October 19, 2022 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — 1 Thessalonians 5:16
When someone we love dies, we naturally grieve. We miss that person, sometimes in an almost overwhelming way. But as we reflect on what that person meant to us, we feel gratitude in the midst of sorrow. And that gratitude can lead to joy, deep, abiding joy. Thus, we can rejoice even in sorrow.
This devotion is part of the series: Encouragement from 1 Thessalonians
In my Life for Leaders devotion two days ago, I talked about how the exhortation to “Rejoice always” does not mean we should not grieve or express our grief. In fact, there are many times in life when our rejoicing comes in the midst of sorrow. In those situations, gratitude is often an essential ingredient. Today I’d like to share with you my own recent experience that has combined rejoicing, gratitude, and sorrow.
About a month ago my uncle died. He was well into his 80s and had several health challenges, so his death was not a surprise. But it was, as you can imagine, an emotional blow to learn that his body finally gave out. At first, I felt rather numb. Then, as his passing sunk in, I felt sad. And also I felt joy. And also gratitude, lots and lots of gratitude.
My uncle, the Rev. Dr. Donald M. Williams, AKA Don Williams, or Donny as we called him in our family, was an amazing man. I expect that quite a few readers of Life for Leaders will have known Don and his work as a pastor, scholar, leader, speaker, author, evangelist, and mentor. Donny was deeply devoted to Christ since his conversion in high school. This devotion was translated into almost 70 years of ministry in different contexts, as well as almost 50 years of marriage to his beloved wife, Kathryn. (The photo, from 2013, is one of my favorites. A much younger, non-bearded version of me smiles with my arm around Donny, who is sitting next to his sister, my mom, Martha.)
I always appreciated Donny’s commitment, boldness, energy, enthusiasm, vision, and love. Though our lives were often geographically separate, whenever we were together we felt a deep connection and mutual love.
Donny’s impact on my life was huge, unlike that of any other human being. Why? Because from my earliest days, he was a kind of hero for me. He was also a role model whom I sought to emulate in ways that were quite extraordinary. I’ll share with you some of these:
Donny grew up in Glendale, California, attending Glenoaks Elementary School, Wilson Junior High School, and Glendale High School. I grew up in Glendale, California, attending Glenoaks Elementary School, Wilson Junior High School, and Glendale High School. We both had Mrs. Cornelius as our first-grade teacher.
I learned from an early age that Donny got a scholarship to college because he got top grades at Glendale High School, was class president, was on the track team, and won a prestigious speaking contest. So I got top grades at Glendale High School, was class president, was on the track team, and won the same speaking contest. Then I got a scholarship to college.
Donny went east to college, studying at Princeton University. I decided to do the same. When Princeton didn’t accept me, I ended up at my backup school. Yep, Harvard was my backup school. Why? Because I wanted to be like Donny. At least I was able to go east to school as he did.
After college, Donny went on to graduate school at an Ivy League University (Columbia), earning a Ph.D. in New Testament with his dissertation focused on Paul as a teacher. After college, I went to graduate school at Harvard, an Ivy League university, earning a Ph.D. in New Testament with my dissertation focused on Paul as a pastor.
Donny didn’t remain in the academic world. Rather, he sensed God’s call to become a pastor. His first pastoral assignment was as the leader of the College Department at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. After I finished graduate school, I didn’t remain in the academic world. Rather, I sensed God’s call to become a pastor. My first pastoral assignment was as the leader of the College Department at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood.
In his professional life, Donny was most of all a teacher of the Bible, something he did in churches, seminaries, conferences, retreats, and through his writings. In my professional life, I have been mostly a teacher of the Bible, something I have done in churches, seminaries, conferences, retreats, and through my writing.
I know all of this might sound rather weird, almost like I was Donny’s stalker or doppelgänger. You may worry that I didn’t have a life of my own. I assure you that I did seek the Lord and follow what I believed to be God’s call for me. But Donny’s example opened up horizons for me and showed me a path forward that I might not have found on my own. After my time at the church in Hollywood, my life became less like Donny’s in the details.
So, as I feel grief over the loss of Donny, I also feel immense gratitude for his life and influence. I know so many people whom he led to Christ and/or helped to grow in faith, including me. The most influential seminary course I ever took was a summer school course at Fuller taught by Donny. It focused on the body of Christ in Ephesians. Decades later, I wrote a commentary on Ephesians, one that fleshed out in detail much of what I had learned from Donny so many years earlier.
As I get in touch with how thankful I am for Donny, I feel genuine joy, lots of joy. It’s joy in sorrow, joy made all the sweeter because of the sorrow, joy enhanced as I tell the Lord just how grateful I am for this wonderful man.
My joy and gratitude are not only about Donny’s impact and influence, however. They’re also shaped and inspired by the good news of the gospel, to which Donny dedicated his life.
What I’m doing these days is exactly what Paul and his colleagues wanted for the Thessalonians, by the way. Remember what they wrote in 1 Thessalonians 4:13, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” I am grieving, to be sure. But I am not grieving as someone who has no hope. I am grieving as one who has confident hope in the salvation we have through Jesus Christ. I believe that Donny is more fully alive in this moment than he ever was during his long life. Moreover, Donny is with Jesus, who loved him and whom Donny loved with a fierce, abiding, passionate love. As I picture Donny with Jesus, I am, once again, filled with gratitude and joy, even in my sorrow.
What I’ve shared here is just one story, one version of living into the exhortation, “Rejoice always.” Yes, even as I am sad, I am rejoicing. My joy grows out of my gratitude and is expressed through sharing my gratitude with others, and most of all with the Lord.
Perhaps you have a story rather like mine, of a time when joy, thanks, and sadness were intermingled with you. If so, what happened? What was that time like for you?
Why do you think gratitude has such power to inspire joy within us?
As you think about your life, who are the people who have had the greatest positive impact on you? What was the nature of their influence?
Set aside some time to reflect on the third question above. Then be sure to tell the Lord how thankful you are for the people who come to mind.
The following prayer is my own prayer of gratitude for Donny. I don’t expect you to pray in the same way, but perhaps my example can encourage you to pray for people who have meant a lot to you, perhaps people who have gone to be with the Lord.
Gracious God, today I thank you for Donny. I thank you for his life and for his eternal life with you. I’m so grateful for the way he modeled commitment to you and for how that touched my life.
Thank you, Lord, for the model Donny became for me as I was growing up. He showed me a way forward that I might not have discovered apart from him.
Thank you, Lord, for all that I learned from Donny through his example and also through his teaching. His exegesis of Ephesians 45-years-ago made such an impression on me. It formed me as a Christian, a pastor, and a biblical scholar.
Thank you, Lord, for Donny’s faithfulness in relationships. I’m especially glad for how he modeled commitment and love in marriage, and for all the ways he reached out to me over the years.
As I think about Donny today, I’m so, so grateful that he is now with you. I can only imagine his unspeakable joy as he sees you face to face.
For all of this and so much more, I thank you, Lord, with sadness, yes, and also with overcoming joy. Amen.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the High Calling archive, hosted by the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Hopeful Grief: Is It Possible?
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Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.