"My Sword. Sword! I want the Sword. Bring the sword!" The inner battle the conqueror had been wrestling appeared to be but delirium, but no one could be sure. Hallucination or not, at his unrelenting insistence, his exhausted sword-bearer of eighteen years, she, the “other half of his mind and his heart”, as he once put it, and the one he said had done him “good and not evil all the days of his life”, retrieved the weapon, sliding its smooth handle under the palm of his limp, motionless hand that just weeks before had become as useless to him as had most the other members of his dying body.
A warrior princess herself, his sword-bearer hoped that feeling the weapon’s cold metal would ease his mind as he prepared for what appeared to be the painful, impending flight of his spirit's departure. But alas, even still, he cried out. "Bring the sword! I need the sword. The sword! The sword!" The swordbearer knew quite well how the conqueror’s mind worked, in fact, the conqueror himself had once spoken to me of her faithfulness in serving him both as a verbal fencing partner as well as a “thought sharpener” helping him perfect and refine the precision of both his offensive and defensive skills within great battles — and not just any battles, but those written and verbal conflicts in which eternity sometimes lies in the balance — the “good fight of faith” (1 Timothy 6:12) that is often against “cosmic powers” and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12) for the eternal good of all.
More recently, his “Wifelet” had transitioned to tending night and day to everything a warrior dying of ALS could need around the clock, and thus retrieved the only other sword in the house, his beloved Sword of the Spirit (Ephesians 6:17), placing it under his other hand so that he could physically feel the Book that first had taught him how to live honorably, and since the diagnosis two years ago, had taught him how to die just as honorably, to the glory of God. Both hands were now full of swords, but after only a few moments of peace, he began to cry out for one more thing. Still appearing to be perhaps delirious, no one in the room could make out what it was, but he was again insistent. Then it clicked. The strong and courageous warrior princess recognized his request and moved swiftly to retrieve the object most representative of something beautiful he was very much anticipating. "Macy!" he cried out "I want Macy!" Disappearing for a moment, she returned with the treasured urn and wedged the ashes of their stillborn infant daughter as close as she could between the conqueror’s arm and the heart this precious little girl had unknowingly broken some fifteen years before when she’d flown away into the arms of the angels (Luke 16:22) to the rest and peace on the other side (Hebrews 4:9-11). The loss had been indescribably devastating but had taught him so very much, and as King David once anticipated being reunited one day with his deceased infant son (2 Samuel 12:23), Matthew knew it would not be long now before he would be reunited with his Macy.
As much as this blessed reunion was anticipated, as he waited in excruciating pain for the angels to bear his spirit away to the place Jesus had gone to prepare for him (John 14:2), he had no doubt in his mind that he was about to be comforted in paradise, within Father Abraham’s bosom, and closer than he’d ever been to the immediate presence of Love Himself — the Exalted One, the Rock of his heart for Whom he had for years been writing love songs, and praising in word and deed all of his adult life.
Though we’d never met the Bassford family in person, I’d bonded with Lauren when she’d taken my producer up on the offer to come on our live internet program, Older Women Likewise, and had grown to be quite grateful for her courage in helping us tackle some of the most sensitive and controversial topics you can imagine. In the course of doing so, we realized how many ways we were cut out of the same cloth both in our personality type and love of travel and writing. About a year before Matthew died, we brought lunch, meeting up with the whole family at Northshore Park on Lake Woodlands. We sat at our picnic table watching both ducks and athletic rowers gracefully pass by the palatial mansions built on the water there, and the six of us talked for a couple of hours. From his wheelchair, Matthew flashed that winning, mischievous smile as we exchanged travel stories, and laughs, and just followed their lead conversationally in every direction they took us. When Matthew said his favorite thing was to turn small talk into deep thinking and feeling conversations, I confessed "I could be locked in a room with you guys for six months because that's my favorite thing too". After exploring together every deep and interesting little nook and cranny we could find, toward the end of our conversation we chuckled at Mark’s clarifying what we were all thinking — that regardless of how great our conversation was, all of us shared a very strong preference for not wanting to be in a six-month lockdown together. As we parted ways, I purchased a signed copy of each of their books (his Worshiping with the Psalms and her Seeking Christ: Colossians for Women) and invited them to either come visit us in Florida in the winter or stay at our beach house in Oregon as much as they wanted during whatever amount of time they would have left together. I reminded my brother that his voice would never be silenced, but that through his writings, recordings, and music he would be moving souls toward their God until Jesus comes, and continue to have a voice that influences lives for good. Knowing it would likely be both the first and last time I would be with Matthew, I put my cheek against the top of his head, closed my eyes, expressed my sisterly affection by saying, "I love your work”, and silently prayed for God’s mercy.
