January 7, 2010
22 December, 2007
I recently met a man who, a few weeks later, died. The total time we spent together during his life could be measured in minutes. Yet, I drove a hundred miles to attend his funeral.
Death is like a gold miner’s pan. It takes the rocks we have collected over the course of our lives and separates those of gold from all the other pretty rocks that attracted us – rocks that prove to be, in the end, mostly worthless.
This man was a doctor – a doctor who preferred to be called simply “Bill”. He had cancer and by the time we met his chances for recovery were down to about zero …outside of God. This was a doctor looking at his own death straight in the eye.
It was late one evening in August, when I stopped by his home on my way through his city that he offered to tell me his life story. As he spoke, it was clear death’s gold pan had already separated the lesser rocks of his life from the gold. There were whole categories of things we pursue in life, things we treasure, that he didn’t even mention – vacations, homes, cars, sports, entertainment, i-phones, etc. There was no gold found in any of these.
For Bill, the gold was found when he came to believe and trust in Christ. He told of when he realized eternal life was based on Christ’s work and not his and he became assured of his eternal life. With tears, he spoke of his coming to know, and rest in, the sovereignty of Christ – sovereignty which means God is in control of all things, both the good and the bad. And, most amazing, was the contentment and trust in God he expressed knowing God was in control of his cancer even as the cancer spread throughout his body.
A few days later, Bill and Janet, his wife, began posting updates on Bill’s health on a website. It started innocently with them posting medical updates and people leaving we’re-praying-for-you replies. Then Bill and Janet decided to write Bill’s “My Story”. They spent 3 days composing it. Why? It was, in reality, not just “Bill’s Story”, it was “Bill’s Farewell”. These words would be his last message to friends and family. The words were carefully chosen, as one panning for gold.
As news of Bill’s health, story, and farewell, spread, an interesting thing happened – people began to post their own stories of Bill along with their farewells to him. The postings came from across the country, overseas, and spanned Bill’s entire life from childhood to present.
This life that was unknown became known. And God, knowing the humility this life was lived in, brought waves of praise for it to die in.
And as each wave came ashore, more of Bill’s life was revealed, more gold was exposed. His was a life few experience. It was a life most forfeit as they pursue “the good life”. Bill lived not the ordinary. He saw where the gold was and went for it. He died rich.
The following are excerpts from 18 of the more than 330 posted messages – edited for length only with corrections to spelling/grammar. The gold posts:
Dave’s visit with you a few weeks ago was very special to him. You have been the best friend he has ever had, and I am very thankful for that! Your influence in his life has been profound, and will continue on as he reflects on how you lived your life and how you persevered through trials and suffering. You and Janet have been such an amazing example to both of us, modeling how to walk with God, in dependence upon Him and His Word through all circumstances of life.
When God orchestrated our meeting each other in that church parking lot years ago, little did we know how He would use you to impact our lives in such a dramatic way!
Bill was my mentor during my freshman year at Carolina – God so graciously brought him into my life to guide me through the quicksand of being in the midst of all kinds of alcohol and drugs that were so rampant in the dorms there at Carolina. He helped me get planted in the Scripture and solid fellowship that has become a foundation for life. I personally owe him so much.
Words cannot express how I feel but I will try to give it my best shot. Thank you for allowing me to work beside you at Saint Luke’s Hospital. I miss your presence and patients still ask about you. …I found a great teacher, caring doctor, friend and spirit filled human that truly put God first.
Kansas City, MO
Life is good and it was made all the better because you and your family were as much a part of my growing up as buying bread at Bi-rite. We had community in the midst of segregation. …thanks …for being his hands and eyes of friendship in the midst of a racially confused time. …We thank God for you Bill Isley.
I feel blessed to have known Bill these past 20 years. Bill was a true friend and shared his love and concern for me and my family. On one occasion, Bill and B paid my way to a Royals game shortly after my family moved to Kansas City. They were the sports fans, but I needed friends.
I’d like to thank you for all the care you gave us while Scott was being diagnosed with Lyme disease and for your support while he was ill. Your advice and love was needed so much and came at just the right time – and you weren’t even our doctor.
Potomac Falls, VA
You have touched my life Dr. Isley and I am richer for it!
I still owe you a huge debt of gratitude for all the time you spent with me during that discouraging time in my life when I was a graduate student, and you were a resident. Thanks for always being there when I needed to have a Godly man in my life! You wore a path between the hospital and medical school to come and visit me – such a difference it made!
What an inspiration you have been. Not only have you, Billy, been a brilliant physician, but a wonderful Christian disciple.
I was very touched earlier this year when you took the time to send me an e-mail of encouragement regarding my very small challenge while all the while you had enough challenge of your own. The fact that you took the time to send a few words of unsolicited encouragement was truly appreciated.
You have shown me the most wonderful example of how Christ calls us to live. You have shown steadfast faith in the midst of huge trials. You have treasured God even more than you treasured each other. You have touched so many people’s lives. The thing I have gained most from this whole trial is the desire to live my life like you have- doing everything to the glory of God. Thank you for being such an amazing example to follow.
Chapel Hill, NC
You and Janet were always like mentors to us. We have treasured the times we have had with you. Bill, you have magnified the glory of God through your trust, your obedience, your steadfast love, and your devotion to Him through all trials and suffering. Your desire for Him has far surpassed your desire for health, career, yes and even the family you so dearly love. You have run the course well, a faithful servant.
Thank you for your incredible witness for the sake of Christ, to the end. I hope to finish this race as faithfully as you have.
