Salt & Light by Rebecca Pippert
On February 18th my husband Dick and I boarded the Holland America cruise ship, the Zuiderdam, headed for the Caribbean. I was invited to be the Bible teacher for one week at sea aboard a cruise hosted by Bill and Gloria Gaither. The Gaither’s, probably the most famous musical couple in America, have written countless Christian songs that are sung in churches world-wide. As we boarded the ship Bill said “Becky, I can’t believe this is your first cruise. Trust me, it will be the experience of a life time!” One week later as the ship docked, Bill looked at me with sadness and said, “I never intended my words to be so prophetic.”
A Gaither cruise is utterly unique. For starters they are the only ministry in America who can fill up an entire cruise ship of 1,800 people! By day, after the Bible teaching, we explore various islands; by night we are treated to praise concerts with phenomenally gifted artists.
It was mid-week of the cruise, after a perfect day of sun and fun, when throngs of us crowded into the theater for the evening praise concert. That night, in typical Gaither concert-style, the musical artists sat in rows of seats on one side of the stage while Anthony Burger, Gaither’s pianist for the past 15 years and considered one of the finest key-boardist in the country, played the grand piano on the other side. During the concert he played I’m Getting Ready to Leave this World and halfway through Burger performed an electrifying solo Hear My Song Lord. By the song’s end everyone was standing in thunderous applause.
Anthony resumed playing accompaniment for a double trio of musical artists: then the unthinkable happened. Anthony Burger, only 44 years of age and with no previous heart problems, suffered a massive heart-attack on stage and died almost instantly.
We were 800 miles from the home-port and at sea - and the staff had difficult decisions to make. How were we to honor Anthony’s memory, honestly process our grief, while placing our faith solidly in the Risen Lord? But God met us in profound ways. The decision was made that in place of the mini-concert that was scheduled for the following morning, we would meet instead for worship and prayer. The worship music and lyrics that next morning were overwhelmingly powerful. When one of the artists sang “I wonder what Heaven will be like?” the presence of God was palpable. We grieved, and yet the far greater reality in that very concert hall where Anthony had died the night before, was one of hope, promise, and joy that is rooted in this simple truth: I know that My Redeemer lives and on that day I shall see Him face to face.
Anthony’s death affected the passengers but it also affected the cruise staff. There were 1,000 staff comprised mainly of young people who, for the most part, do not know the Lord. They often say they desired to see the world before settling down to “real jobs.” Niki, a hairdresser on the cruise, said to me “All of the staff has noticed how special the people are on this cruise. Everyone is so kind and loving. So we were devastated when we got the news of Anthony’s death. Yet even though I’ve seen people grieve, there is something else going on that I can’t quite describe. It’s as if something glorious is happening at the same time. Why is that?”
As I shared the simple gospel she listened with rapt attention. “Look at how the hairs on my arm are standing straight up!” she said. As the day progressed another believer, Mary, came to have her hair done. When Niki told her about our conversation Mary said, “Would you like to have one of Becky’s books?” “Oh my goodness, I didn’t realize that Becky was an author. Yes!” Niki responded. By divine coincidence Mary had just bought my book Hope Has Its Reasons and gave it to her. Niki enthusiastically received it and said “Once I finish reading this I am going to pass it on to the other staff.” Still later in the day another believer came, and soon Niki began regaling her with all that had happened that day: “First, I met Becky and she tells me about Jesus and why it’s possible to have hope, even in the midst of crisis. Then another client gave me Becky’s book. I tell you what, I’ve decided that in the next 5 years I’m going to buy a Bible and even read it!” With that the Christian woman sitting in the chair, reached into her tote-bag and pulled out her worn, underlined Bible and said “Dear, don’t wait for years, don’t even wait until tomorrow. This is my Bible and I’m giving it to you as a gift. All I ask is that you start reading it today – and start with one of the gospels.” And that is only one of countless stories I heard.
What is clear is that people are the most open to God in times of pain and crisis. And they closely watch us as we go through our own difficulties. Suffering – especially when it concerns the eternal issues of life and death – provides a very rich soil for ministry.
But we also learned something about living in the 21st century. While all of us were processing our shock and grief in the middle of the ocean, the New York Times picked up the story and within 8 hours of his death the story was reported in most major newspapers around the world - before we had even docked!
But there is one more story. The day after Anthony’s death a lovely woman approached me. She said that what she was about to tell me wasn’t a common occurrence for her. Everything about her manner witnessed to my own spirit and caused me to sense that her story was genuine.
She said that at the concert the night before, after Anthony had finished his piano solo and was playing accompaniment for the other singers, she sensed the Lord tell her, “Be still, for I am going to allow you to see into My realm - for the comfort of others.” Suddenly she was allowed to see an angel appear who stood right behind Anthony. The angel was about 7 feet tall and dressed in gold and white. The angel then placed his hand on Anthony’s right shoulder. This lasted for maybe 30 seconds and just as Anthony looked up, the angel disappeared from her view. At that moment Anthony suddenly slumped forward onto the piano. She sensed the Lord was saying “I assigned one of my angels to bring Anthony home to Me.” The verse that immediately came to her was Psalm 116:15: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” The comfort Anthony’s wife received as I shared this with her was indescribable.
While the Bible testifies to the reality of angels, perhaps some of us believe that God wouldn’t allow such a vision. This is not a biblical story so we aren’t required to believe it. But I sensed that it was genuine. Yet who can understand the mystery of a man being taken home to heaven who was so young and so gifted? Fortunately we are not God and we don’t have to figure it out - indeed it would be sacrilege to try. God knows and that is enough. Yet three truths were deeply impressed upon me as we disembarked that ship:
Life is a precious gift that we must never take for granted.
Before the foundation of time God chose, and God alone knows, the number of our days.
Therefore we must live every day of our lives in adoration and joyful service to Christ.
The truth is only God knows the length of our days. So let us glorify God and enjoy Him forever, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism says. Serving him with fervent joy: Our Utmost for His Highest.