“I have something I’d like to discuss with you.”
Given my history with that kind of meeting request, I’m embarrassed to admit that my first instinct was to brace for bad news. And given the fact that it came from my father-in-law, of all people, made me think I must really be in trouble.
What in the world could he possibly want? What was so serious? I started collecting a mental inventory of possibilities. And in my head, started apologizing before I ever knew what the “something” was.
Turns out, apologies weren’t on the agenda.
Harlan Willis is one of the most tenderhearted, godliest men I know. He has followed Christ since the age of 10, and committed himself to the Lord to become a medical missionary at the age of 15. Both were profound experiences, and as a result, he invested a huge portion of his life to serving Christ and advancing the gospel in Thailand – and now for years in West Texas, where, at age 82 he is still practicing medicine and sharing Jesus.
But for years something has nagged him. Bothered him since his teenage years. That something has been the impression that he should be baptized. Again.
And that’s what he wanted to talk to me about. And he wanted me to do it.
Didn’t make sense.
For years he wondered if it was just the devil.
That didn’t make sense, either
But he couldn’t do it in Thailand! What would the people there think? What would the other missionaries think?
He couldn’t do it back in Texas. What would the people in the church think?
This wasn’t a case of getting his baptism out of order, as often happens when people are baptized who really don’t understand what it is they are responding to in the gospel.
He knew. Age 10. And baptism came later.
But yet… here was this feeling. This call.
When we talked I told him that in the first century people did things like that all the time, and it wasn’t that big a deal. It was an expression of devotion, faith, and obedience. And if he was feeling led to be baptized again, I would be more than honored to do it.
“Just let me know when and where, and I’ll be there,” I said.
Pride and Obedience
As this giant of a man sought to honor the Lord and – dare I say it? – find relief and peace, he came to two conclusions about this decades-long leading and reluctance. The first is that his resistance was mostly a matter of pride.
Pride wonders if others think we’re crazy for obeying God.
Pride fears what others say about us –it guards our reputation among the vanities of this world.
Pride resists looking foolish of unconfident or weak.
Pride avoids being questioned – especially with questions we don’t know completely how to answer.
And pride, Harlan said, kept him quiet for a long time.
The second conclusion he arrived at was that this was first and foremost a step and test of obedience. Even here, even now, our first step of obedience to the gospel is to identify with the death, burial and resurrection of Christ through baptism.
But obey again? After he’s already checked that one off the list?
What would you do? What would you say? Would you call it the devil and forget about it? Would you listen to the counsel of your pride and say with Brylcreem “a little dab’ll do ya?”
This was an act that was 82 years in the making. Baby Christians need not apply. And a few weeks ago, this man decided he’d waited long enough. He set aside his pride. He accepted the fact that his family would wonder if he’d lost his mind. But he decided that whatever the cost, he was done with putting off what for him was a significant step of obedience.
This past Tuesday night, all four of his children were in town. We gathered in our backyard after dinner, and turned my cold, green swimming pool (we’d been out of town) into a West Texas version of the Jordan River. And my one request was that before I baptized him, I wanted him to tell his story to the family members who were gathered there.
Tell, he did. And one of the things he spoke of was a conversation he’d had with a years-long colleague. One day Dr. Smith asked him what he wanted his legacy to be.
He had never thought about that.
But the one thing he wanted, then and now, more than any other thing, was to hear his Lord say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Tuesday night, after serving Christ for 72 years, Harlan Willis, M.D., missionary, and lifetime kingdom builder took one more step in that direction. Here is what it looked like.
I have been privileged to baptize hundreds of people in my lifetime. And through changes in life circumstances and responsibilities, I may never baptize anyone ever again.
But if that’s true, I’ll die in peace, knowing that the last baptism was a multi-faceted point of grace that will fill my heart for a lifetime.
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