Steven Barber’s father, Wayne, always wanted God to get the glory. Even in what would be the final days of his illness, Wayne Barber taught a seminar at the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove. Steven wrote a blog entry about walking with his father in his final days. BGEA is sharing Steven’s thoughts, with his permission, in the hopes of encouraging those who are struggling through a trial or loss.
My mind is racing with thoughts this morning. I feel like sharing some of what was taking place a little more than one year ago and the weekend leading up. My father died a year ago.
The people my dad loved always felt like they were family because he invited them in, so I feel one of the best ways for me to process what is in my heart is simply to share it like he would, and my goal is that God would be glorified in giving you personal details of the story.
God was so good to me and my family in giving us my dad. He was a treasure. Never known any man like him. My best friend. He was a gift used mightily by God.
My mind jumps back to May—I think it was May 11 of last year—and we had a visit to the endocrinologist. On the way there I asked him, “Dad, if this isn’t the diagnosis we are wanting, why do you think it is?”
Dad said, “Steven, God will do whatever brings Him the most glory.”
I will never forget that.
I will also never forget one of my lowest days last year. I went to the church. I was the only one there, and I was lower than I have ever been. I knew down deep in my heart that I was losing my dad, and I was devastated the disease would take his mind; bring him to a place where he couldn’t deal with it. I cried out to God. I begged God to just let my Dad finish well. I wept. I begged God.
I had the strangest sense in my heart that God was choosing to take my dad’s life message, “Not I, but Christ,” and take a weak body to demonstrate the power of the Gospel.
My Dad’s favorite example was the coat. He would take a coat and use it as an example of how a coat can do nothing on its own. He then would describe how it wasn’t until a person puts on a coat that life goes into it. He wanted people to know that Christianity only works because of the life of Christ in the Christian.
I didn’t want to accept it or face it, but I was beginning to see that God was taking my Dad’s sickness and using it for His glory. He was taking my dad’s life message and illustrating it through my dad’s weakness. In my dad’s weakness, Jesus was intending to show Himself strong.
That morning at the church, I listened to one of my favorite pastors, Alistair Begg. I had intended to go to the Basics Conference at Parkside Church outside of Cleveland, Ohio—a conference for pastors each year—but it didn’t work out. I was desperate to hear God’s Word. I remembered the conference, and I went to the live stream and it just happened to be during the close of the conference. And it just happened that he was speaking about “Not Losing Heart.”
He closed his message out that morning with the story of D. Martin Lloyd Jones, the famous preacher of England, with the story of how God was there in the midst of his weakest moments as he faced death. I was blown away. Out of the thousands of sermons I could have searched for online, I could never have found one that ministered to me the way that one did. I cannot begin to tell you what that did for me.
I knew, and I knew without a shadow of a doubt that God was ministering to me. He was assuring me He had my dad in his hands. By His grace, He would enable him to finish well.
The next several weeks were filled with emotional turns.
Surgery came and went, and for several weeks, we just knew he was going to turn the corner. But two-to-three weeks after surgery, it started to gradually set in that he just wasn’t getting stronger. I would text him daily, checking on him and asking him, “Are you feeling stronger?”
I would often take him to therapy, and it was painfully becoming clearer he wasn’t getting any better. The question I would constantly ask during this time when I called Mom was, “Is he any worse, Mom?” She would always say, “He is not any better, but I honestly think he is not any worse.”
As long as he was not getting worse, it was super positive news. The diseases we feared would cause a person to get progressively worse, so I was desperately pleading with God that he just wouldn’t get worse. As the summer went on and we got into August, it began to hit me, my Mom, and my sister, it was going a direction we didn’t want.
Around the middle of July, I was shocked to hear that Dad was even trying to go to The Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove in Asheville, North Carolina, a place where he had preached almost 20 straight years. He was on the schedule for Aug. 26-28.
We knew it was coming, but were grieving the fact that he would not be able to preach. He loved it there. It was my parents’ favorite place. It was always fuel for their souls, as he would leave the pressures of pastoring and go and find refuge with people who traveled from all over the country to hear God’s Word.
