To live the countercultural lifestyle of an evangelical Christian is tough enough in these increasingly secular times. To do it against all odds for your entire adult life is nothing short of a miracle. Yet this is what my father-in-law, Jim Williams, managed to do and do well until his death last week at age 84. Our communities and our country badly need more people like him.
There was nothing in my father-in-law's childhood that indicated the kind of life he would lead as an adult. His family history was scarred by alcoholism, violence, instability, and poverty. There were no role models at home or in his extended family for young Jim to emulate. But those of us who serve God need to always remember that He is a God of the miraculous. When Jim gave his heart to his Savior as a teenager, there was no turning back. Neither alcohol nor any other irresponsible behavior would define his life from that point forward.
I only had the privilege of knowing Jim for the last 12 years. But he made an immediate impression. Seeing him at age 73 run around playing softball with his grandsons like a man 30 years his junior was a joy to watch. That was the way that Jim lived his life, with an almost carefree childlike exuberance. In so doing, he embodied the scripture, "Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it" (Luke 18:17). Jim never forgot that little child inside of him and, no matter how old he became, he continued to be a child of God.
Jim was the type of Christian, increasingly rare these days, who neither pushed his faith on others nor apologized for it. For that reason, he was a terrific evangelist. The lives he touched for the better and the seeds he planted for Christ were too numerous to account for this side of heaven. A long-lost cousin of my wife's who had a rough childhood like Jim's showed up at the funeral home and spoke of Jim's influence in her giving her heart to Christ over 20 years ago, turning her life around. She and her husband are now gospel singers. She's just one shining example of many.
Jim was a member of the Gideons and went out in all kinds of weather and hostile environments to distribute Bibles to school children of all ages and those rebellious young adults otherwise known as college students. This duty certainly wasn't always a pleasant one, but Jim did it cheerfully, never failing to keep his commitments to his Gideon brothers. We all have the Gideons to thank for the Bibles we find (although sadly not as often these days, no fault of theirs) in our hotel and motel rooms.
Of all Jim's qualities, the one that shone through the most was his almost total selflessness. Even during the debilitating illness that eventually took his earthly life, he was always thinking of others. One night when some of us were gathered in his hospital room and Jim was having an especially rough time, we had just finished praying with him and were getting ready to leave. Out of the blue, he grabbed my arm, looked me straight in the eye and said, "Don't let the stress get you down." He knew something of what I'd been going through at work, which paled in comparison to what he was experiencing. Yet in the midst of his tribulation he was concerned about my petty troubles.
That selflessness extended throughout his family, including his precious great-granddaughter Natalie, the apple of his eye. Circumstances made it necessary for Jim and his wife to baby-sit Natalie, which was a handful for two people at their age even when they were in reasonably good health. As Jim's health deteriorated, the thought never crossed his mind that perhaps it would be best for his sake if little Natalie went somewhere else to be watched. It took his hospitalization to finally separate them.
Why so many of those who belong to God endure such suffering as Jim did in his last years is one of the great mysteries that we won't solve this side of eternity. However, part of the explanation I think lies in the reliance we need to place on God's grace in those times of trial. Certainly my mother-in-law, my wife, and other family members are walking closer to God than they were before.
If you look at Jim Williams' obituary, you won't find anything exceptional. He wasn't a star athlete and didn't have any specific claim to fame. But what he did have was more valuable than all the gold and precious gem stones in the world, and his legacy far surpasses many who were famous by worldly standards. The world is a poorer place without him.