by Henry Neufeld

13And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this down: Blessed are those who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, says the Spirit, they are blessed indeed, for they will rest from all their toils and trials; for their good deeds follow them!”
–Revelation 14:13 (NLT)

I am in tears as I write this, a full six weeks after my step-son James passed away. He was a great joy to me. Those who say that the pain passes away must not have experienced this sort of loss. But I do know that James knew the Lord, and that he died in the full hope of the resurrection. I will see him once again. But that doesn’t make me miss him any less.

Last night, my wife Jody and I had the opportunity to participate in a part of James’s life. The Tate High School Showband of the South sponsors an annual contest called the Showcase of Champions. There are a number of trophies given, one of which is for outstanding percussion performance. This year, they named the award after James: The James Webb Award for Outstanding Percussion in Finals Performance. They asked us to present it.

James’s band director said that James had at some point quit being the student, and had become the teacher, teaching them about living, about faith, and about courage in death. That line brought back many memories, and focused much of what I have felt about James. James indeed did “rest from his toils and trials” as our verse says. His last few weeks were hard for him. Needing help didn’t come easy. There was pain. He could choose the pain or the drugs that made him drowsy. He wanted so much to be aware and involved, right up to the last day, that he would often refuse the medication.

James doesn’t have to worry about any of those things now. God’s healing hand is on him. We could say that in this way, James passed from this life.

But he didn’t. We don’t merely look forward to seeing James again, to seeing him cut a wide (and sometimes noisy) path across everyone’s life. He’s still doing it right here. That’s what drew me to Revelation 14:13. Not only do the dead who die in the Lord have rest from their toils and trials, “their good deeds follow them.” James bravely fought cancer over the course of five years. He never let it stop his life. He kept pushing forward. When he knew this last battle with cancer was truly terminal, he didn’t spend much time mourning. He just said to us, “It would be really cool if I could be strong enough to make it through marching band season.” A few weeks later he voluntarily dropped out of marching band (at least the marching part) because he felt himself weakening, and knew he wouldn’t be able to make the season. “I don’t want to hold anyone back. The band will need someone who has practiced full time to fill that place.” So for the good of the band, he gave up his place in the drum line, and started to help in other ways.

In doing this, he impacted an incredible number of lives. I already knew about some of the impact while James was alive. But until nearly the end, I had no comprehension of the full meaning of “his good deeds follow him.”

  • There was the time in the band room of Tate High School where the band performed their fall program for him. We were in the path of hurricane Ivan, and it was raining. They had planned to march the full show for him in uniform. The walls were covered with banners testifying to the faith and courage that James showed his fellow students.
  • Instead of a formal funeral visitation, there were over 300 people, some of whom had not been in a church for some time, who spent over an hour just worshipping in music-James’s preferred form-and celebrating his life and influence as well.
  • There were 500 people, again many of whom hadn’t been in church in years, who came to his “Celebration of Life.” Many of us there were challenged to face whatever difficulties we have with greater courage, and to lean on the One that James leaned on. We were introduced to the phrase, “We’ve Got James!” as an expression of how the Tate band felt when James filled in an essential role even when he was too sick to be in school.
  • There is a project at Pine Forest United Methodist Church to create a multimedia room where the young people can work to record and produce. It was James’s idea. His vision and his memory are now pushing that project forward.
  • And there is an award for best performance of a percussion line. The audience stood and applauded as Jody and I presented that award to a rival high school (Tate obviously can’t participate in their own contest!) and I thought, “He’s enjoying this anyhow.”

He’d probably find something wrong with their performance. He always found something wrong with his own. But even that he used to drive on to better performance.

He’s gone on to a better life now. But he’s still pretty busy down here.

And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this down: ‘James is blessed. He died in the Lord.’ The Spirit says, ‘He is blessed indeed, for he is resting from all his toils and trials; but his good deeds just keep on following him!'” (Paraphrased)