As Dad was planning on calling to cancel the conference, Mom had an idea. It was an idea that she eventually ran by Dad, that maybe he could somehow go, but that I could go with them and be his backup speaker if he wasn’t able to speak. I loved the idea, but also knew that this would be a scary proposition for the people at The Cove.
They didn’t know me, and I figured if I were them I would probably decline. But I was shocked, they agreed to the idea which scared me not only from the speaking end—I would be speaking to people who came to hear my dad and then they were getting me—but also more than that the prospect of taking my father to a place far from home in his sickly state.
I was nervous and felt like it wasn’t a great idea. I started thinking it was a terrible idea. I tried to lovingly encourage him that it may not be the best idea.
But one thing about my dad, if he sensed God was leading Him somewhere, he was going.
We left in one car that Thursday morning, Aug. 25. We drove, and it was a special time. We made it as normal as we possibly could, and it was so special, I can’t put it into words. It was a long drive, but as we got about 90 miles from Asheville, we stopped at a McDonald’s for some food. Dad couldn’t get out of the car, so before going through the drive-through we pulled over to a parking spot.
Mom had to run in for a moment, and after trying to help him to stretch his legs besides the car, he looked at me and said, “Steven, I am basically an invalid. I can’t get out of a chair. I can’t get to the bathroom. I can’t really do anything for myself. But that is OK. I am OK with that. But this is what I am facing.”
As hard as it was to hear that, I was honored to be with him to try to help him process the reality of what was happening. I just tried to love him and encourage him.
We got to The Cove, Dad was really weak and his body was overwhelmed from the travel. It was by far the most he had faced since surgery. As we approached the entrance to The Cove, he wanted to make sure he was able to talk to the security guard. Dad loved people. He wasn’t drawn to the big people; he related with the little people of the world because that is how he saw himself, just a normal, ordinary person.
As we approached the gate, Dad made sure he thanked the gentleman there.
Once we got to the room, the wonderful people from The Cove brought him a chair. He was too weak, and his breathing was struggling so much he couldn’t lay down. He had to sleep in a chair, his neck was sticking out, and he could not keep it straight. We would learn later that he was dealing with what is known as dropped head syndrome because his extensor muscles in his neck were being affected by ALS.
We made it through Thursday night, and Friday would be the night he would try to preach. I was scared out of my mind. I didn’t think it would even be humanly possible as weak as he looked.
Before we left the cabin, he just sat there in the chair with a sweet smile on his face, but he just didn’t have any energy. He was in lots of pain, and he couldn’t breathe well. Every time we begged him to let us find him oxygen, he would just look at us and smile and say, “I don’t need any.”
The time came, and we got him from the wheelchair into the car. We drove down the mountain. I was thinking, “Well, here we go.” As we were driving down the hill to get to the lodge, a couple of turkeys came across the gravel road. I looked over at Dad, and he said, “Every time I have ever seen live game before I speak, God has done something really special.”
We got to the lodge and managed to get him back in the wheelchair and made it into a room where we would go over the plan for the service. It was basically like a greenroom for the speakers at The Cove so they could pray and just get a game plan for the order of the service. We were in the room with some amazing people; people that ministered at The Cove on a regular basis.
I kept noticing that Dad could barely keep his eyes open. We didn’t know it, but he was dealing with pneumonia as a complication of the disease, and his oxygen levels were low.
After watching him in that room, I was begging God to somehow let him be coherent. Honestly, I didn’t know if he would even be able to make sense of what he was saying. I wheeled him out. We sat on the side of the room where people could not see him. They had known Dad was facing some health struggles, but had no idea that he was this sick. I was really scared of the entire situation.
As the music played, I looked over and his eyes were closed. I had my hand on his leg. I whispered in his ear, “Are you OK, Dad? Are you asleep?” He opened his eyes, looked back with a sweet expression and said, “I am OK. I am praying.”
