I once didn’t believe in deathbed confessions, viewing them as wasteful; why wait until the last minute to give your heart to Jesus, when your whole life from now could be devoted to Him, accomplishing great things for His kingdom?
My views softened when I entered the nursing home ministry. Some of the people there were old, broken, and alone, and abandoned by their families. And they had never been to church in their long lives. I learned their souls were just as precious in God’s eyes as a newborn baby’s. Some of them gave their hearts to the Lord just before dying, and Jesus still welcomed them into Heaven. It was there that I realized firsthand what a great responsibility work for the Lord is.
I rarely thought about death when I was growing up, even though I knew the Bible and was raised in the theology of eternal life through Jesus’ blood. But it had no impact until I learned how fragile life is. Where I would spend eternity could wait until I was closer to its edge, and the only funerals I’d ever been to were for distant relatives I barely knew. A great aunt’s husband. A cousin’s grandparents from the other side.
I didn’t lose a close loved one until my mid-20s, and I was completely unprepared for it. It could just be a part of life that everyone experiences; death was rare as a child, but now seems commonplace. I’ve been to more funerals in the past 5 years than I’d ever been to in my first 20.
On the Northeastern tip of Atlanta, Stone Mountain juts out of the earth. It is described as the largest piece of exposed granite in the world, more than 1100 feet high and dome-shaped, with a carving of three Confederate icons (Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis) riding horses across the front. My grandparents lived less than two miles away from it, and my earliest memories are of living in the shadow of that mountain.
My grandfather was born in a small house in the woods in front of Stone Mountain. He was the youngest of six and the only boy. His father left before he was born. There was no park and no restrictions back then; he grew up running around and playing on the mountain. He knew more about it than anyone I’ve ever met; he was familiar with its secrets. He had watched them carve the monument from his bedroom window. He knew where there were secrets trails and caves and places that are now closed off to the public. Some of the stories he told were fantastic, and others were horrifying. As a boy, he had seen people fall off of the mountain to their deaths.
He lived a rough life, as was common among people who grew up in the Great Depression in unspeakable poverty. With no father to support them, his mother had to raise six children on her own. She was a fortune teller. After a difficult childhood fraught with tragedy, he also fought in the Second World War. He saw terrible things over there.
Despite all that he had been through, it may not have been his childhood or the war that truly hardened his heart. After he had come back home and settled down, he and my grandmother had four daughters (the youngest was my mother). Two of them died as children of a genetic disease called cystic fibrosis that runs in my family. Their names were Marsha and Linda.
My grandmother rarely talked about the experience. Although a few black-and-white pictures of the two little girls hung on the walls of their old house, watching silently from beyond the grave, it was mostly an unspoken thing. After my grandparents had died, we found a trove of pictures, clothes, toys, and other belongings of Marsha and Linda in their dusty old attic. Like many who lived through that time period, they never threw anything away.
We also learned stories from my aunt that even my mother didn’t know. When Marsha was getting increasingly sick from the disease, they took her to an Oral Roberts camp meeting (this was before he had infamously stated on TV that God would kill him if people didn’t send enough money) and the evangelist had prayed for her. But she was not healed and died.
I never knew him to go to church. He was cynical about it, convinced that all preachers were just in it for the money. Having grown up under such poor conditions, he was an extreme cheapskate and was always believed people were trying to steal from him. Yet he still believed in God and sometimes read the Bible to me. And every other word out of his mouth was a swear word. It was a strange contradiction, but as a child you don’t ask those kinds of questions.
He had been abusive towards my mom and aunt growing up, and ruled the house with an iron fist. He was especially oppressive towards my grandmother, refusing to allow her to go to church. She was a dear old lady who truly loved Jesus, but submitted to her husband’s wishes. Every now and then she would get to escape and attend a church service, and she loved it greatly. But her joy would be short-lived as she returned home to a man who decried where she’d been as a “crock.”
I never thought about him getting saved. I just accepted that he was the way he was: “Ol’ Grandfather, he’ll never change. He’s too set in his ways,” I would think. I wasn’t worried about where he would spend eternity. Because my grandparents were going to live forever.
My first wake-up call was when my grandmother on my Dad’s side, who lived in California, was stricken with cancer in 2009. She was only in her late 60s, but just like my grandfather, I had never known her to be a churchgoer and to my knowledge had no real association with any religion. The possibility of her going to hell became suddenly very real to me for the first time.
But God moved to answer our prayers in an unbelievable way; we found out that her caretaker at the nursing home was a Spirit-filled Christian who witnesses to and prays with her patients.