In the days that followed, as Mark and I slowly crawled our way from Texas through New Orleans and the Emerald Coast toward our winter nest in Florida, I kept imagining what it would be like emotionally to be in Matthew’s situation. After much praying and pondering, an idea came to me, and though I at the time had no plan to eventually share what follows here, I reached out to Matthew in a private message on Facebook, and share it now as something that may benefit my readers when they find themselves given a similar opportunity:
Hello, Friend! On the outside, I look to be putting my house in order here in Wesley Chapel, but on the inside, I've been thinking with sisterly love about you and your family and came up with a (admittedly Enneagram 7/outside the box) way to ease perhaps a little of the mental/emotional pain elements that are a part of your challenging transition. If you are in favor, the idea is that for 8 days I would send you a private message each containing one of the elements of Philippians 4:8, for you to think about. As a "free sample" today I would like to share with you one of the elements by which we are both mentally and emotionally refreshed: God's creation. Had there been more time to develop our friendship, perhaps our families would have ventured to explore together some of these places, but as CS Lewis has noted: "... in this world, everything is upside down. That which, if it could be prolonged here, would be a truancy, is likest that which in a better country is the End of ends. Joy is the serious business of Heaven." So my educated guess is that your and our frolicking in heaven is entirely incomparable to our most glorious frolics here in our National Parks and such. If this creation is but the shadow, how beautiful heaven must be! Here's my collection of the most gorgeous photographs and videos of His handiwork to help you today, and in the days that follow to, from time to time, "think on things that are lovely". May I send you something inspired by Philippians 4:8 that is entirely different every day for eight days? ‘No Thanks’ is also an AOK reply.”
Matthew replied, “That would be great! Thank you!” So for eight days, I set before the heart and mind of my brother something relevant to his situation that was either true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, or worthy of praise for him to think about that would in some way mentally and emotionally support or cheer him. My lengthy correspondence likely did as much (if not more) good for me as it did for him, and at the end of our conversation he was gracious enough to say, “Thank you for loving me and spending all this time on these things to send me, sister! I have not been able to read and reply timely, but I have read and enjoyed all of them!”
While I wrote privately for Matthew, Matthew continued to write publicly about the things that terrify us most about our own mortality, so that we, his readers, could stare death in the face alongside him and in doing so learn to see our lives with deathbed clarity and be moved to make the changes that will one day leave us with fewer regrets. This “live like you are dying” attitude was not all talk. After graduating at the top of his class with a degree in law at the University of Texas, Matthew passed the bar, and just one year later sacrificed the material and social benefits that could have been his as a prosecuting attorney, choosing instead to make the longest-lasting impact on the world for good that he possibly could, preaching at the Joliet Church of Christ in Joliet, Illinois for about a decade and the Jackson Heights congregation in Columbia, Tennessee, for about five years, and making a difference for the better however he could.
One might wonder if Matthew ever struggled with thoughts of anger with God or doubted His goodness. When his loyal friend, David Banning, asked this question of Matthew, David explained at his memorial that Matthew looked at him in utter astonishment and answered, “Are you kidding?! Just the opposite is true! My faith is more dear to me now than it has ever been! It's all I have left to hang onto!” How inspiring!
With fifty-five days to live, our mighty conqueror slew this common argument that the enemies of God hurl toward His goodness in such situations, by writing the following:
“Recently, I had a conversation with a sister about a younger relative of hers. This relative rejects God because of their anger at the death of children. "How can a good God allow children to die from things like cancer?" they wonder.
For me, the death of a child is not a hypothetical. My daughter, Macy, was stillborn almost fifteen years ago. Frankly, I find the existence of God to be incredibly comforting in the face of such tragedy. His word means that my daughter has spent almost her entire existence in a place far better than anything I have known. Only without Him is her loss a meaningless waste.
If you use the death of children to disprove the goodness of God, you need to come up with a new argument.
Clearly, the world benefited when this flawed, but honorable man traded in a career of arguing in a court of Law, for the even more worthy battle of “...destroying arguments and all arrogance raised against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:5).
With 50 days left to live, Matthew wrote this beautiful entry entitled, "Dying for Jesus", to teach the thousands of people who were now following his story an invaluable truth about the crumbling nature of worldly ideologies, especially when each of us will inevitably face suffering and/or death:
These days, it seems like people in our country are increasingly being led astray by a godless, secular mindset. This worldview has a lot of superficial appeal. After all, if there is no God, you don't have to submit to anybody. You can do whatever you want with whomever you want. The world is your oyster!