The moment came, and the plan was for me to go up and introduce him while he was still hidden from the crowd. I went up and shared with the people what we were facing; shared how sick he really was. I tried to prepare them for what they were getting ready to see with Dad in the wheelchair and with his struggles to keep his neck straight. I came off the stage and went to bring Dad up to the stage.
As I was bringing him up, the unthinkable took place. There was a bump on the ramp, and I pushed harder. To try to get over it by pushing harder, I knocked him out of the wheelchair. I was horrified. The lowest moment, maybe of my life. My sick dad was laying on the floor, and people ran from the first few rows to help him back in his chair. I can’t explain how terrible I felt. We got him back in the chair, got him to the stage, and I went back to the seat. What I saw next was a moment I will never forget.
Dad was his gracious, humble self. He said, “We need to pray for Steven. He will never forgive himself.”
After he prayed, I sat with tears in my eyes as I watched the Spirit of God take my weak father and speak for over 30 minutes. I had my hand on my mom’s, and she looked at me smiled and whispered, “God is doing it, Steven.”
At one point during the message, my Dad’s neck straightened. It was the first we had seen it straight for over two weeks. It was so apparent that God was being glorified in my Dad’s weakness. He still had his sense of humor. At one point he offered “that God can even help you when your son knocks you out of your wheelchair.”
That would be the last I would ever hear him preach. As we got in the car, we were all amazed that God had done what we perceived to be a miracle. I would be speaking the next two days. He would be unable to do any more.
I was scheduled to take Saturday, and Dad was going to try and do Sunday, but I would have to cover the rest of the weekend, and I was emotionally exhausted. God’s grace held me that weekend. The people that had come to hear my father embraced me as if I were him. It is hard to put into words what God did in that place.
Over the next two days Dad would fall two different times. Both would be in the early hours of the morning. Never in my life have I experienced God carrying me like he did that weekend. Saturday afternoon, I sat with Dad and just loved him and tried to minister to him in his sickness. He just thanked me, told me he was proud of me and that he loved me.
Sunday morning, after an exhausting weekend, the conference ended. I came back to the room after checking on Mom and Dad and headed up to the cafeteria to pick up lunch. As I pulled up to the parking spot, it hit me there was an assigned parking spot for me and one next to me was for my dad. It was the first time we had ever been assigned to speak together. Dad had dreamed of doing a conference together, and God allowed it to happen.
I got back in the car and called our dear family friend Dan, who was a doctor. He wasn’t Dad’s primary physician, but as I grew up, he had been my doctor for several years and was always someone my family could turn to if we needed medical advice.
I asked him if Dad had a motor neuron disease, if this could last a long time. He told me it could be a long time before he got to the place where he died. I didn’t want to see my dad suffer a brutal death. I called my sister that afternoon and said, “Steph, pray with me God would take him tonight.”
I got back to the room and crashed. I was wiped out. I had barely slept all weekend. I was trying to help Mom and Dad and trying to go over what I was preaching between each session. I slept about three hours that Sunday afternoon.
Sunday night rolled around. It was about 6 p.m. Mom and Dad had always finished The Cove on Sunday afternoon by going to Chili’s in Asheville. My Mom and Dad had a beautiful relationship. They adored one another. They were both really sad they could not go so I called the restaurant and ordered it to go. I picked it up. Dad’s last meal was boneless buffalo wings and salsa and chips. He ate every bit of it.
We ate the meal, and one of the sound guys from The Cove had sent me the question-and-answer audio from the day before. I told the people that I knew they were there to hear my father, and I wanted to answer their questions from the perspective my father had shown me in my life.
I was amazed. God guided the time along in such a way that I knew He was giving me the content. I got to play it for Dad that night, his last night on this Earth, and he was able to hear me talk about him and what I was able to learn from him over the years.
The staff had also given me cards the people had written to Dad. These were heartfelt letters and cards of how God had used Dad’s ministry from all the past years. I read him every one of them. He was so blessed.