I was actually on a ten-day fast when we got the call that she had contracted pneumonia and wouldn’t survive the night. But the anointing I had received was so powerful, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that God was about to do something great. I stayed up all that night, until well past midnight, in His presence crying out for her. Then, the burden lifted. I couldn’t pray about it anymore. The words wouldn’t form, and all I could do was lay down and to sleep. The phone rang the next morning.
Her caretaker had led her in the sinner’s prayer just before she passed away. She had made it to Heaven.
This had probably been the most influential thing to change my mind about deathbed repentance. I decided to write a summary of everything the Lord did during those ten days. After it was done I sent a copy to my grandmother. Since her eyesight had gotten bad, my aunt had to read it to her and it brought them both to tears. Little did I know it was the last thing she would ever hear from me; Granny died suddenly of an aneurysm that weekend. Both of my grandmothers had passed away less than a month apart.
Perhaps the hardest thing for me to do, after Granny’s funeral, was drive my grandfather back to his home and leave him there in that empty, cluttered house alone.
He lived for three more years before I received the news I’d been dreading; Grandfather had had a massive heart attack and was in the hospital. I felt the Lord had spared him for a reason. The doctors were optimistic they could add more years to his life, but he refused any surgery or treatment, deciding that his time had come.
Prayers were up both at church and among family. Maybe just because it was my own loved one, I’ve never felt such urgency before. Of all the people in the world, it seemed this man, Dockie, was the least likely to ever give his heart to the Lord.
My mom told me that if I called him and talked to him about getting saved, I may be the only one he would listen to. But when I did, I got nowhere with him. He cussed just as much as usual, and still seemed adamant that any preacher who talked to him would just be after his money. I tried hard to be calm and not nagging, but my instructions that giving his heart to Jesus was the only way he would go to Heaven seemed to fall on deaf ears. Even to the end, he was being stubborn.
One Sunday morning, Mom took my hand and we went to the altar. “Let’s pray one more time for you grandfather” she said. When I fell on my knees before God, something told me “Don’t worry about it anymore. Don’t call him. I’ve taken care of it.”
He passed away early one morning that week. He had been having more chest pains and asked my aunt and uncle to come take him to the hospital again. Just as they arrived to take him, his last words were “I’m dying!” before he collapsed back onto his bed. He was 92.
It was a sorrowful funeral, as I was certain he hadn’t given his heart to the Lord. The mission had failed. The prayers, it seemed, had been wasted. He was just too stubborn and hard-hearted. But then, after we had all made the long trek back home, Mom told us that a long-time friend of his, who was a Christian, had told her that he called Dockie and won him to the Lord two days before he died.
Never say never. Even after we have given up, God is still working.
I don’t necessarily think deathbed confession is the best way. It’s a bad idea to put off salvation, as none of us are guaranteed tomorrow. But after seeing the hand of God work in such an amazing way, I see the big picture more clearly. There are some people who will only come to Him at the very end. They simply can’t live for Him without sinning, and only when confronted with their own mortalities can the Spirit convict them just enough to usher them into glory.
As I returned to Georgia to sort through his belongings for keepsakes, I saw Stone Mountain in the distance. It is almost intrinsically linked with my grandfather in my mind. It is a mountain, but also a place in time, an anchor point in my past. No matter how far I stray from that anchor, I still carry it in my memories. As we went through old shoeboxes full of pictures, I noticed that it looms in the background in so many of them, silently watching over everyone, like God Himself. In a picture of me, as a toddler, it is behind me. There is a picture of my grandfather at the same age, playing around trees at its base. It is in the distance behind Marsha and Linda. We change around it, but it never does; it seems omnipresent, a place that brings everyone together and is always in our backgrounds, unnoticed but still there.
In that dusty old attic, among many old treasures things and junk intermingled together, I found an antique suitcase. It was from a trip my grandfather had taken years before I was born. My mom had convinced him to go to a camp meeting in the 70s. When he got home, he never unpacked, just threw the suitcase as is in the attic. The clothes and pictures and brochures inside were like objects from a time capsule. I found out that he had actually gone to that church meeting, been prayed for by an evangelist and even baptized that weekend. But when he returned home, he didn’t live for the Lord.
In one picture in particular, he looked younger than I had ever known him. His hair was black and his face unwrinkled as he was sat at a restaurant table eating. His presence was different, with a glow about him like someone who had just received Jesus. A still small voice inside told me “That’s how he looks now.”