Death Be Not Proud…

death be not proudThis past Monday, Gloria and I (and our daughter Bethany, and granddaughter Hope) had the privilege of attending the memorial service for Pastor Jerry Bricker at the College Church, Northampton, MA. Jerry and I were associates in ministry there for 12 years, along with Tim and Ros Christensen. Jerry’s life was a tribute to God’s amazing grace and his influence was deeply profound.

Jerry came to Christ one Easter Sunday at CC. He responded to the gospel and God saved him out of a life of alcohol and drugs. He was given a thirst for God that could not be quenched. He began working as the janitor at CC. He attended Berkshire Christian College in Lenox, MA and realized his calling to pastoral ministry. We took him on as our assistant minister and then as my associate, serving alongside Tim. The three of us were together in ministry for over a decade in the 1980’s and 90’s and made a great team. We did not always see eye-to-eye, but we always stood shoulder-to-shoulder in our respect for one another and our love for our people. Those were days of challenge and growth, and we saw much fruit in our labor together in the unique environment of Northampton, MA—a place that birthed the Great Awakening and heard the preaching of Solomon Stoddard, Jonathan Edwards, and George Whitefield.

Jerry grew as a pastor, preacher, and theologian who loved the doctrines of grace. He was awed by God. While overwhelmed by his own sinfulness, Jerry was filled with joy at the love and mercy of God. He was ever desirous of living a holy and useful life. He married, and he and Mary Ellen began their journey as a very effective ministry team that continued right up until Jerry went to be with Jesus last week. However, their ministry was attended by much suffering, especially because of Jerry’ health issues; the kind of suffering that few of us have ever experienced. Soon after they were married, Jerry had to go on dialysis because of kidney failure. There were days he came to work with eyes so bloodshot-red that they made your own eyes water just to look at them. Yet he never complained about the “hand he had been dealt.” He believed that God was sovereign and that his suffering was designed to purify and perfect, not to punish. Jerry’s attitude embodied the Psalmist’s in 119:71, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.”

God graciously provided a new kidney. God blessed them with four very special children: Rachel, Grace, Molly, and then Ben. They loved their dad and knew that he loved them. He worked hard as a pastor, and even moonlighted to supplement his salary so that his kids could go to the Jonathan Edwards Academy, which Jerry and Mary Ellen helped to found. He also became and remained the pastor of our second church plant which was named Christ Church located in Greenfield, MA.

The specter of infirmity did not leave him for long. As Mary Ellen struggled with her health; kidney issues continued for Jerry. There was cancer, surgeries, treatments, and more cancer—throat, brain. His wonderful church loved and supported him and his family. Jerry kept preaching, his sermons ever deepening because more of God’s majesty was being revealed in his own infirmity. When you sat with him the conversation wasn’t focused on his issues, but on you and how you were doing. Besides his hope of eternity, he hoped that he would live long enough to see the birth of his grandson. His hope was fulfilled this past May and even got to hold his little Elijah.

In the end, he struggled with death, which took his family by surprise. Perhaps we expect a godly man who loves Jesus to pass from this world peacefully—and some do. However, we need to remember that death is still the enemy and we are all a bunch of amateurs. Our experience will be unique to us and the circumstances of our infirmity (along with the amount and kinds of medication we are taking at the time). In Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian had a completely different kind of experience than his friend Hopeful as they crossed the River of Death. Christian was filled with terror, while Hopeful felt the bottom of the river right away and was able to walk across. He called out to Christian to take courage and not to fear. “Brother, I feel the bottom, and it is good!”

Jerry was not a flash-in-the-pan man, but a faithful and solid man. He was only a year younger than me, and so his death is a vivid reminder that I will soon follow him across that river. Such a thought does not disturb me, but challenges me to pray with a renewed sincerity “Lord, teach me to number my days that I might apply my heart to wisdom.” (Ps. 90:12)

Please continue to pray for Mary Ellen as she grieves “in hope.” Pray also for her adult kids who are facing life for the first time without their dad. Pray also for Christ Church in Greenfield, MA as they grieve the loss of their founding pastor and brother. May the Lord give them wisdom and lead them to another pastor who will love them as Jerry did.