Saturday, October 30, 2010

Death of a Disciple

I haven't written very many talks over the years -- I'll bet you could count them on one hand.  Early this morning in search of something else, I stumbled over this one.  I was asked to speak at the funeral of a dear friend, John Marsing, several years ago.  My sentiments on that occasion were renewed and rekindled as I read what follows:

John Marsing Funeral, May 25, 2002

Visible from here to the west stands a half-framed home the master carpenter John was building for his family. The home he was building here on earth will be left for others to finish, but make no mistake – his eternal home, his mansion on high if you will, is already nearing completion. He’s just gone ahead to make sure the final inspection gets done on schedule in preparation for those who will someday join him. (See 1 Corinthians 3).

Funerals are still my favorite meetings in the Church. Such a declaration made in some quarters of this fallen world today among those without hope of a glorious resurrection in the highest kingdom of our Father would seem shocking. But among us – the faithful and hopeful here in the Woodland Ward – such a declaration is well understood. Woodland, I have come to understand, is the home of the second chance. If ever there were a poster child for the second chance at life, John would be the quintessential candidate for the poster. His life, seemingly shorter than it might have been or should have been in our judgment, gives us renewed hope in our own prospects for salvation. Our prospects should be more burnished than ever because of the life of our suddenly departed friend John.

Today our topic is the atonement of Jesus Christ. The man who lies in his coffin before us, John Marsing, is my visual aid. He always scolded me mildly when I called attention to him in life, now he must give me free rein for I will have the last word! Thank you, thank you, Sheri, for this glorious invitation. We are gathered to reason together and to comfort one another in our loss. The questions before us are: 1) Who is this amazing man John Marsing, and 2) where did he go so quickly without warning last Wednesday?

First, all is well with John Marsing. We will not make of his vices virtues, he would not countenance such drivel. He was full of weaknesses – not the least his legendary temper on the job (three sons who worked for him told me all the stories) – but I for one will praise his chosen course in discipleship and I will forever hallow his memory for his faithfulness.

We weep today not for him, but for ourselves. John was the prototypical product of the hippies’ revolution of the sixties. After his conversion as a newly reborn disciple of Jesus Christ, however, he was not the least bit fond of that characterization. He never denied what he had been in his past life, but once he turned that corner he never looked back because of his renewed hope in the atonement of Christ.

That’s why I love John Marsing and always will. He also became in the years I observed him up close and personal the prototypical disciple of Jesus Christ. In him, I saw the image of Christ’s countenance. There was always a brightness of hope in his face, a tear in his eye reflecting the resolve of a deeply committed true disciple, and always a word of carefully considered insight on the things that mattered most.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell
Elder Neal A. Maxwell said, “If we are serious about our discipleship, Jesus will eventually request each of us to do those very things which are most difficult for us to do.” (A Time to Choose, 46).

John learned the most difficult things were the very things that brought the most happiness. He had been to the depths of despair in his life – literally to the bottom of the well – and he knew every step along the craggy and treacherous path back home. But in the years I have known him – his “redemption years” – he never ceased to marvel at the vistas of hope his new-found faith revealed to him.

He had three major heart attacks in his earlier life. Each time, his heart stopped beating in the emergency room. Three times he was declared dead, traveled through the veil for brief visits, but always returned to the unfinished business of redemption. He always had the sense he was on borrowed time, but once converted he learned, really learned, how to live. The insurance companies rejected his heart as an insurable risk, but the Lord loved the heart of this faithful disciple, John – “John the Beloved” would not be a stretch. He was at the time of his death a “work in progress.” He was also in every sense the prototypical prodigal son. The fourth time his heart stopped, the Lord himself hugged him. (2 Nephi 9:41; Alma 40:11).

His life now stands for all those with eyes to see as a towering testament to the rarest kind of courage. We don’t have many heroes among us these days – and I mean true heroes who were true to themselves – but John is one worthy of emulation in that regard. So are you, Sheri. In quieter, more private moments, we have discussed all the reasons why, and I hope you remember those sacred occasions as well as I do.

