Joe Axtell’s final sermon hours before his sudden death.
It is chilling to hear his statements starting around 28 minutes in.
The challenge at 48.41 is uncanny.
The refining fires of life have the potential and power to transform us and with it the lives we touch. They rudely shove us from our comfort zones and worlds of self sufficiency and self satisfaction. We are no longer permitted to live life on our terms, but are compelled to dig deeper, learn more, and change how we approach and handle challenges in life.This has never been more true than in the life of my friend, Ken Hughes.
Ken began to re-dedicate his life to Christ in recent years. The seeds of childhood faith ceased to remain dormant as he began to seek greater understanding of beliefs imparted by his mother. Something prompted Ken to call me shortly after surgery to remove a large brain tumor. He was stunned to learn that I –an intense type A personality–had had no fear of death and experienced only a peace that surpasses understanding. Long conversations began and so it was that our friendship was established 5 years ago.
Since our paths have crossed, there has been an unrelenting series of refining fires. I watched the Lord allow hardship to wake Ken, His truth to transform him, and His compassion to protect him. When Ken relocated to Florida in 2012, he began to attend the Church By the Glades in Coral Springs, launched a new business, and generally started over. He chose to be baptized, characteristically taking a stand and making an outer profession of that inner faith. No, Ken did not become perfect, but he did change as he embraced the compass and goals of his renewed faith.
In spring of 2014, Ken was diagnosed with lung cancer and life changed for all of us close to him. When life deals you the hand it dealt Ken, the world gets pared down to the essentials. On one hand there is no time or energy for the extraneous; on the other hand top priorities come sharply into focus. Loss, release, and good-byes are unrelenting and hurtful. Belongings, activities, and simple pleasures are in good measure usurped by protocols, pain, and uncertainty. It is a refining fire that reveals the heart.
Most noticeably after his diagnosis, Ken began to have a heightened sense of what mattered. He looked up. The photos so many of you have viewed and enjoyed this year were the result of a new appreciation of God’s presence in the world around us.
The Lord blessed that seeking after Him in a series of remarkable sightings– sightings that are missed by those too busy or too preoccupied to be still and know He is God, sightings not allowed everyone. Ken’s photos revealed a glimpse of heaven.
What Love Is and Is Not
People often confuse love with no limits,
so let me clarify.
Being patient does not mean I am inviting continued attack.
It means I am creating opportunity for improvement.
Being kind does not mean I am a fool.
It means I am trying to motivate someone to do a little better.
Going the second mile does not mean I have nothing else to do.
It means I care enough to come alongside
a bit longer to create time for healing.
Biting my tongue does not mean I have no cause to speak.
It means I am waiting for someone to be able to hear.
Putting someone else’s interests before my own
does not mean I believe I don’t matter.
It means I have chosen to invest the margin in my life
with someone with little or none.
Any behavior, however, ceases to be loving,
when it ceases to move us toward being more like Christ.
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.