However, this apparent freedom comes at a steep cost. The unrestrained life is also a meaningless life because pleasure is ultimately empty. Even the goals and ideals of the worldly are unable to provide meaning.
This is most obvious in their failure to address life's most consequential events. What, for instance, is marriage to the irreligious? It does not consecrate a relationship that otherwise would be sinful. At most, it offers a tax break.
The problem is even worse when it comes to death. If a life without God is meaningless, death is the ultimate in meaninglessness. It is the squashing of the human cockroach beneath the boot of the random universe.
Outside of edge cases, like dying for one's country, no earthly philosophy can mitigate the horror of this fate. Take, for instance, sexual autonomy, which is the great secular religion of our day. You can spend your life promoting LGBTQ causes. You can celebrate Pride Month with the fervor of a medieval Catholic celebrating Christmas.
However, sexual autonomy offers no way to engage with death. When you get that terminal diagnosis, it marks an end to your promoting and celebrating. You can't advance the cause by dying. Your philosophy gives you no hope. Everything for which you have lived will perish with you.
Things are utterly different for the Christian. Worldly ideologies crumple in the face of suffering and death. However, the suffering and death of Christ is the central event of our religion. Indeed, we view discipleship as a continual dying to self. In our hymns, we regularly anticipate our coming deaths.
Consequently, it is in the presence of suffering and death that Christianity is most powerful. They cannot overwhelm the meaning of our existence. Rather, our faith endows even death with extraordinary meaning and significance. Consider, for instance, the language of John 21:19. Jesus has just finished predicting that Peter would be arrested and executed by the enemies of the gospel. John comments that Jesus said this to indicate by what kind of death Peter would glorify God. He does not say that Jesus said this to indicate that Peter’s death would glorify God.
The distinction is subtle but profound. Peter will die a martyr’s death, but he does not have to die a martyr’s death for his death to be God-glorifying. Rather, any death that Peter dies will glorify God, provided that Peter remains faithful.
What is true for Peter is true for any Christian, and it gives me great purpose now that I have received my terminal diagnosis. I will surely die, just as Peter surely would, but if I am steadfast, my death will glorify God as his death did.
Thanks to the public nature of my illness, I have received innumerable cards and expressions of support from my brethren. Among those that I most treasure are the ones that come from relatives of Christians who already have died from ALS. These relatives describe how their loved one remained cheerful and kind in the face of despair, how they shone with the light of faith, and how they encouraged others to follow after them.
These are deaths that glorify God. I can give no higher praise.
As I am dying, I strive to do the same. I seek to bless, encourage, and inspire. I exalt the One who is giving me the hope of eternal life, and I urge others to come to Him too. Death can bring my body low, but my faith and my Lord are greater than it is. Death is vast and unconquerable when compared to any earthly ideal, but next to Christ it is nothing. Even as my flesh fails, I regard it with contempt.
Do this also. When your time comes and you die, die so as to glorify God. Whether you die as a martyr before thousands of scoffing pagans in the Colosseum or in front of a few family and friends, glorify God in your death. It will be the last earthly service that you can offer Him. It may be the greatest.
When I lunched with Lauren seventeen days after Matthew flew home, we had a long, raw, private heart-to-heart. I learned that from his wheelchair while in his in-law’s living room, Matthew quietly encouraged all who came by for one last time to sit on the sofa and pour out their hearts to him. How ironic this scene of a dying man so lovingly and skillfully comforting the afflicted that came to him for solace. When Matthew turned 45 years old, thirty-three days before he died, he used his genius to gift the world this important lesson on how love itself is evidence of the existence of our Creator:
Today is my 45th birthday, a time for reflection if ever there was one. From an earthly perspective, this is a grim milestone indeed. It is almost certainly the last birthday I will ever celebrate.
When I was in elementary school, I learned about Huntingdon’s chorea, what they call Huntingdon’s disease these days. It is another genetic disease that causes death in middle age. I well remember the thrill of horror that went through me at the thought of dying so untimely.
Indeed, from that same worldly perspective, my life must appear blighted, even cursed. How awful it must be to be deprived of the decades that on some level, all of us believe are our birthright! How unfair!
Actually, I feel none of those things. Even though ALS is not the only disaster that has overtaken me, I have lived a life rich with joy and meaning. I am satisfied with my 45 years.