If you are John, it is not easy to admit the course you originally picked was a forbidden path. To repent and begin again takes courage to face an uncertain and consecrated future, but that is exactly what John did.

C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis wrote:

The more you obey your conscience, the more your conscience will demand of you. And your natural self, which is thus being starved and hampered and worried at every turn, will get angrier and angrier. In the end, you will either give up trying to be good, or else become one of those people who, as they say, 'live for others' but always in a discontented, grumbling way. . .

The Christian way is different: harder and easier. Christ says “Give me All. I don't want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don't want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. I don't want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked — the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours" (Mere Christianity, 167).

For those of us already aboard, it is often harder to value the tortured faith of those come unto Christ, literally gasping for breath as if they had barely caught the last train out of Babylon (to use another Neal Maxwell metaphor). This was the way Elder Maxwell expressed it:  "Our capacity as Church members to love and to forgive will be freshly and severely tested as battered and bruised souls come into the Church in ever-larger numbers. Some come in from the cold shivering. Others are breathless, having caught what was for them the last train out of Babylon. Their own continued process of repentance will be much aided if they see, all about them, more regular emphasis in the lives of the rest of us on faith unto repentance."  (Not My Will, But Thine, 74).

It was never difficult for me to value John’s faith. By any standard, his faith was of sterling quality, polished by all the friction in all the overcoming.

John loved the word of the Lord. He reverberated with it. He immersed himself in it. He was completely obedient. When I gently suggested one week that everyone who didn’t already have them should obtain a new set of scriptures, he showed up the very next week with a new set in his hands and commenced a thorough and ongoing study of the word. One verse emblematic of him illustrates the value of the new publication of the scriptures:

. . .if any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. And now for a man to take up his cross, is to deny himself all ungodliness, and every worldly lust, and keep my commandments. (JST Matthew 16:26).

My last conversation with him was last Sunday. As I left the chapel after sacrament meeting, I sat down beside him on the last row of the chapel, and asked, “So how are you doing?” His response, holding his scriptures in his hands was in effect, “I’m doing pretty well, but I have so much to do to make up for lost time. I’m never going to know as much as you do.”

I replied, “John, I’ve told you before, it has nothing to do with what you know, it’s really all about the change of heart. And because I know your heart so well, I can tell you that you are light years beyond most of us.”

To which the ever-present tears appeared again in the windows of his towering mansion of his soul. “I just want you to know how much your friendship means to me, I love you,” he said.

And I responded, “That street goes both ways. I love you too.” Little did I know he had just preached his own funeral sermon. He could express love to a friend, because his best friend was Jesus – John eventually became, like Jesus, the embodiment of perfect love. He was able to give as good as he got. Isn’t that the very essence of life?

Whenever it struck a particularly responsive chord deep within the recesses of his soul, the tears spilled out through the windows. He could never speak of the gospel he loved without the tears. It didn’t matter if he were speaking at the pulpit, offering a comment in a class, or praying before the congregation – there were always tears of gratitude. Some of those tears were surely tears of sorrow for the realization of his contributory numbers in the “awful arithmetic of the atonement” (another Neal Maxwell metaphor). But certainly, most of the tears were gratitude for the sure knowledge he possessed that because he had accepted and acknowledged his Savior’s perfect love for him he would never have to suffer himself. (D&C 19:16-17). I loved that about John – he submitted like a child. (Mosiah 3:19). He had even reached the point where he had forgiven himself. He was at peace, “comfortable (as the statement goes) in his own skin.”

President Spencer W. Kimball
John was the personification of this beautiful description by President Spencer W. Kimball, as he concluded his inspired writing we revere today as The Miracle of Forgiveness:

When we think of miracles, most of us think of healings under the power of the priesthood. But there is another, even greater miracle – the miracle of forgiveness.

Indeed the day of miracles has not passed except for those who will not heed the call of the Lord and of his servants, who night and day warn and plead and implore. There is a glorious miracle awaiting every soul who is prepared to change. Repentance and forgiveness make a brilliant day of the darkest night. When souls are reborn, when lives are changed then comes the great miracle to beautify and warm and lift. When spiritual death has threatened and now instead there is resuscitation, when life pushes out death when this happens it is the miracle of miracles. And such great miracles will never cease so long as there is one person who applies the redeeming power of the Savior and his own good works to bring about his rebirth.

