FIRST-PERSON: A man of integrity

by Gregory Tomlin, posted Thursday, April 03, 2003 (16 years ago)

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)--In my life I've known very few men whom I regard as being of impeccable integrity. All men have flaws, to be sure, but the primary motivation of this select fraternity of men is to see others benefit from their work, wisdom and courage.

These men of integrity prize the truth. They are strong and disciplined, but loving and gracious. They are men who expect much, but have compassion when much cannot be attained.

Integrity defines them. It is who they are. It is who I want to be. I met one of these men, Carl Kelley, in 1987. He and his family had transferred their membership to the church my family attended in North Little Rock, Ark. Carl worked with the youth and with young married adults, all the while displaying a growing love for Christ and a strong commitment to his church.

I grew to love him as I grew to love his daughter. She and I married in 1994, and he made me feel like one of his own. A committed family man, Carl instilled Christ-like values in his daughters and labored tirelessly in his church, at home and at work.

As I plodded away in my master's- and doctoral-level studies in seminary, he encouraged me to be persistent, often with humorous proverbs such as, "If you throw enough mud on the wall, eventually some of it will stick," and, "A mighty oak was never felled with a single blow from a hatchet." Some of the country proverbs originated with him.

Sometime on Jan. 24, while my mother-in-law was away visiting her oldest daughter in Florida, my father-in-law nestled into a comfortable chair, apparently to rest, and never woke up. He was only 60 years old.

I have never claimed to be able to understand the pain and suffering that God allows, but on occasions when the unfathomable happens to one of God's people I am reminded of Job's plight.

In fact, I have learned to take comfort in his example.

While Job's wife encouraged him to "curse God and die" as he languished in physical, spiritual and emotional distress, he found something in the character of God that allowed him to answer, "Shall we accept only good from God and never adversity?"

Job's friends spent countless hours in speculation as to why he -- described as "blameless" in the sight of the Lord -- suffered. Christians and non-Christians often respond in the same manner. The most pressing and usually immediate question that arises after a tragedy is "why?" Many well-meaning people have attempted to answer the question.

It is, however, unanswerable. Why God had chosen to take such a young -- and by all accounts healthy -- husband, father, father-in-law and grandfather as Carl Kelley I'm not sure I was meant to understand.

God asked a series of questions to the beleaguered Job. Where was Job when God set the pillars of the earth, or shut up the seas? Where was he when God divided the day from night? Could he see all that God saw? Could he set the seasons?

Also among the questions God asked, "Have the gates of death been revealed to you?"

Job, of course, stood dumbfounded as God questioned him, ultimately discovering that what he had taken for granted was the character of the "Who" of Scripture. Knowing the "Who" of Scripture makes the "why?" of very little consequence.

I have renewed confidence in the "Who" of Scripture. It is God who created the heavens and earth, who formed man out of the dust of the ground, and who sent his Son as a sacrifice. It is God who knows "the gates of death."

It is also God who motivates his children to live with integrity. He requires of us honesty, justice, compassion and charity. Yet, integrity is not enough.

Carl Kelley understood that because he trusted Christ in adversity and in peace. He trusted him in life and in death.

In a very real sense, he preached a valuable sermon in death. As I sat on the front row of our home church during the funeral with my arm around my wife, I glanced back to look at those seated behind me.

"God richly blessed the lives of the people Carl touched," I thought. It didn't take long to realize that I wasn't entirely accurate. It was not just Carl Kelley that they met. In each case they met the man Christ made him to be: strong, demanding and stern, but loving, tender and compassionate. It was Christ who touched their lives through a willing servant.

Many probably came to pay their last respects to a good friend, but my father-in-law told us on many occasions, "When I die, don't talk about me at the funeral. Preach the gospel."

Those in attendance heard the gospel from the minister, but I assure you they also heard a resounding call to salvation in Christ because of the life that Carl Kelley lived.

Explaining to my 3-year-old daughter that her beloved "Grandpa" died was the most difficult thing that I've ever done, for he loved his grandchildren passionately. She did not understand why she could no longer see him. Death is sufficiently complicated for adults, let alone for children. But it wasn't long before my wife and I turned the question of "why?" into a lesson about the "Who" of Scripture.

Just before the interment service began at the cemetery, I asked the minister if he would read 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 at the gravesite. The words were fresh to me that day, like the first time I ever heard them.

The passage describes the hope we have in the One who loves us. He loves us passionately. I marvel that God loves my wife, my children and me. I marvel that he loves my father-in-law. Knowing that he loves us has made all the difference in grieving, for we do not grieve "like the rest of men who have no hope."

I look forward to the day that my daughters are old enough to understand how wonderful the "Who" of Scripture really is. They will understand that death is of little concern to us, and that their "Grandpa" is only away for a little while. In the meantime, we will use his example to mold them into women of integrity and faith.

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Tomlin is news director at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

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