I attribute this entirely to the grace of God and to my decision to seek Him throughout my life. As every Christian feels compelled to note, I have not done so perfectly. Nonetheless, I have spent my life sowing to the Spirit instead of to the flesh, seeking to love God and others above myself.
Even now, some of the fruits of this decision have become obvious. I frequently find myself astonished by the depth of the love that others express toward me. There are even a few people who say of me that I saved their lives. I have had my enemies, it is true, but they are far outnumbered by my devoted brethren and friends. I can say with confidence that if one must die at 45, this is the best way to spend those 45 years.
In fact, I detect another proof of the existence of God here. Self-sacrificing love is not merely a behavioral quirk that runs counter to the selfish imperatives of evolution. Rather, it is the way that we are designed to live. Fish are designed to swim, birds are designed to fly, and humans are designed to love.
Despite our steadfast efforts to find fulfillment in anything and everything but love, the endless variations of human existence bear witness to this truth. People never find enduring contentment and happiness by putting themselves first. Instead, the happiest are those who put others above themselves, and this is true even outside a Christian context. Love is not always love, but agape is always agape.
In a random, pitiless universe, why would this be? What natural force would create creatures that find their highest expression in surrendering themselves for others? The enduring greatness of love must point us to God.
All of this is not only the way that I have lived successfully. It is the way that all of you must live if you want to live successfully. Yes, it is possible for the atheist humanitarian to find a measure of fulfillment, but their lives are always an uncompleted equation, a 2+2 endlessly crying out for 4. If love, therefore God. If God, therefore the hope of resurrection and an eternity of love.
Complete the equation. If you’re the kind of Christian who goes to church and keeps your nose clean, it’s time to become something more. It’s time to get down into the muck and start serving and loving others, even when it’s hard, even when you don’t find them lovable.
If you are in a season in which you are bearing the burdens of love, perhaps as you care for someone like me, do not grow weary! I have been through such seasons in my own life, when each new day seemed unendurable. They do not last, but the bone-deep joy of having served does.
If you aren’t living this way at all, I think that probably you have sensed the emptiness of your life already. No amount of earthly success and honor can fill the vacancy where God intended love to dwell. I would imagine that it is hard to dedicate yourself to agape if you are not used to the habit already. It’s like trying to learn to ride a bike as an adult—lots of fear, clumsiness, and crashes.
However, someday you will be where I am, and in that day, either you will have a life of the love of Christ to look back on, or you won’t. The former makes even death endurable. The latter makes even life unbearable.”
Matthew had actually rallied back to a more conscious state for a few more days following the aforementioned crying out for his swords, and part of that rallying was due to a very skilled nurse by the name of Glenthia. Unlike the other nurses who had walked out because of Matthew’s attempts to share eternal truths for the salvation of their souls, Glenthia responded to Matthew’s loving outreach. She had saved Matthew's life in a moment of crisis by shifting his body into a position where he could breathe, and in turn, the providence of God granted Matthew a few extra days of life, which he used to save Glenthia’s soul. Three days after their life-changing conversation began, Glenthia was born again and those who walked into his room would often see the two of them studying the Word of God together in those last moments of his life. Her brother Matthew had loved her well.
With fifteen days left to live, Matthew reminded the world of something we can all do to also love our children well, and that is to clearly communicate to them the simple expectations that would cause us to smile upon their lives. He wrote:
Recently I've been talking with my children about how they will have to live after I'm gone if they want me to be proud of them. I have four rules:
- Love God.
- Love your family.
- Love others.
- Work hard.
Matthew Bassford, more than a conqueror (Romans 8:37), fell asleep in the Lord on Wednesday, October 25th. Both the Jackson Heights and the Kleinwood congregations who had so tirelessly tended to his and his family’s needs, held lovely memorials that are viewable online. To my friend Lauren, I concur with David Banning's words he spoke to her at her memorial, “My friend, you have carried a terrible load over the last two years and managed it with such grace and dignity.”
