Last week Kaylene and I were in Joplin, MO, visiting our 91 and 93-year-old mothers, both of whom are residents at Spring River Christian Village. On Tuesday, I enjoyed a 90-minute lunch with a lifelong friend and accountability partner, Nolan Head. Just over 24 hours later, on Wednesday evening, I received a call that Nolan’s wife, Jill, found him dead in their back yard late that afternoon. He had been cutting wood and suffered a massive heart attack. Efforts by EMT’s to resuscitate were unsuccessful. Nolan was 67 years old. For the next 48 hours I experienced what I can only describe as involuntary denial. I could hardly take it in. It was surreal; but it was indeed a reality. Sunday we returned to Joplin to attend church, eat lunch with the family and attend the visitation. Monday [yesterday] morning I conducted my friend’s funeral and gravesite services. We drove home to Indiana last evening.
Reflecting on what turned out to be our last meeting, I realize now, that whether he or I knew it at the time, Nolan was saying good-bye. He embraced me both when we greeted and parted. [He kissed me on the cheek! The only other man to ever kiss my cheek is my father!] Nolan not only bought my lunch, but he also bought the lunch of two ladies at an adjacent table. He noticed that one was obviously distraught and the other was providing her spiritual counsel. He gave me an autographed copy of his recently published book on The Chronicles of a Young George Washington. He told me that my/my families’ friendship had changed his life and how much I/my mother meant to him. Nothing was left unsaid. It was a good, deep, spiritual conversation.
Nolan grew up with an alcoholic mother and five different ‘stepfathers.’ His biological father abandoned his mother and moved to the Pacific Northwest before Nolan was even born. He was haunted by the fact that he could pass his own father on the street and not know him. He grew up deprived of real love and literally fighting for survival. We became friends in high school where we played pony league baseball against each other. Then before his senior year and my junior year, our schools consolidated to become St. Joseph-Ogden High School. The next year we played football on the same team. He was frequently in the Idleman home for meals and occasionally stayed for several days at a time. During that year Nolan gave his life to the Lord. I was the only person present to witness his baptism. From that time on, we became accountability partners pledging to keep each other on the straight and narrow. After high school, he went to work at Kraft Foods. The next year I enrolled in Bible College. Nolan enlisted in the Air Force. We were separated by time and circumstance during his military service and a couple of years he spent in a ‘far country’ [spiritually] after the Viet Nam War. Meanwhile, I was finishing my education and getting married.
The summer of 1970, Nolan hitchhiked to Mt. Pulsaki, IL, where I was pastor of a church and commuting to grad school. One of our elders gave him a job and I gave him $2 for a badly needed haircut. He began to work and save. In the fall he enrolled in Lincoln Christian College and was immediately elected freshman class president. There he met and married his wife, Jill. They served on the mission field in Australia and later served churches in Florida, Oklahoma, Illinois and Kansas before moving to the Joplin area. Their sons, Nathan and Tim both graduated from Ozark Christian College, married and are in youth ministry today. He was the proud grandfather of two grandsons. Nolan’s family was his crowning achievement in life. His death was untimely for all of us who knew and loved him; but it was timely for him. He was so ready for the greater life. And, in a final act of love and generosity, so characteristic of Nolan, he willed his physical body to save or enhance the lives of others. His eyes, all his large bones and the skin on his back were all harvested for needy people.
Two life lessons from my friend:
1] Give better than you got! Though his life was disordered as a young boy, when the love and grace of God became real to Nolan, he recognized it and received it and was wonderfully saved! Starting then, he graphed in an entirely new branch on his family tree. He was determined, with God’s help and blessing, to one day have a marriage and family that would honor God. His home was the polar opposite of what he had experienced growing up. His wife got a loyal and truthful husband. His sons got an attentive and faithful dad.
2] Love the right things in the right order! Nolan loved Jesus and talked about the Lord easily in any company. He loved the Bible and read and referenced it regularly. He loved his wife and sons and daughters in law and grandsons…. They were always his priority in time and attention. He loved the church…. The evidence was in his faithful worship, serving and giving. This is the essence of a successful life! One that is lived for the Lord and for others in His name. If you do not love the right things in the right order, your life will be a failure….
Pray with me…. Father God, you are the author of life. You are the author and finisher of our faith. Your presence, living in us by Your Holy Spirit, is what makes our lives influential and impactful. Lord, help us write the epitaph we want on our tombstones some day - as we live our lives today. Empower us to live in such a way that every thought that others have of us while attending our funeral prompts joy and hope in our loved ones in the midst of sorrow and loss. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.