My father-in-law, Ken Bixby, recently died. Years ago, he requested that “Amazing Grace" be sung at his funeral. He hadn’t told our family, however, which of the twenty-eight versions he had collected was the one we were supposed to use. That he would leave out such an important detail was surprising, because Ken was a master list-maker, organized, methodical, set in his ways.
It’s impossible for me to listen to the song without thinking of Ken and wondering what exactly drew him to this hymn. The melody? The lyrics? The emotions the song invokes? Or did something else about it resonate with him?
Ken turned eighty-two this past July and then soon after, broke his leg, had surgery to remove bile stones, developed an infection, and entered an assisted living facility. As he literally worked to get back on his feet, it became clear to me that he would need super-natural intervention—amazing grace itself—to get there.
While I was researching for a separate writing project, God placed in my hands a sermon that Pastor Janet Noble-Richardson had written in 1992. Here’s what Janet had to say about Ken’s favorite song:
[“Amazing Grace”] was written by John Newton, who began his career as a sailor at the age of eleven. For several years he worked on slave ships, rounding up slaves in West Africa and transporting them to England. Eventually, he became the owner of his own slave ship, and on one particular journey, when there was a storm at sea, and it looked like all would be lost, he began to read a classic book by a medieval monk entitled, Imitation of Christ. The message of the book along with his frightening experience at sea was used by the Holy Spirit to convict Newton of his sin and bring him into a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Later, Newton became a pastor and an effective crusader against slavery, but he never forgot his early life and the grace of God that rescued him. Truly, he had done nothing to deserve God’s favor; in fact, what he had done should have incurred God’s harshest judgement. But in spite of that, God reached out to draw him in. And many years later, Newton wrote of God’s “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”
Having been a Bixby now for over thirty years, I’ve noticed traits that Ken has passed down to his children. They like to be in charge. They’re smart and highly organized. They deeply love family.
Additionally, the men have inherited a piece of Ken’s body language. Their nod of approval looks like an indecisive roll between a yes and a no—not merely straight up and down, but a little more circular: as if doing a figure eight from the neck on up.
When facing frustrating or difficult times, the family’s go-to phrase is: “I don’t need this.” As if stress and conflict could be so easily dismissed. They’re sometimes just so tired they don’t want to deal with one more overwhelming, negative issue.
I understand the weariness and dread voiced in that phrase. Of course, we don’t need an argument with our spouse after a long day at work. We don’t need our furnace to fail on the coldest day ever recorded. We don’t need a flooded basement, ever. Dare I agree with Janet, however, in thinking that we certainly don’t deserve anything better?
Continuing her sermon, Janet said,
We don’t think of ourselves as a wretch! . . . We live in a society that doesn’t even recognize sin. The overwhelming message of advertisement and the media is, “Self first!” “If it feels good, do it!” “Don’t settle for second, you deserve the best.” And it’s easy to buy into that kind of philosophy, but the sad part of that is that if we don’t recognize our sin, we cannot fully recognize God’s amazing grace, and that would make all the difference….
Grace is a gift of blessings from the hand of God that we do not deserve [such as] the warmth of the sun, the joy of family relationships, our very lives. But we may fail to recognize that grace because for some reason we believe that we deserve those blessings—that God owes us because we come to church every Sunday; because we have taught Sunday School for so many years; because we have personal devotions every day.
But the truth of the Gospel is that God doesn’t owe anything, except his judgement. If God gave us what we deserved, we would die! But instead of that, he gives us grace—unmerited favor—blessings that we do not deserve.
It is likely that Ken thought about God’s grace every time he sang the poignant chorus to Newton’s ballad. Sadly, I think Ken was less aware of his unmerited favor as he suffered physically and mentally. There wasn’t much room, then, for thinking positively, but he longed for and was comforted by visits with family and friends—his blessings on earth.
Ken progressed downward from rehabilitation to hospice, and the family squeezed out time, as best they could, to distract him from his long, bedridden days. Five months ago, when Ken told us he was ready to die, I didn’t know what he thought would come next. So as profound as being ready to die sounded, I worried about Ken’s ever-lasting life.
He didn’t vocally profess in Christ as Savior. Ken’s religious views were complicated and muddied further by his disinterest in explaining exactly what he believed. My silent prayers were that God would not take Ken from us until he acknowledged and accepted Jesus. I felt the horrible weight of not wanting to let him go until he found peace in Christ. I felt partly to blame for Ken’s prolonged suffering.
Glimmers of his faith came in the form of tears. He always welcomed prayers and wept on multiple occasions when we, on Ken’s behalf, asked God for mercy. Above all, we wanted God to draw Ken to Him, spiritually.
After a week of not eating or drinking, my father-in-law lost his ability to speak. Blinking his eyes, he communicated that he was comfortable, but the gurgling from his lungs sounded unbearable. I searched for something, anything, on-hand to read aloud and cover the death-rattle noise that was filling the room. I randomly selected a sermon of Janet’s from among files on my phone. Janet’s words retold Jesus’s miraculous healing of a blind man who begged, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Seven times over, she repeated that phrase, so I did too. Seven times over, my voice quivered. I thought only of how Ken needed God’s mercy more than ever. At the end of the reading, I looked at Ken. His eyes were tightly closed, and he was mouthing something repeatedly. I’m convinced he was praying, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
The next day, Ken lost even the ability to communicate through his eyes. I had brought a book he had given Greg and me twenty years earlier. As I read out loud to Ken, he looked agitated. His mouth was twitching, and he stared up at the ceiling. My reading didn't seem to be relaxing him, so I suggested that Greg read instead. The moment Greg began speaking, Ken turned his head to look in Greg’s direction. He knew that voice. His own son’s familiar and powerful voice, weakened by sadness, yet overflowing with love.
Greg was too emotional to lead us in prayer that afternoon, so he asked me to. He and I held hands with Ken as we prayed together: “Father in heaven, we love this man so much. It’s nearly impossible to imagine that you love him even more. Please open your arms and draw Ken to you. Let him come running, and fill him with peace of knowing Jesus, our Lord and Savior. In His mighty name, we give You thanks and praise, Almighty and Merciful God.”
Before encountering the blind beggar Bartimaeus, Jesus was in his final days of ministry and on his way to Jerusalem. A crowd was ushering Him along and didn’t think he should be delayed, especially not by a nuisance of a peasant sitting at the gates of Jericho. When Janet wrote about the biblical scene, she titled her sermon, “And Jesus Stopped.” She pointed out that Jesus could have easily kept right on walking past the man in need. But the Son of David paused to grant mercy to the poor beggar.
On a cold afternoon in the middle of winter, our Heavenly Father turned his head to hear the prayers of three undeserving wretches. The next morning, January 20, 2019, Jesus stopped, took one by the hand, and ushered him past the gates of heaven.
I'm not a singer, but couldn't resist rejoicing years ago in Israel with Rev. Dr. Steven Schafer and another friend, Sharon Boylan. Looks like I was the only one who needed the lyrics.
I always meant to give this video to my father-in-law.
Goodbye, Ken. We miss you.