Smile back

“Death smiles at us all. All a man can do is smile back.”

I started this post over a year ago, leading with that quote from Gladiator. I’m not sure the actual date I first started writing, but it was sometime soon after Dec. 14, when a Spring Arbor University sophomore, Kyle Rudolph, was struck by a car and killed during an early morning walk.

His death really stirred me… probably more than any other death I’ve known. I certainly didn’t weep over Kyle’s passing as I did my grandmother’s, but as I perused Kyle’s Facebook page and read all the comments students, friends and family left, testifying of the legacy he established–even at such young an age–I was gripped.

And then that Marcus Aurelius quote from Gladiator jumped out in my mind. As I learned a bit about his life, it seemed this Kyle Rudolph guy lived a life that smiled back at death, and then proceeded to look right past it as if it had nothing on him and were just a hurdle he’d have to clear at some point in the Great Race.

I thought about returning to this post numerous times over the past year, but it never felt like the right time. You can’t just up and engage the topic of death on a whim. At least I can’t. And since I never finished it while processing my thoughts following Kyle’s death, I lost direction.

So, it saddens me that I have reason and emotion to re-engage it. My friend Tim Davis passed away today from cancer complications. We went to college together and both loved photography and worship. He was only 28.

I wasn’t terribly close to Tim, but we certainly connected. He and I were both Ormston Resident Assistants my sophomore year at Spring Arbor University. And then my last semester at SAU, we lived in the same house, though we were both plenty busy and didn’t see much of each other.

Another friend and I held a senior art show to showcase our photography and Tim bought several of my pictures. He was always a very generous guy and loved supporting some of the student artists by buying their work.

Later, when I was working at SAU, Tim sold me a bunch of camera gear for a real bargain. He even let me make payments on it. Like I said… he was always generous like that.

We didn’t connect a whole lot post-college, but we got updates about each other off and on through mutual friends. But then just last year, when I was living with another college friend, Dan, Tim came to town and visited Dan and I. They had stayed in touch after college and traveled to Tampa every winter for a long weekend. They invited me last winter, but I didn’t go for some reason… probably money. I’m not sure.

When Tim visited Dan and I that one time, we had a really good talk. Tim had gotten plugged into a really good church in eastern Ohio and we shared stories about what we were learning about worship and soaking in the presence of God. Tim had purchased a piano with the help of some miraculous provision from the Lord and was starting to play with some worship teams. He also loved taking pictures during worship services and saw that as a ministry to the Lord. We thought it would be fun to road trip with our cameras sometime and do a photo expedition in the Pacific Northwest–a place I really want to visit and explore.

We might have e-mailed back and forth once over the summer, but the next time I talked to him was when he called in the fall to tell me he had cancer. He knew I believe God still miraculously heals people and was making the rounds to build prayer support. His voice didn’t flinch or waver when telling me he had stomach cancer. We caught up a little bit on other things going on and that was the last we talked. I sent a text message of encouragement once or twice. And some of us put together a Christmas package for him, in which I included a framed 5×7 of one of my more recent pictures. But that was it.

And now Tim’s gone. That’s weird and awful and glorious all at the same time. Weird because it unraveled so quick; awful because he was so young and a father should never have to watch his son die; glorious because he’s now among the great cloud of witnesses enjoying the greatest party and worship service of all time.

White Shores

This reminds me of another movie, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Remember the scene when Gandalf and Pippen are atop Minas Tirith, and Gandalf talks about the “Far Green Country”?

Pippen: I didn’t think it would end this way…
Gandalf: End? No, the journey doesn’t end here… Death is just another path, one that we all must take… The grey rain curtain of this world rolls back and all turns to silver glass… and then you see it…
Pippen: What, Gandalf? See what?
Gandalf: White shores… And beyond… A far green country under a swift sunrise.
Pippen: Well, that isn’t so bad.
Gandalf: No… no it isn’t.

The written dialog doesn’t quite capture the moment, because it is all in Gandalf’s eyes. He sees beyond; he transcends the circumstance and peers into ultimate reality–the White Shore and Green Country and Swift Sunrise. He knows they’re still in the top of the first inning. Round 1 of a 12-round fight. Chapter 1 in a Russian novel.

From the sound of it, Tim had that same glint in his eye. He understood that same reality. His family shares on his CarePage the hour before his passing, when, though heavily sedated, he “proceeded to raise both hands straight up in the air and opened his eyes as our friend said ‘Come Jesus.'”

That’s called beholding the “White shores” and “smiling back” at death.

For Paul writes in 1 Corinthians: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?… But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

And he writes in Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”

For the believer, death happens at conversion. I died when I was eight years old. It’s taken me 20 years to realize that, but I’m finally figuring it out. My feet already grace the White Shores; my nose smells the Green Country; my eyes are captured by the Swift Sunrise. I’m already seated with Christ in heavenly places (Eph. 2:6).

