A Funeral For A Hero

Today I am given the distinct privilege and honor of sharing with you about my life’s biggest hero, my grandfather Dean Rhoades.

As I have been preparing for this, I ran across a quote from DL Moody, he simply said, “Jesus never preached any funeral messages.” And you know he didn’t, the closest he ever came to preaching one was when he called Lazarus out of that tomb, and we all know how that turned out!

If I had that power, I don’t think I would use it, even if it would ease the burden of these broken hearts. Because my Grandpa is finally in that place he always dreamed of going. So for this message I am going to share, and I am going to preach a little, but we are going to celebrate a lot because my grandpa won the greatest prize of all… He got to go home to Heaven.

Some preachers preached Hell do hot you could smell the brimstone, and while he certainly didn’t shy from that topic… Grandpa would always rather preach on Heaven instead.

He preached about a land that was free from pain and sorrow and grief. When he talked about the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, he made you want to ask him to pass the gravy!

And that’s the kind of heart he had, a heart so full of love, so full of grace and compassion. So full of faith, that he became not just grandpa to me, but to many of you as well.

Dean Max Rhoades was born to Kelley and Carrie Rhoades, into a family of 16 children on May 18, 1923, a birthday he shares with my son Rhett. The family worked together doing stucco and concrete work over much of southern Missouri. Great grandpa Kelley was well known and his innovative method of applying colored stucco has been noted in books and journals studying Ozark architecture. He not only taught his children his craft, he taught about hard work and the value of family.

Grandpa used to tell us stories about how when he was growing up he would often hear his mother, our Great Grandma Carrie, praying for all her children as she prepared meals and went about the business of keeping her house. She instilled the practice of prayer deep within him during his young and formative years.

She is what experts call a transitional figure in the life of our family. Her vital faith went deep into the lives of each of those kids. They would often attend church services, brush arbor and tent revivals meetings, and often traveled to other nearby churches to hear singing and preaching. It was during one of those trips that he walked into a Sunday school class taught by Julia Mae Wallace. He was immediately struck by her beauty and in that moment he instantly knew that his love for the Lord had lead him to the love of his life.

When I was going through some of their old pictures I found an old letter that grandpa wrote grandma right after he had left for WW2. They weren’t married yet, but the interest was there. He talked about what they did in the day to day of Army life. He enjoyed playing ball, he wrote about the the quality of the food and there is even a line where he talked about how good the Sunday church services he attended were. But he was quick to point out how he would much rather be in Sunday School back home. Which just happened to be the class that she taught.

The relationship was not a whirlwind relationship by any means, mostly because of World War II. During the war God used Grandpa to carry the message of hope onto the battlefield. He shared memories of being under fire and taking cover in his foxhole. In all of that chaos it was normal for a fellow GI, shaken by the brutality of war, to come to him seeking comfort.

When they did, he would pull out the well worn bible he carried. It had a mud and blood stained thumb print at the 91st Psalm, which he would read to remind himself and others that God was indeed watching over them.

It was out there on the battle field that he first felt God’s call to preach. He was walking along and he saw a young soldier who had been shot in the forehead. His helmet had fallen back, and a shock of curly black hair was sticking out underneath. There was a trickle of blood running from the bullet hole and down his face. He was not new to war and had been surrounded by death for months but there was something about this moment that made the reality of war hit him differently.

He often told us that in that moment of horror a certain thought passed through his head.

“Oh God this is some mother’s boy, some father’s son… This boy’s not going to get to come home, and when they find out he isn’t coming home, it will be a Hell on earth for them. And I said to the Lord, “Father, if Hell is any worse than this, help me to go home and tell it.”

It was an image that never left him, even late into his years. He told us those stories again and again, and we loved to listen because his heart shone through each and every time.

The war continued to go on, Grandpa continued to serve, and God continued to spare his life, and eventually he was awarded the Purple Heart for taking a bullet right across his eyebrows, and it doesn’t get much closer than that. He finally was able to come home, but he had a serious lung issue that required an 18 month stay in treatment. He finally got better but he was broke so he moved to work with his brothers in California. When he got a little money in his pocket, the first thing he did was get home to marry his Julia Mae.

