I was thumbing through a Custer County High School year book from 1970 not long ago and came across a picture of my oldest friend’s father, Billy Joe Peggram. Every bit of six foot, square-jawed, with broad shoulders like Charlton Heston or maybe James Caan. Tough. Strong. Hard.
He was a full-time high school chemistry teacher and owned a 1,300 acre mountain ranch close to Rosita, Colorado. He had three sons and a daughter that worked on his place. The second of those sons was my best friend from 4th to 8th grade.
Guests of the sons were treated like the sons in the Peggram home. Doing chores was like hard labor in a chain gang. Feeding the cattle from the back of the moving pickup by busting bales of hay into blocks and tossing them over the side while the cows ran, udders swinging to and fro, calves bawling and running trying to keep up.
He liked work like fish likes water. He grew his own hay. Mowed it, raked it, and baled it. In order to get more hay per roll of twine and thus save some money, or to be ornery, he would set the baler to make the bales weigh about 90 pounds each. He seemed amused that I struggled with the bales; as if a boy should be able to handle a block of tightly bound grass that weighed 80% of his body weight. Of course his sons could handle the demonic hay.
He loved a tight barbed wire fence. I swear the wires sang in the wind. The fence was lazy if you could climb through it. But it was the gates in which he took particular joy. The harder the gate was to open and close, the better his world seemed to be. I never could open or close one of his gates. The wires were just too tight. I think he might have thought that a sagging fence and a loose gate were the signs of weakness in men and boys. Or maybe indicators of communism.
I have seen him grab a 90 pound bale of hay and toss it onto a moving pickup as if were so many folded blankets. Seen him grab a gatepost in his left hand and the anchor post with his right like they were two boys he might knock heads together and then flip the wire bale, setting the gate free from its medieval torture. To say Billy Joe Peggram was strong would be like saying Albert Einstein was intelligent. Redundant.
He was also a deeply spiritual man. He was a deacon in my dad’s church and taught Sunday school for fifty or sixty years. I loved to hear him pray. He prayed like he actually knew God. I didn’t like to hear him sing, however. No one did.
That is my memory of the man. Strong body. Strong mind. Strong will. No other man marked my idea of what it meant to be masculine in my childhood (aside from my father) than Billy Joe Peggram. He was a man’s man.
Seven years ago he was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer. When it looked like none of the treatments were going to save his life, I went to Colorado to see him. I tried not to show it, but when I sat down in the chair and looked at him sitting on the couch beside his wife, I was heartbroken. His skin was jaundiced and sagging on his bones like a bed sheet draped over an old straight-back chair. His voice was soft, the set of his jaw was not as firm, and his hands trembled when he sipped his water through a straw. I might have seen a bit of embarrassment in his eyes that I found him in this condition.
We spoke of old times and family. I told him how important he was to our family. I kept the visit short. After some good-byes and a prayer, I walked out through the back porch where boots, hats and work gloves were waiting in quiet vigil. I stepped off the porch, fighting back tears and somewhere a calf bawled for its mother. I drove away knowing I would never see him again. He died a few weeks later.
Seeing his picture in that high school year book prompted me to remember a vibrant and virile man. But quickly my mind flashed to the emaciated man sitting on the couch sipping water through a straw. I have two images of him in my mind. What he was in his prime and what he was in the end.
Perhaps I am pushing this analogy too far, but I wonder if God looks at all of us that way; holding two images of us in His mind. The image of what we are juxtaposed with the image of what we will one day become.
There are few lines from an old Puritan prayer entitled Earth and Heaven that say,
I live here as a fish in a vessel of water,
only enough to keep me alive,
but in heaven I shall swim in the ocean.
Here I have a little air in me to keep me breathing,
but there I shall have sweet and fresh gales;
Here I have a beam of sun to lighten my darkness,
a warm ray to keep me from freezing;
yonder I shall live in light and warmth forever.
You are just a shell of the person you will one day be. There is coming a day for those of us who follow Jesus, when we will see Him face-to-face and all that is dark about you and me will be chased away. Our selfishness, our meanness, our anger, our fears, our obsessions, our fixations, our addictions, our haughtiness, our stubbornness, our grumpiness, and our shallowness will all be sloughed off like so much hay stubble.
Mark this down. We are not what we will one day be. When we stand before the King of the Universe, we will be transformed. We shall be like him for we shall see him as he is.
Of course, to be like him does not mean that we will become him. We will always be merely human; he will forever be the incarnate God. He together with the Father will forever be the object of worship; we will forever be the praisers of his glory. He together with his Father will forever be the source of life and light. We will forever be reflectors and sponges and beneficiaries. But we will be like him. Insofar as it is possible for human beings to be like him, we will be.
What he loves we will love, what he enjoys we will enjoy, what he values we will value. He will never lapse and sin. We will never lapse and sin. He will never experience pain again. Neither will we. His cup of joy is full to over flowing; our cup of joy will be full to overflowing. He will delight in the Father with maximum intensity. We will delight in the Father with maximum intensity—forever. We shall be like him.
In between now and then I am busy with the work of being a follower of my Rabbi and savior, Jesus. I sit at His feet in adoration. I read His Word and talk to Him. I listen to Him and talk about Him. I imagine a day when I will walk over a hill in heaven and see a man building a fence…not to keep something out or in, but for the joy of work, and see if I can open the gate yet.
I hope I can.
Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. 1 Cor 2:9 (KJV)