The guy at the piano and the guy without shoes

As I was talking with the Lord about Tim’s death, I saw a glimpse of him in heaven, fingers gracing black and white ivory, eyes closed and smile bright, as he poured himself over an eternal melody and lead billions in worship at the throne of God. There was a party going on there–masses in undignified, Davidic worship and dance before the Lord.

I don’t know how accurate that image in my head was, but it was somewhat confirmed as I read a testimony one of Tim’s friends left on his CarePage:

Most importantly, it is because of Tim that I have the walk with God I have today. He pestered me for weeks before I would attend his church. And I fell in love with God in a new way there. He and I were both on the worship team and participated in Heartbeat together. God gave him such an amazing musical ability and Tim was given the gift of being able to usher in God’s glory in mighty ways. He loved unique sounds and seemed to channel the very sounds of heaven during worship.

I’ve never heard Tim play piano and I’ve never been lead in worship by him. But I’m really looking forward to it; it’s going to be awesome. Neither have I seen Kyle Rudolph worshiping the Lord without his shoes on. But I guess that’s something he really enjoyed doing. Come to think of it, he’s probably in that same mass of worshipers Tim is.

And I wonder what my legacies will be. What will be my worship trademark? Will people say they have a closer walk with the Lord because they knew me? Will this fire he’s started within me spread? Will my lovesick heart for Christ cause others to ask questions and seek answers? Will my living epistle be read by many? Will I enter the next chapter of life eternal with no regrets?


I learned of Tim’s death while driving back to my apartment from work. Ever since I got back here, I’ve been listing to the same CD–a collection of songs called Constant from the International House of Prayer. It’s theme is the constancy of God’s love and His faithfulness to us and it’s been the perfect CD for this time. Four tracks in particular have spoken to my heart and helped me grieve Tim’s death, yet taste the hope he’s already experiencing.

The final song of the CD is called “He Loved Me To the End” and is about how Christ went all the way for us. It drifts into a time of free worship where Misty Edwards releases her heart’s response to all the Lord has done:

Jesus the faithful witness, you were faithful to the death. You were faithful to the end. You loved me even to the end. Oh God, make us faithful; make us overcomers as you have overcome. To the end. We want to be faithful, we want to love you to the end, loving not our lives–even unto death God. Even unto death.

We want to be equally yoked to you Jesus, equally yoked in love–loving you until the end, just as you loved us until the end.

You are the faithful witness. You are the faithful witness, the first born from the dead. Let us love you this way, oh God! Let us love you more than we love this life! Let us love you to the end–even to the end.

Even to the end, oh God. We pledge our allegiance to Jesus, the faifthful witness. You have been faithful; you were faithful, even to death. Let us love you this way. Let us love you to the end, to the death. Faithful, as you are faithful. We want to be faithful witnesses.

I join Misty in that prayer. That’s my heart. In light of all God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit have done and continue to do for me, I want to be that faithful witness. I want to love Christ and not this life–even unto death. I want to hold loosely the things of this world. I want to look death in the face with a smile and shout until the cedars shake “TO LIVE IS CHRIST! TO DIE IS GAIN!”, with a fist raised in defiance of anything that would distract me from pleasing my Creator and Sustainer, my All-in-All.

Thanks, Tim and Kyle, for imparting courage to me. You were forerunners.

By Joel Maust

Joel Maust is a marketer, blogger and photographer living in the beautiful Flathead Valley of northwest Montana.

4 replies on “Smile back”

Although saddened by Tim’s loss, joyful that I will see him again.

At the conference I am attending, this morning’s devotions were given from the Bluffton staff. It is only a few months shy of the 1 year anniversary that took the lives of so many of their baseball students.

The devotion was on John 1:46 when Nathanael asks Phillip if anything good can come from Nazareth: referring to the place where the savior would come.

The speaker shared about the other tragedies that have happened with other campuses this year with the loss of many students. And yet, the support and encouragement of many strangers, and the outpouring of love shown on the Bluffton campus after this accident was proof that many great things can come from tragedy. Just as the ONE who came from Nazareth. The best thing came from there!

Tim was one of the most kind and gentle person I knew, and I feel blessed to have known him as a student and as a friend. I was excited when he was working in the admissions office at a school out East and we were still able to keep in touch professionally. I remember the day he called me to tell me that he was thinking of leaving that position.

Joel, thank you for your words. I was not able to log onto his care page today to see the latest news, so this is the first I have heard of his passing, but your words reminded me to rejoice in Tim’s life and be excited that we will see him again.

He was a tremendous young man!

And now he has that FREEDOM!!! that William Wallace longed to see. Pray for Brian B. They said at church today that his tumors are still growing.

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