked if they were swollen even though he was past seventy.

His hands were more expressive than his arms. Somehow they were more personal to me. There was the strong right hand of sudden justice, which literally broke tree limbs over my back for real or imagined breaches of parental law. His ring was off—the telltale gold initial ring that told me there was no Santa Claus when he was dressed up to play the part. Hands that were large and strong to slap me backwards or to gently break the bread of life at the Communion table. Hands that gripped a baseball and turned it loose as fast as any I've ever caught… hands that pushed the door to avoid any privacy for fear of evil. Hands that helped everyone in need. To see them folded seemed unnatural. They should have been turned out to others.

Pale and spent, his face showed the long battle of death. His great desire to be lucid in death was denied him. He wanted to die describing to his family the glories of the heavens he had "lost his life to save" for eternity. He wanted to prove the rightness of his faith, yet his family must believe as he did, accepting Christ as the bridge between life and death—man and God. This we do.

He was not a brilliant intellect or a gifted orator. However, as an artist of love he was possessed by the living presence of his Savior Jesus Christ whose Second Coming was his most ardent wish. At the funeral we bury his problem (his body), not his greatness (his soul). Crowds will come, as to the funeral of any great man; the big difference will be in the direction of their thoughts. They will be thinking of the Master of the man, not of the mastery of the man. His life and death pointed the same way, up toward God and eternity.

And now he is among that "great cloud of witnesses" who watch us run this mortal race. "Therefore let us lay aside the weight of sin that doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith." Many have joined that cloud because of him. Many more will ride ashore on the expanding ripples of his life. "0 Death, where is thy sting? 0 Grave, where is thy victory?" He now knows the truth of reality.