Their relationship is one for the books. It wasn’t perfect, but it had fire and passion, they taught us what Godly love between a husband and wife looks like. I remember asking Grandpa what he missed most about my Grandma after she passed away. His answer revealed much and took me by surprise, he told me, “I miss the way one of her front teeth just barely overlapped the other.” This spoke to me of the deep intimacy that they shared in life, it was tender, vulnerable, and real. I want to love my wife like that, and I do.

They shared that love together, among the many carefully folded pieces of paper and cards we found a note that Grandma wrote about Grandpa later in life, in it she wrote:

“If I had the privilege of choosing any man on the face of the earth for a companion and father of my children, I would and did choose Dean M. Rhoades for myself and for my children.” 

In all his life, I don’t think any compliment meant as much to him as that one. They were made for each other, both deeply in love with Christ and committed to each other, and both strongly desiring to follow his call.

After they got married they were both working, he in construction and she as a school teacher, and they had bought land around Mansfield, MO and built a cozy and modest home on it. Soon after, the Mansfield Church of the Nazarene was officially organized in the backyard of their little home. It would seem that life was almost perfect for them, but while things seemed to be going well, a burden was growing on their hearts.

The call grandpa heard all those years back during the war, never left him. He had felt that call most of his life, but he never wanted to preach. That wasn’t the life he wanted, but the call never went away. He was faithful to church though but serving in a lesser role, wasn’t enough to scratch that itch. So after a sleepless night of wrestling with the Lord over his call, Grandpa finally gave in. While working at a cement mixer in Springfield, Grandpa surrendered to God’s call to ministry on his life and literally dropped his tools and walked away from the job site without looking back.

In 1954 he moved his family here, to take over the young and troubled Lebanon Church of the Nazarene. This would be no easy task as the church was virtually without resources, but he was up to the challenge. The first service he held for the Lebanon Church consisted of himself, his Grandma, Max and Dad, and I think Sister Mary… They met in a vacant store front on Second Street, just blocks away from here. For the first three years he was happy to receive the Sunday night offering for his paycheck, which averaged a whopping $7.50 a week.

The church, and the children, soon out grew the store front and a home was purchased at fourth and Jefferson to be converted into a church. The work was done during the week with his own two hands, moving the family from room to room as he finished it. In those days the meals were cooked on a single electric skillet. Times were tough but Grandpa always remembers God’s faithfulness to provide for the family’s every need. These were busy and lean times, they didn’t have much but they sure had love, and Grandpa always remembered these as the happiest times of their lives. During this time a daughter, Becky, was added to the family.

Today across the church world people like to talk about creativity and finding ways to be culturally relevant. I’m not sure that’s what Grandpa was doing, but he was hungry to attract people, build relationships, and win them for Jesus. He encouraged his kids to sing around the piano with Grandma, and those kids, The New Horizons, are still singing today. Tens of Thousands of people have heard the Gospel because of them, He was and remains their biggest fan.

He did other unprecedented things like when He rented out a gym and showed a Muhammad Ali fight to attract the young people and bring them in. Some of you or your families are here today because he was innovative enough to reach people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ by inviting them to watch a Muslim box. He was ahead of his time in every way that mattered, and as a result…

The church, continued to grow until yet another new building was needed. He went and secured a loan and 11 acres were purchased on North Highway 5, and in 1978 construction began on the building that is still home to the Lebanon Church of the Nazarene.  The church has provided a great service to the community through compassionate ministries and hosting many concerts, revivals, weddings and funerals over the years.

While the structures that now stand are a testament to his achievements, those who truly know my grandfather will point to the life he lived and so freely shared with those around him. His generosity is renowned, it is and has always been common for us to meet new people at our holidays and to welcome them into the family. It was his way, he taught us what Love First looks like. It flowed from his heart because he cultivated a heart for the Lord.

He is known far and wide for being a man of prayer. I can remember I was doing an internship with Grandpa while I was finishing school. When I talked to him about how he spent his days, he would describe hours of prayer every day. To be honest I thought he might be overstating it a bit until I met with him all through that summer and found him and grandma maintaining that powerful practice of prayer for hours everyday. It was something he learned from his mother and then modeled for all of us. One morning when my cousin Julia was little she got to be a part of one of those prayer meetings… And when Grandpa finally said “Amen” she famously answered “Grandpa that sure was one loooong story!”