There are two kinds of miracles, as there are two parts to life in every area. There is the body and the spirit. Thus there are two kinds of healings.

As the Lord passed down the path, two blind men begged for light. "So Jesus had compassion on them, and touched their eyes: and immediately their eyes received sight, and they followed him." (Matthew 20:34.) These were their mortal eyes which were opened.

The scripture says, ". . .and they followed him." This last phrase might mean that they would receive their spiritual sight. If they followed him really, lived his commandments, were totally obedient, their souls would receive sight unto eternal life.

Of the two, spiritual sight is by far the more important. Only those whose physical eyes do not see can know of the deprivation this entails, and it is a serious one. But even this cannot be compared to the blindness of those who have eyes and will not see the glories of that spiritual life which has no end. (Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969], 362.)

John was the very miracle of which President Kimball speaks. On his first day back to the temple after many years’ absence, my oldest son Jeff joined John and me at a special temple outing for stake missionaries. I will never forget the feelings of joy that welled up within me as we lingered over dinner in the temple cafeteria, lost in conversation rejoicing together in the miracle of prodigal sons. (See Luke 15:11-32).  I have no doubt  John is still a mission leader now, hard at work rounding up even more prodigals in the spirit world somewhere not too far away from us.

Which brings us to the second question: Where did he go so suddenly last Wednesday? Alma is a most reliable witness:

Now, concerning the state of the soul between death and the resurrection — Behold, it has been made known unto me by an angel, that the spirits of all men, as soon as they are departed from this mortal body, yea, the spirits of all men, whether they be good or evil, are taken home to that God who gave them life.

And then shall it come to pass, that the spirits of those who are righteous are received into a state of happiness, which is called paradise, a state of rest, a state of peace, where they shall rest from all their troubles and from all care, and sorrow. . . thus they remain in this state. . . until the time of their resurrection. (Alma 40:11-12; 14).

Alma continues:

. . .there is a space between death and the resurrection of the body, and a state of the soul in happiness or in misery until the time which is appointed of God that the dead shall come forth, and be reunited, both soul and body, and be brought to stand before God, and be judged according to their works. (Alma 40:21).

I always used to say to John, “When that time comes, I like your chances.”

President Joseph F. Smith
In his glorious vision of the spirit world, President Joseph F. Smith gave further insight:

. . .among the righteous there was peace. . . from among the righteous, [the Savior] organized his forces and appointed messengers, clothed with power and authority, and commissioned them to go forth and carry the light of the gospel to them that were in darkness, even to all the spirits of men; and thus was the gospel preached to the dead. (D&C 138:22; 30).

John knew there was still much ahead left to accomplish in his journey of discipleship. At times, he was frankly discouraged, feeling he had already squandered so much precious time.

Joseph Smith
But I often reminded him of what Joseph Smith said at King Follett’s funeral:

When you climb up a ladder, you must begin at the bottom, and ascend step by step, until you arrive at the top; and so it is with the principles of the Gospel — you must begin with the first, and go on until you learn all the principles of exaltation. But it will be a great while after you have passed through the veil before you will have learned them. It is not all to be comprehended in this world; it will be a great work to learn our salvation and exaltation even beyond the grave. (TPJS, 348).

President Boyd K. Packer
When President Boyd K. Packer made a surprise visit to our stake conference some months ago, he said: “When we go beyond the veil we will be surprised at how different things are. But we’ll also be surprised at how similar things are. If we don’t get things fixed here we’ll get them fixed there, but don’t give up.” Again, no sermons, just simplicity beyond belief! Then this: “I have a little experience with things beyond the veil, too sacred to talk about here.”

To those of you John loved most, believe me when I say he has never given up on you and will continue to minister among you to bless your lives in ways impossible to calculate today. He has only gone ahead to continue his construction project on his eternal family unit. The doors will always be open, as will his arms of love to embrace those of you who will follow the same path in discipleship he has set before you.

