Twenty-one years ago today the earthly life of Jeffrey Lee Modlin suddenly came to an end when he was only 19 years of age. Early in life, Jeffrey possessed a natural aptitude for music and began playing the trumpet in elementary school. As a member of the Jack Hayes Junior High School Band, his bedroom wall was adorned with certificates and honor band patches. Later, in high school, he distinguished himself as a trumpet player with great potential. He easily played as well as some college musicians and his mind was very sharp in matters of business, science and free enterprise. By every indication, this young man had a bright future as a doctor, entrepreneur or musician.
He loved to play tennis after school, enjoyed movies (he saw “Back to the Future” six times in the theater), and worked at a local restaurant where he was known among the employees as the comic relief when things got busy. Jeffrey could out work, out think and out maneuver most anyone. Often, he brought the house down with his jokes about everything from high school algebra to the latest Percy Grainger piece for band. He especially liked to create “interesting” subtitles for one of Grainger’s most familiar works: “Lincolnshire Posy.”
The last time I saw him alive was at our church where he had been baptized some two years earlier. I had come home from college unexpectedly and we were able to spend some time together. We talked, laughed and remembered old times. Suddenly, however, things turned quite serious. Jeffrey wanted to talk about Jesus.
During high school he struggled to understand the Bible. When he read Holy Scripture, he often said he seemed to fail to grasp the meaning of the cross. His favorite question to me was always “Why was the cross necessary?” I remember the night we talked for more than three hours sitting at the top of the football stadium of what was then known as Northeast Louisiana University. He asked more questions about the Bible than anyone I had known. As a high-school junior, I often felt very inadequate to answer him. Yet our relationship caused me to read more than ever before about everything from the divinity of Jesus to the doctrine of the resurrection. My pastor helped me by giving me a copy of W.T. Connor’s Christian Doctrine. Reading that book helped me prepare for our talks together.
On that particular night, I distinctly remember some of his questions. That week he had been reading the Gospel of Luke, Ephesians and Romans. How could Jesus satisfy God’s wrath? And why was God angry in the first place? Jeffrey wondered why he constantly sinned no matter how hard he tried to stop committing acts against the Ten Commandments. What did it mean to really love God, and what was conversion really all about? These were but a few items on the docket of our discussion that night.
Even as a young man, Jeffrey wasn’t much for innuendo, manipulation or cajoling. He once told me that he had real problems with many of the preachers he observed in the Southern Baptist Convention. Not exactly the easiest thing to hear from one of your best friends. Yet, each Sunday morning, I would pick him up for Sunday School and morning worship. We always enjoyed that day together, and lunch was always a discussion about the pastor’s morning sermon. Never a dull moment to be sure.
When my Mother phoned me to inform me that he had been killed in an automobile accident, I was absolutely stunned. The next call was from members of his family. I left the next morning to make my way back home for the funeral. When I entered the funeral home, his father met me at the door. He asked me to serve as a pallbearer and then he said, “After this is all over, would you please come over and talk with me about Jesus just like you and my boy did so often?” Through tears, I agreed and we made our way to the repose room where his body lay in state.
The next day at the funeral, it became very apparent that Jeffrey’s conversion to Jesus Christ was the comfort in all of our sorrow. Family members wanted to hear the Gospel. All of his friends were sobered to think of eternal matters. On the way to the cemetery, I could not help but think of the deadly seriousness of evangelism. What if we had never talked about Jesus? What if we had never discussed the Bible and the eternal issues of God’s Word? As we carried his body to the grave, the comfort of the Gospel was almost palpable. Though he was no longer here, he was at home with Jesus in a place where all of his questions were answered and his struggles were over. Jesus had chosen to call him home very early in his life, and today I still cherish those talks of many years ago.
Few visit his grave now. Some family members have died and friends have moved away. Yet each time I stand by his grave, I remember the power of the Gospel; the hope of the resurrection of Jesus from the grave; the deadly priority of personal evangelism; and the day when his grave shall open and he shall rise to life everlasting.
Evangelism is not a program, but personally sharing truth about Jesus. It is about people—real people who will abide under the righteous wrath of God eternally without the righteousness of Jesus as their own by faith. On this day in January, I always remember both the obligation and delight of simply sharing the truth of the Gospel.
In Piam Memoriam: Jeffrey Lee Modlin (1970 – 1989).
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” John 3:3 (ESV).
Douglas E. Baker is executive editor of the Baptist Messenger and Communications Team leader for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.