433) “Mother, What is it Like to Die?”

An experience Peter Marshall (1902-1949), the great Scottish preacher, related during his ministry, from A Man Called Peter, by Catherine Marshall,  pp. 230-231, 272-273:

     On Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, Peter Marshall preached to the regiment of midshipmen in the Naval Academy at Annapolis.  A strange feeling which he couldn’t shake off led him to change his announced topic to an entirely different theme based on James 4:14:  “What is your life?  You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”  In the chapel before him was the December graduating class, young men who in a few days would receive their commissions and go on active duty.  In that sermon titled Go Down Death, Peter Marshall used this illustration:

     In a home of which I know, a little boy—the only son—was ill with an incurable disease.  Month after month the mother had tenderly nursed him, read to him, and played with him, hoping to keep him from realizing the dreadful finality of the doctor’s diagnosis.  But as the weeks went on and he grew no better, the little fellow gradually began to understand that he would never be like the other boys he saw playing outside his window.  Small as he was, he began to understand the meaning of the term death, and he knew that he was going to die.

     One day his mother had been reading to him the stirring tales of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table:  of Lancelot and Guinevere and Elaine, the maid of Astolat, and of that last glorious battle in which so many brave knights met their death.

     As she closed the book, the boy sat silent for an instant, and then asked the question that had been weighing on his heart:  “Mother, what is it like to die?”  Quick tears sprang to her eyes and she fled to the kitchen supposedly to tend to something on the stove.  She knew it was a question with deep significance.  She knew it must be answered satisfactorily.  So she leaned for an instant against the kitchen cabinet, her knuckles pressed against the smooth surface, and breathed a hurried prayer that the Lord would tell her how to answer him.

     And the Lord did tell her.  Immediately she knew how to explain it to him.

     “Kenneth,” she said as she returned to the next room, “you remember when you were a tiny boy how you used to play so hard all day that when night came you would be too tired even to undress, and you would tumble into mother’s bed and fall asleep?  That was not your bed.  It was not where you belonged.  And you stayed there only a little while.  In the morning, much to your surprise, you would wake up and find yourself in your own bed in your own room.  You were there because someone had loved you and taken care of you.  Your father had come—with big strong arms—and carried you away.  Kenneth, death is just like that.  We just wake up some morning to find ourselves in the other room—our own room where we belong in heaven—because the Lord Jesus loved us and carried us there.”

     After Peter Marshall had finished the service at Annapolis and as he and his wife Catherine were driving back to Washington that afternoon, suddenly the program on the car radio was interrupted.  The announcer’s voice was grave:  “Ladies and Gentlemen.  Stand by for an important announcement.  This morning the United States Naval Base at Pearl Harbor was bombed…..”

     Within a month many of the boys to whom Peter Marshall had just preached would go down to hero’s graves in strange waters.  Soon all of them would be exposed to the risks and dangers of war, and Peter Marshall, under God’s direction, that very morning had offered them a defining metaphor about the reality of eternal life.

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James 4:13-15  —  Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.”  Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.  What is your life?  You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” 

John 14:1-3  —   (Jesus said), “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  You believe in God; believe also in me.  My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

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Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

And if I die before I wake,

I pray the Lord my soul to take.  Amen.

–Classic children’s bedtime prayer from the 18th century