President Ezra Taft Benson
At the death of President Kimball, President Ezra Taft Benson observed:

It has been said that the death of a righteous man is never untimely because our Father sets the time. I believe that with all my soul. ("Spencer W. Kimball: A Star of the First Magnitude," Ensign, December 1985, 33).

I believe it too. And I believe it about John Marsing. “Righteous” doesn’t mean “perfect.” It means we’re trying to do what’s right – trying to repent, trying to do better, trying to be a disciple, trying to forgive others, and by that definition John was as righteous as they come.

Paraphrasing what Joseph Smith said at the funeral of his dear friend, Judge Adams, we might well say of John:

He has had revelations concerning his departure, and has gone to a more important work. When men are prepared, they are better off to go hence. Brother [John] has gone to open up a more effectual door for the dead. The spirits of the just are exalted to a greater and more glorious work; hence they are blessed in their departure to the world of spirits. Enveloped in flaming fire, they are not far from us, and know and understand our thoughts, feelings, and motions, and are often pained therewith. (TPJS, 325).

Now he knows us perhaps even better than we know ourselves. He will not be far away. While he is assisting in the salvation of those on the other side of the veil, rest assured he will never be far from those he loved on this side of the veil either. The spirits of our loved ones continue to minister among us. The work of salvation is the same here as it is there, and why would he love us less simply because he has moved ahead now?

The separation of our physical body from our eternal spirit is a necessary part of the plan of God. Alma explained to somehow seek to reverse the effects of death, painful as it is, “would destroy the great plan of happiness” (Alma 42:8). Truly, death passes upon all men and women “to fulfil the merciful plan of the great Creator” (2 Nephi 9:6). Death is merciful in the sense that it delivers us from the toils and agonies of this life.

Elder Bruce R. McConkie
 Once a faithful Latter-day Saint who has accepted and lived his covenants, as John did, enters the spirit world he does not fall off the strait and narrow path he walked in mortality. We have the scriptural promise that faithfully enduring to the end, keeping the commandments and covenants to the end of our lives, leads us eventually to the realization of the promise of eternal life, whether that promise is received here or hereafter. "But blessed are they who are faithful and endure, whether in life or in death, for they shall inherit eternal life" (D&C 50:5; emphasis added). In other words, "If we die in the faith, that is the same thing as saying that our calling and election has been made sure and that we will go on to eternal reward hereafter." (Elder Bruce R. McConkie, from an address at funeral services for Elder S. Dilworth Young, 13 July 1981, typescript, p. 5).

We might well say now of John Marsing that his calling and election has been made sure. The day of his probation is ended. In due course of time he will inherit as a joint-heir with Christ “all that my Father hath.” (D&C 84:33-40).

How is it possible, you ask, if John Marsing was not a perfect man? It is possible through the atoning sacrifice of the only Perfect One. Our claim upon our eternal inheritance rests wholly and completely in Christ’s perfection, not in our own vain attempts to perfect ourselves. As it was in the days of Moroni, so it was with John in our day:

And after they had been received unto baptism, and were wrought upon and cleansed by the power of the Holy Ghost, they were numbered among the people of the church of Christ; and their names were taken, that they might be remembered and nourished by the good word of God, to keep them in the right way, to keep them continually watchful unto prayer, relying alone upon the merits of Christ, who was the author and the finisher of their faith. (Moroni 6:4).

Never confuse yourself in the midst of the vast gulf of differentiation between the Perfect One and the perfect faith required to embrace the benefits of his proxy perfection for each of us. (Moroni 10:32-33). If the gospel means what it purports to mean, if words from our Heavenly Father mean anything through the inspired lips and pens of his chosen vessels, these things are true.

Other hands will finish the home he started not far from here. Rest assured, however, that he has merely gone ahead to complete his eternal home for those he loves. I love John Marsing. I love the Lord Jesus Christ whom he served. I know that in Christ all our hopes in his lavish promises will eventually be fulfilled if we remain faithful and endure to the end of our mortal lives.

We knew a carpenter named John, who is now on intimate terms with the Master Carpenter whom he loved. That it might be so for each of us is my prayer today.

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