Seven days after Matthew’s death, the following entry was posted on Facebook posthumously on his behalf:
“One Last Verse: Throughout my life, there was a series of verses that I identified as “my verse”. These were verses that in some way exemplified me or what I needed to become. I kept 2 Timothy 2:24-25 on my bathroom mirror for years because I needed the reminder. Later, I took great encouragement from the promise of Matthew 5:6. Now that my life is over, one last verse has become mine, though really it is not my verse but yours. It is Hebrews 13:7. My work under the sun has ceased. I no longer speak the word of God to you or anyone else. However, the Hebrews writer, himself long since departed, imposes three obligations on you. The first is to remember. This is not a matter of sentimentality. Rather, just as there were important spiritual lessons in the word I spoke, so too there are important spiritual lessons in the word I lived. Do not forget them! Otherwise, you will be like the forgetful hearer of James 1:23-24. If you do not carry the memory of my life within you, you will gain no lasting benefit from having known me. Second, you must carefully observe my conduct. You must carefully consider it. In this, you must use discernment, just as you use discernment in evaluating any of the flawed heroes of faith in Scripture. At times, you have seen me behave foolishly and even wickedly. My failings certainly are not worthy of imitation! Despite these stumbles, though, you know that I was a man who walked by faith. Now that my course is finished, consider the outcome of that walk. My path was not always easy. I battled chronic depression throughout the time that you knew me, and my last year at Jackson Heights was dominated by a devastating terminal diagnosis. Ask yourselves, then, if it mattered to me that I lived by faith. What would my life have been like if I had been an atheist to whom these things happened? For that matter, what would have become of me if I had been a weak, uncommitted Christian? You know the answer. Indeed, many of you have known the answer since you were small children. Those who wisely build on the rock can withstand the flood, but those who build on sand are swept away. I was not swept away. ALS invariably destroys unbelievers, but I was not destroyed. Rather, my faith grew stronger throughout my trials, and I've finished my race with joy and hope. The presence of God in my life made all the difference. Finally, the Hebrews writer urges you to imitate my faith. Don't imitate my imperfections; imitate my loyalty to Christ. It is nearly certain that at some point in your life you will face trials that are beyond your strength too. It is absolutely certain that your life will end as mine has. The flood is coming for you too, and only the Lord can keep you safe. Build on Him, and you will never regret it. I believe that the spirits of the departed remain aware of earthly events. That is why we are encouraged to run our race before a great cloud of witnesses. If so, then right now I am cheering for every one of you! Run with endurance. Lay hold of the prize. When you cross the finish line, my beloved, I'll be waiting to welcome you in.”
On the twenty-first day after Matthew’s spirit returned to God who gave it (Ecclesiastes 12:7), I, too, understand that passage to say he was among the great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1-2) when his lovely daughter, Zoe, was baptized into Christ, taking her first step in running her spiritual race.
It was awe-inspiring to every soul who stood by during the last two years of Matthew’s life to witness what faith looks like under fire, and how the hymns that Matthew had written throughout the years seemed as uncanny as they were beautiful, especially given what would follow in his life after composing them. I believe this unfolding is best discovered over time, song by song, during one’s own times of worship. So now that you know something of the life of this conqueror, look for his name on hymns you are singing, many of which he wrote alongside his talented brother, R.J. Stevens, and gifted sister, Glenda Schales, another beautiful soul we also connected with at this friendly and supportive congregation in Kleinwood, Texas. I believe you will never again sing such hymns as A Foretaste of Your Rest, Exalted, Rock of My Heart, Be Strong and Courageous, You Do Not Change, Evensong, Be Reconciled to God, and all the others without being greatly moved by Matthew’s heart for God.
On a personal note, I’d like to conclude this entry by sharing a sweet moment I experienced 17 days after Matthew’s victory, that seemed to me quite heaven-sent. I was again with Lauren (who now helps head up the charitable organization, Sacred Selections) for an auction to raise funds for families who are adopting fatherless children.
It began when I noticed a big, cozy, homemade quilt with a label indicating it had been made by one “Fae Nolte” that was folded and draped across one of the silent auction tables, and though only 10 minutes were remaining in the online auction, I could not find the quilt listed either in the live or silent auctions on my bidding app. I asked Lauren about it, and when she checked with the auction planners, they ruled that under the unique circumstances, I could have it for whatever price I’d like to donate. I added a donation I considered to be generous to my bill and was still speaking with Lauren when her and Matthew’s son, Marky joined us, and repeatedly expressed in no uncertain terms his deep desire for it. This worked out for me even more than for Marky because though I really was not in the market for a cozy, homemade quilt, I was very much in the market to hand this young man I care very much about, something that he could bear hug and wrap himself up in for a little comfort. When Lauren snapped our picture together with the blanket, I told him if he, by chance, ends up going to Florida College in a few years, he could do his laundry, including the quilt, at our place just 20 minutes north, though I expected it would be plenty worn out by then, like any well-loved blanket! I had won the grand prize at the auction that night, perhaps with a little help from above.
Kleinwood church of Christ
16651 Kleinwood Dr.
Spring, TX 77379-7290
P.O. Box 12136
Spring, TX 77391