A very good and decent man died recently. Just one look at the response to his unexpected death was a sermon in itself. A good friend had hit the floor running in the middle of the night to be at his side. The home was immediately overflowing with people who wanted to be there for the inconsolable wife and heartbroken sons and daughters. Calling hours saw long lines and broken schedules. There was no facility in the community large enough to hold all who wished to attend the funeral. Overflow rooms at the church had to be created because that was the best they could do. It was something to behold.
Even more interesting is that the man at the center of all this was not some powerful dignitary, influential business man, or famous entertainer as one might assume. The man at the center of all this was a small town pastor named Joe Axtell. Joe had been a farm boy who came to the Lord at 15, went to a Christian college, married, and supported his family as a stone cutter. Nothing terribly remarkable in all that. What was amazing was the consistency with which Joe invested his life and how God blessed it.
Joe was passionate about bringing his life changing faith in Jesus Christ together with the people in his world. It was obvious in how he chose to invest his life and the kind of return he pursued. Joe invested with his smile, his laughter, his work, his hunting and fishing, his preaching and teaching, his counseling, his sense of humor, and his friendship. Joe was not a perfect man, but one who established an enormous warehouse of good will with people. So much good will existed, in fact, that forgiveness was not so difficult when he did stumble.
Joe made a difference with the decisions he made and the way he chose to relate to people. There is now a congregation of men and women equipped to do God’s work where there had once been none. There is an intact family where each member knows what it is to be loved and valued. There is a wife who knows she is loved more now after 33 years than the day they met. These are precious and increasingly rare lifetime achievements. None of this happens by accident.
The kind of life Joe led was intentional, the result of choosing to put God and others first. In doing so, he cultivated a life time filled with a positive outlook and memorable encounters with others that reflected what truly mattered to him, being used by God to change lives and bring joy to others.
Joe’s example of a well spent life has stuck with me more than any sermon I heard from him. It has made me think long and hard about the return I may or may not be getting on how I am investing my life. Have I been a good steward of the opportunities God has put before me? Am I faithful, available, and teachable? What kind of choices am I making? These are sobering questions. A well spent life is no accident and Joe’s passing was no doubt part of a much bigger plan.
God is an agent of change. It is something Joe firmly believed. Furthermore, he sensed change was coming and regardless of what it was, he preached that he trusted the Lord was doing it for good.
God’s choice to take Joe home was a game changer. It will no doubt trigger a series of choices amidst everyone impacted by his death. Some will be called to step up to things they had hoped to avoid or never dreamed of doing. Others will have to do what they have long been called to do, but do it that much more diligently. For a few it will be about stepping aside to make room for other, possibly painful, changes God has in store. Pruning and refining is unavoidable. None of this is easy. None of it will go ignored by the enemy. All of this will be about more change and more choices as God finishes what he has started for the sake of accomplishing some well hidden good.
I have no doubt that recalling the image of Joe’s big smile and good natured ways will keep many motivated and encouraged during the hardest times. It is one way we know that God isn’t done using Joe even yet. Some might say Joe has residual returns coming on his life well spent.