Mom and I were able to encourage him, and it was a precious time. Near the end, there was one card that left the quote by Charles Spurgeon, “I have learned to kiss the wave that slams me into the Rock of Ages.” Dad loved it. He asked me to read it to him one more time. At that point, I looked at him and wanted to reassure him of what was coming up the next day.
We were planning to head to Emory Hospital in Atlanta the next day. Earlier that afternoon, we had made the decision that we had to get him to the hospital. Things had turned, and we made the decision, with some advice from a nurse attending the conference, that we were going to leave Monday morning and head straight to Atlanta.
Emory has a wonderful neurology department, and Dad was scheduled to go in October, but we felt we could speed up the appointment if we just took Dad to the emergency room. Dad didn’t want to go but was willing to do what we thought was best.
Sitting on my knees looking into his eyes, I told him there was a chance they would find something the other doctors had missed, and he might get better. But then I told him regardless of how long we would be at Emory, I would be by his side. I told him “Dad, if we get bad news, and you have a really bad disease, just think you have been preaching about Jesus all these years, and you may be close to seeing Him.”
He smiled and nodded. I then prayed with him.
As I put my arms around him and hugged him, he spoke in my ear and said, “Steven, I am passing the baton to you.” I told him I loved him, and he told me he loved me. As I got up, I kissed him on the forehead and headed to the cabin next door on the top of that mountain. I would learn later that Mom, who was sleeping on the couch right next to his chair, told him she loved him, and the last thing she heard him say was, “I love you, too, baby.”
It would be a few days later, but as I checked his last text messages, I realized the last person he ever texted was my sister that Sunday night. God was graciously allowing all of us to say “goodbye.”
I woke up the next morning and immediately started making calls trying to figure out where we would need to go once we arrived at Emory. After 20-30 minutes of phone calls, I headed toward Mom and Dad’s cabin. As I walked down the hill that sunny morning, not knowing what to expect, I got to the door and knocked. Within seconds Mom opened the door. She immediately said, “Steven, I think he is gone.”
As I looked toward my Dad, the strangest peace came over me. For weeks I had seen him struggle. He was unable to rest his head back in his chair due to his breathing difficulties. As I saw him, his head was rested back on the chair. I rushed over and felt for a pulse. There was nothing. I looked at Mom and raised my hands. I cried out, “God answered our prayer. Mom, He took him. He took him.”
I called 911; called the people at The Cove to let them know the ambulance was coming; called my sister and my wife. Immediately, God was assuring my heart my dad’s days had been numbered. God had answered our prayer and mercifully released my dad. God had enabled my dad to finish well. God had been glorified in my dad’s death.
Later that afternoon was the strangest feeling. The funeral home by now had taken Dad’s body. Mom and I were left alone on the top of that mountain. We were in the speaker cabin area, a private area up at the top of The Cove. We got our things together, and finally around 4:30 that afternoon, we drove down that mountain and back out of the gate. We had brought him there, but God took him, and he had no need to come back home. In all the shock and pain, God was guiding us along.
The last year has easily been the hardest of my family’s life, but one year later, me, my Mom and my sister want to thank God for His grace that has brought us through every step of the way. The grace of God in Jesus Christ is real. It carries the weak, the unable, the desperate. He has carried us along and continues to carry us along the hardest road we have ever faced.
God is our loving Creator, Who created us for His glory. Our sin separated us from Him, but in Christ Jesus, God has made a way. In His incarnation, He became a man, the God man. In His substitution, He took our place at the cross, and His resurrection from the dead assures us of the success of His future plan of restoration, a new heaven and a new Earth. God delivered my father, and because of Jesus, my dad now lives forever with Christ, and one day I will be reunited with him.
I beg you to consider that God has provided a way. He has made atonement for our sin at the cross. The Scripture says that we receive what He provided for us by repentance and faith. I urge you to look to God and believe on Christ. He will give you hope and a future.
This morning as I reflect back, to God be the glory!