Gordon H. Cook, Jr
I Shall Not Die, But Live: Facing Death with Gospel Hope, by Douglas Taylor. Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, 2016, xxviii + 332 pages, $22.00.
In our age of Twitter and YouTube, talking about death may be the last taboo. For many, apart from murder mysteries, death is a most uncomfortable and morbid topic, to be avoided if possible. The irony of this is that, because of the sin of our first parents, we are all dying. But thanks be to God, Christ Jesus, by his death and resurrection, has opened the way of eternal life for all who trust in him. Our standards remind us, “the souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves till the resurrection” (WSC Q. 37). Thus Thomas Watson, in his A Body of Divinity, affirms that “those who can say ‘to me to live is Christ,’ may comfortably conclude that to die will be gain (Phil. 1:21)” (206).
In May 2011, Douglas Taylor, an assistant editor for Banner of Truth Trust, was diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer. In response, Taylor decided to spend his final energies writing “to glorify God and to exalt the Lord Jesus Christ” (xxvii). He developed a blog, “Words Worth Declaring,” to which he posted regularly. You can find this blog at worksworthdeclaring.blogspot.com/. Banner of Truth has selected 248 of these blog posts, slightly edited, to include in the volume I Shall Not Die, But Live: Facing Death with Gospel Hope. This title, drawn from Psalm 118:17, came to Taylor’s mind after a night in which he thought he might die. They led him to meaningful ministry as he sought to exalt the Lord in the midst of severe affliction.
Taylor’s posts drip with grace and with the Word of God. Written in devotional style, each post shows a deep acquaintance with the Scriptures, and with Reformed literature and hymnody. Taylor quotes from and discusses more than forty different writers, most from the Scottish covenanting and Puritan traditions. His favorite authors, other than the writers of Scripture, appear to be Thomas Watson, Samuel Rutherford, and Charles Spurgeon. He also includes lines from more than twenty-five hymn writers, favoring Augustus Toplady, Charles Wesley, and Isaac Watts. These writers from generations gone by were no strangers to suffering and death, and provide mature and rich reflection on the subject as well as undaunted hope in the glories that await those who rest in Christ. Indeed, Taylor takes his place among them as one who thoughtfully and reverently reflects upon his faith and the Holy Scriptures as he approaches the end of his own earthly pilgrimage. Yet in all these reflections, there is nothing morbid or discouraging, but consistently a positive anticipation of the glories that await those who sleep in the Lord.
Taylor’s posts do not focus on the ups and downs of his physical struggle with cancer. Nevertheless, at times those struggles do enter into the material, as when, just a month before his death he writes: “I never intended this blog to report on my health, but to glorify Christ; however, I would request your supportive prayers concerning the [symptoms] which have hindered me recently” (330). Perhaps it is the chaplain in me that finds the scattered allusions to his personal health to be most poignant reminders that these are not abstract theological reflections but rather a personal wrestling with God’s Word as it applies to all of life.
Taylor begins his first blog by quoting Dr. Samuel Johnson: “Depend upon it, Sir. When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” He then adds, “Something similar may be said of a man who is diagnosed with an incurable disease which normally carries a prognosis of about six months” (1). His posts consistently reflect this clarity of thought and commitment to Christ.
Within Taylor’s postings there is an ambivalence that is also reflected in the apostle Paul in Philippians 1:18–26. Taylor shares this by way of a story from the Great Awakening,
[George] Whitefield was emphasizing the comfort he felt that soon his labors would be over and he would be with Christ in glory. Those present generally agreed with Whitefield, but an older minister, William Tennent, Jr., dissented. “I have nothing to do with death,” he declared. “My business is to live as long as I can—as well as I can—and to serve my Lord and Master as faithfully as I can, until he shall think proper to call me home.” (30)
Both views are well reflected in Douglas Taylor’s final days, and in the writings he has left as a testimony to God’s grace during his journey.
On June 2, 2014, Douglas Taylor went home to be with his Lord and Savior. His final post, May 8, 2014 closes with the lines of one of Wesley’s hymns:
Jesus, Lover of my soul,
Let me to Thy bosom fly.
And he concludes with a final quotation from God’s Word: “So he bringeth them unto their desired haven” (Ps. 107:30 KJV). Most certainly, our God has brought his servant home.
Taylor’s own summary of his blog and his personal struggle comes from the lines of the hymn, “The Sands of Time Are Sinking,” by Mrs. Anne Cousin, reflecting the dying words of Samuel Rutherford (298).
I’ve wrestled on towards Heaven,
’Gainst storm, and wind, and tide:
Now, like a weary traveler,
That leaneth on his guide,
Amidst the shades of evening,
While sinks life’s ling’ring stand,
I hail the glory dawning
From Immanuel’s land.
This excellent devotional is well suited to any who, like Douglas Taylor, are facing a terminal illness (and we all are), as well as to those who minister with such persons. But it is also a worthwhile devotional for anyone who desires to wrestle with the vicissitudes of living and dying with Christ.
Gordon H. Cook, Jr. is the pastor of Living Hope (formerly Merrymeeting Bay) Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Brunswick, Maine. He coordinates a Pastoral Care (Chaplain) program for Mid Coast Hospital and its affiliated extended care facility and has an extensive ministry as a hospice chaplain with CHANS Home Health in Brunswick. Ordained Servant Online, December 2018.