This year has been one full of funerals. I’m up to four so far and soon will hit number five. I don’t mean to be crass and spout off my funeral attendance like baseball stats, but I’ve never lost so many people I’ve known in such a short amount of time.
My most recent loss has returned me to the realm of tension – the now and the not yet of the Christian life – the realities of both loss and gain. My uncle passed away two weeks ago. He suffered for many years – most of his adult life – living with the realities of chronic illness. He was close to death many times. He was a brilliant man, but only worked for a short amount of time due to his illness. I remember the first time I really began to understand how smart my uncle was. He was in town visiting and joined my mom and me on a trip to a human maze (a maze for humans, not made of humans, in case you’re curious). As we entered the maze we were given cards which had the word “MAZE” and numbers 1-10 listed. The goal was to find the special punches within the maze for each respective letter or number. We spent an hour or two going through the maze and met up at the exit. My mom and I found around half of the punches, while my uncle found them all. I couldn’t understand how he was able to figure it out. He explained, matter of factly, that he made right turns whenever he could and assumed he would get to all the places he needed to by using this method. It was one of those moments when I knew enough to know how little I knew (and contrastingly, how much my uncle knew).
For all his knowledge and degrees, he was unable to work for many years. I wrestle in moments considering how much his talent was wasted. I have no answers for why Steve suffered. I am sad for the realities his chronic illness brought his family. And yet, he became a sort of bedside contemplative. Instead of cursing God, he learned to lean upon him. In reflecting on Steve’s life, I realize that God’s view of a successful life and my view, differ greatly.
My uncle lived far away and was often too sick for us to interact much, and yet, my respect for him has grown over the years. I had the gift of saying good bye to Steve over the phone the week before he died. I got to tell him I loved him and that I saw the ways he clung to Jesus, even when many would have turned away. I told him how much I respected his walk with God and my joy in his soon being in God’s arms. I recently came across some of Steve’s newsletters he had sent out to family and friends in years past. A segment from one of his last newsletters stood out to me:
However, as it has turned out during the last 9 months or so, God’s “new thing” is to show me immediately (in the moment when I first start to notice oncoming pain and fear) to take time out for a stand of faith and hope. He gave me some simple techniques to hold on to this specific hope: that He will intervene somehow so that it won’t get to the torment stage, and that He would enable me to fight back in some effective way. (Mostly, this has consisted of taking a break from all other activity, in order to focus both on physical relaxation (including naps) and on resting emotionally and spiritually in God’s Presence, using Contemplative Prayer). And thanks be to God, this has generally worked well, even beyond what I hoped for, becoming for me a “tree of life”. (Proverbs 13:12. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick; But when the desire comes, it is a tree of life.”)
As I finished this piece, the local bells from the mission in San Juan Capistrano began to chime – ringing out triumphantly for a few minutes. It feels fitting as I reflect upon the life of my uncle. He suffers no more. He is in full rest and in full joy with God.