Even when he started having trouble carrying on a conversation, you could listen to him pray, and that always made sense. His heart always shined through when he prayed, that was one gift that God never took.

He was a man of the Word. He was always reading his bible, so much so that during the war it earned him the nickname “Preacher” long before he ever became one. Even at 94 after having read the Bible through several times a year for the majority of his life, he was still pulling new and powerful insights out of scripture.

He submitted himself to the Word. He let it shape him. One of my favorite things to do was to just sit and talk to
him about scripture. This was one of his favorite Bibles, and just in case you are one of those people who thought Grandpa was perfect I want to go ahead and point out that this is a Gideon Bible, and it clearly says, DO NOT REMOVE FROM THIS ROOM, so if you ever stay in a hotel room and open the drawer to find the Bible is missing, it’s likely that Grandpa beat you there!

He loved God with all his heart, and that flowed out in how he loved people. He was the constant encourager of all of us grandkids. He cheered us on, and celebrated with us, but he was also quick to remind us where that talent came from. He taught us that everything about our lives should give God glory. That when we did anything, we needed to give it our best for Him.

I don’t remember many times that we got in too much trouble from grandpa, though I know it happened, like that time we were throwing rotten apples at the cars driving down Highway 5!

I do remember one time when I had done something especially wrong, and grandpa sent me into the field to get a switch. I never remember him spanking me with it, but I do remember him cutting off those limbs while he talked to me about what ever it was that I had done. I don’t remember the spanking, but I do remember the pain of ever disappointing him. We all felt that way.

Like a lot of people who went off to war and spent so much of their lives doing hard work, Grandpa didn’t feel too well in his later years. His body paid a steep price for all those years of service. He battled issues with Bell’s Palsy, his heart, and some other things that doctors have told us for years could take him at any time. But even up to the end, he never tired of talking to us, HE LOVED PEOPLE…

Right at the end it was harder and harder to have very long conversations with him, but I’ll never forget that last one. He wasn’t able to get out of bed, his legs would no longer support him and the pain was too much to lift him anymore. So I went in just to see if he was awake, and I found him doing what he did so often, he was in prayer.

I’ll never forget what he said, “Unless God intervenes, there is no hope. We have to tell them, or they have no chance!” That message drove his life as it drives mine today. Without the cross of Christ, mankind is doomed.

There is no hope apart from Jesus. We all face the reality of death, it is an end we cannot escape. We can’t expect to stand before God and plead our case, our only hope is to stand under the promise of the blood of Christ. To allow him to come to our defense, because there is no other name by which we are saved than the name of Jesus. And if He is our Lord, our savior, the forgiver of our sin…well then we don’t have anything to worry about other than getting other people in.  Apart from salvation, that’s what God wants, it’s what Jesus told us to do. “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you…” Those were Jesus’s last words, it’s what we are all called to.

Grandpa’s last words were something special. As far as I know it is the last thing anyone heard Grandpa deliberately say. Becky was in his room with

Kyle, singing as we often do, and she sang him My grandma’s favorite song, and he sang along with her as he could…

“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. 
Little ones to him belong, they are weak, but He is strong. 
Yes Jesus Loves me! Yes Jesus loves me! Yes Jesus loves me! 
The bible tells me so.”

And he does, Jesus loves each and everyone of us, but I like to think that Grandpa was one of his favorites. After Grandma’s funeral I can remember all of us gathering to eat together and somebody said, “Grandma told me I was her favorite.” And then we all let the secret out, because she told all of us that we were her favorite! But as much as she loved us, we all know who her favorite really was, and they are laughing and walking together down streets of gold this very minute. Dean Max and Julia Mae… And they are walking with family and friends, they are holding the babies we have yet to see and they are gathering at the gates waiting to welcome us to the place that really is our home.

My heart aches, I have shed so many tears, but they are in that land that is fairer than day. That place that he longed for so mightily, that John wrote about when he wrote:

Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 
And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. 
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”
Then He who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” And He said to me, “Write, for these words are true and faithful.”
And He said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give of the fountain of the water of life freely to him who thirsts. He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God and he shall be My son.
-Revelation 21:1-7

I long for the day that He will welcome me in through those pearly gates. I’m not sure how long I have, but I want to make as much of an impact as I can, to store up real treasures in Heaven, just like my Grandpa did. It is going to be so amazing! I hope to see you there!

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