Exeter, United Kingdom
Our common faiths have been a special tie binding us together throughout our joint careers. Not many men of science are also profoundly spiritual, and that blend was very attractive to me. We had some differences in theology, and I still recall the day that, there in your office, you pulled out your Bible, and we discussed our point of divergence. I really appreciated you taking the time to engage me in that way. I addressed this to “Minnow,” the name you gave yourself, in contrast to the “Cod Father”, the appellation with which you saddled me. In your eyes, I was always the “master” of fish oils, and you were just a fingerling (a minnow). …Seeing yourself as a ‘minnow’ is so like you – self-effacing, always ready to learn, ever the country doctor. I don’t want to push the analogy too far, but your life was obviously more dedicated to being a fisher of men than to getting men to eat fish.
God bless you, Bill, and God speed. It’s been a pleasure and a privilege knowing you. Praise God this is “see you later” instead of “goodbye.”
Sioux Falls, SD
As I read over many of the numerous messages you’ve received from so many lives you’ve touched, I realized how full and complete has been your life. Farewell Good Friend, until we meet again!
Pleasant Garden, NC
It is so tough to say goodbye to some one you love so much. Please say goodbye to Dr. Isley for me.
Your fingerprints will always be on this earth – pointing people towards Jesus.
The life he chose will live on.
If there is a richer way to leave this earth, I do not know it.
These postings were not written to a pastor. They were to a layman. Bill lived an ordinary life working an ordinary job living in an ordinary house on an ordinary cul-de-sac. His involvement in people’s lives happened in the most ordinary of places – parking lots, offices, ballgames, dorm rooms, etc. – wherever another life crossed his path.
He did not, however, consider his life or his work ordinary. He considered his life, wherever it was being lived and his work wherever it was located, to be where God had called him to be Christ to this world. It was where he, as Christ, interacted with a lost world and it was where he shown Christ’s light to it.
He did not preach the Sermon on the Mount to thousands, but lived the sermon for hundreds, as he cared for people one life at a time. He was one who met their needs, became their friend, often their best friend, and gave his time, his life, for their sakes. His was a day by day, one by one ministry that had no name and had no organizational structure. His was simply “Bill” …being Christ.
His life, to most, was not known for the big splash it made but for the many little unpretentious ripples it created. A ripple here, another, later, over there, ripples made across the span of a lifetime that when they came together at his death, became a tsunami.
Twelve days (and a few hours) after posting his “My Story” farewell, Bill departed for Christ.
And I felt as one who had known him for years.
Back on that evening when I met Bill for the first, and last, time, when he offered to tell me his life story, he started it by saying it would only take a few minutes. Lying on his back, he then raised his arm above his head to look at his watch to see the time. Here was a man whose life’s story was about to end, timing the life story he was about to begin. He’s dying, but he doesn’t want to waste my time. In this seemingly inconsequential wordless act was packed a lifetime of wisdom. It’s an image with the words “Don’t Waste Your Life” written all over it. It’s the image from that evening that is etched in my memory. It is pure gold.
And what does a doctor looking at his own death in the eye write in an internet farewell posting? How does he conclude his life? What is the last paragraph, the last words, chosen to say to his family and friends? How does he say goodbye?
As I look back on my life story, I am thankful for family, friends, and a career I enjoyed. But most of all I am thankful that God has given me hope in Christ for an eternal life that I do not deserve. Although I may appear to be a good person, my own goodness could never earn me a spot in heaven. My sin merits God’s wrath, but Jesus came and took that punishment for all who will believe. Instead of the wrath we deserve, God offers the free gift of eternal life to all who trust in Jesus. To God be the glory forever.
Love to all,
On that day when Bill left here he found himself before a holy, majestic, and glorious God. And what did Bill do? From his farewell writing, it is clear he did not stupidly start gabbing about who he thought he was better than as for why he deserved heaven not hell. He did not stand there, sin-drenched, before a sinless God, his back to Christ, holding up his pathetic list of do-goodies and think the Father would nullify the death of his Son for someone who, by standards he made up, considers himself “good”. These are not the words of a man who would be so audacious as to tell God how to do God.
These are, rather, the words of one who knew God to be sinless and knew himself to be sinful. He recognized the fact that a sinner could never dwell with a sinless, holy God. Only an act of God, doing the impossible, making the sinful sinless, could bring God to dwell with man.
Thus when Bill came into that place where Christ, the one who became the act of God and who, in that act, made Bill sinless, was sitting, Bill could not stand. He could only fall on his face and worship. It’s the only response that comes close to what hell-deserving-sin forgiveness means.
Later, one day, as Christ is showing Bill around, they come to the enormous banquet hall. The room seems to go on forever. They sit down at one of the tables already set. They talk. They share stories. At one point Bill, reminded of family still on the other side of death, feels a tear start to run down his cheek.
Bill looks away. There’s silence. Christ knows what’s behind the tear.
After a bit, Bill, still looking away, sheepishly asks Christ a question. He asks him if he happened to see the postings.
Christ replies, “Yes, I saw them.”
Bill starts to try to explain that they were not his idea and to apologize for their giving more praise to him than to Christ.
Christ interrupts him, reaches over and wipes the tear still on Bill’s cheek, and says, “I know they were not your idea. They were mine. I knew you would not write a story about yourself without some prodding. Thus I sent a prodder into your life. He was that stranger that came that August night and listened as you told your life story and who latter prodded you to write it.
“I know how the praises came. They came from lives you touched as me.
“They came from me.
“…And they were my way of saying not just to you, but to your family, to your friends, to the whole world, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’ “.
And Bill smiled his biggest Bill smile. These words from Christ were, for him, words of gold more precious than all the gold in all the world.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth… And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God… And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold the dwelling place of God is with man… He will wipe away every tear from their eyes and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away…
…the city was pure gold. Rev 21