So since we stand surrounded by all those who have gone before, an enormous cloud of witnesses, let us drop every extra weight, every sin that clings to us and slackens our pace, and let us run with endurance the long race set before us. –Hebrews 12:1 (The Voice version)
I’m not there yet, nor have I become perfect; but I am charging on to gain anything and everything the Anointed One, Jesus, has in store for me—and nothing will stand in my way because He has grabbed me and won’t let me go. –Philippians 3:12 (The Voice version)
This past week, I went to the funeral of one of my mom’s dearest friends. I used to babysit for him and his wife before they moved out of the Phoenix area. While my mom kept up with them–through fairly consistent weekly phone calls with his wife–I only heard bits and pieces of news from my mom through the years. Missions trips, marriages, birth of a baby for the now-grown children; and retirement, travel and spiritual epiphanies for her friends. Traveling to the funeral, memories from childhood to adolescence flooded my heart.
Funerals gather an interesting assortment of people–people who knew the person from all aspects of his life. My mom’s friends had started attending a church with Messianic influences several years ago (I don’t know if it’s an official ‘Messianic Jewish’ congregation or not). They had studied Hebrew and travelled to Israel. I didn’t know them in this context. As photos of them and their family scrolled on an overhead, I didn’t recognize the later pictures of their life. Then, the earlier pictures repeated. Ah, there was the man I knew. There were the kids I remembered. There was his wife whose laugh always sounded so musical. There was the family I went to the drive-in with during a rainstorm and ate popcorn while watching The Cat From Outer Space.
As people told stories of his influence in their lives, almost all of them (except for his children’s stories) came from people who only knew him in recent years. They described a man who sounded bigger than life. A great man. An encouraging man. A giving and selfless man. His daughter finally spoke and reminded everyone that he was human–with faults and insecurities.
That was the man I knew: the human one. Not that he wasn’t a great guy when I knew him; but he hadn’t yet matured into the man these people knew. He still had edges that needed softening. His God-given gifts needed some humility and training. His life in Christ was new and uncultivated. I recognized a piece of the man his friends described–his best qualities had been well-seasoned with humility over the years.
I thought of another death of a family friend from long ago. I remember my mom and dad talking about his funeral. I knew him from a child’s perspective and loved him. He asked my mom if she would call me ‘Maggie.’ (‘No’ was the answer. I had to wait until I moved out of the house to take on that nickname. Another story for another time…) He was loud, funny and wore bow ties. At his funeral, his first wife came and said, “You all act like you really liked him.” She knew him as an unkind alcoholic. We knew the person he became, and he looked precious little like his former self.
I reflected that night on the conversation my parents had about their other friend’s death, and the conversations I had with family and friends at this recent funeral. I knew the man he was becoming. His friends from later years knew the man he became. I got to see some of the hard-work-of-his-soul. They experienced the fruit of his journey with Christ. Together, our memories contained a fullness of his total person. I began to feel so much joy from the knowledge that he continued to mature and didn’t stay static–even though in my mind he remained a young father. That joy overflowed through my being as I realized we all have the opportunity to change. No season of our lives, no event in our lives, no person in our lives has to define our identity. We can grow. We can change. We can become our best selves. In my belief system, we need the presence of God and the Holy Spirit to develop that identity and constantly revise our thinking to become more like Christ. We need God to remind us what His image looks like and that all of us carry His imprint. I appreciate the reminder to once again celebrate the people we once were, the people we are now, and the people God has yet to reveal in us.
I grieve my mom’s loss of a friend, his wife’s loss of her beloved husband, his children’s loss of their honored father, his community’s loss of his wisdom and generous spirit. I rejoice that he now stands with the cloud of witnesses, having run his race well. I pray we can all live our lives in similar fashion–with integrity, humility, wonder, and reverence–leaving a legacy worthy of celebration!
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