Three weeks ago today, Andrew and I received the very sad news that my mom’s cousin, Suzan, had died in her sleep. We were in church when we found out and immediately left the service. Though I was not close with Suzan, my heart was immediately heavy with the weightiness and sadness of her death – she was only forty-nine. Her mother, Aunt Ann (who is actually my great aunt but feels more like an aunt to me), had already lost her other two children, and my heart was overwhelmed with the thought of a mother losing her third and final child after she has already endured so much pain. Our afternoon plans were cancelled, and we spent the rest of the day getting food for the family and spending time with Ann at Memaw’s. Memaw is my grandmother (my mom’s mom and Ann’s sister).
The next several days were long and emotional – making arrangements at the funeral home, planning the service, and trying to digest what was happening. Suzan’s service was on Thursday, October 3rd. My mom spoke at the funeral and did such a beautiful job. She dearly loved Suzan and, because of that, was able to capture her perfectly. She talked about Suzan’s heart for the Lord and her funny ways too. Suzan had lived near my parents for the last six years; so there were definitely some great stories to tell. Suzan had so much personality and unknowingly coined some hilarious phrases that my parents and I still use (one of which is “a touch of backsliding,” which came from a prayer she prayed several years ago with my mom – she was trying to explain things to God and told him that lately she had had “a touch of backslidin’” – only Suzan!).
After my mom, Jan King (a dear lady to whom my family has been connected for decades) spoke. She said that God brought Jacob (from the book of Genesis) to her mind as she thought about Suzan’s life. Jacob was a man with a huge calling on his life, but he was also a man who struggled. He didn’t always do the right thing, but there was a place in his heart that was always open to the Lord. His mistakes and struggles did not negate God’s calling on his life, nor His love for Jacob. After all, God is One who looks on the heart, not on external behaviors (I Samuel 16:7). The message was so life-giving… and captured Suzan’s life so well. Suzan was one who could have easily been judged by the religious-minded. Her life wasn’t neat and tidy. There was deep pain and struggle. But as my mom so tearfully shared, Suzan had a genuine heart for the Lord. She knew where her help came from and was always asking my mom to pray for friends and family members who were going through things. One of her favorite verses was Matthew 26:41 which says that “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” How very true.
After Jan, I spoke briefly about Suzan and how we had seen God’s hand in the situation as we looked back over the past week. I had been in Charlotte that weekend (the last two days before Suzan died) for my first Greek class of the semester. During his lecture, my professor expounded on one of the Greek words for “with.” He was explaining how different the Greek word’s meaning is from the English one. In English, you can simply be sitting beside a stranger on the subway and use the phrase “I am with him.” The word doesn’t carry much weight. But this particular Greek word that is translated “with” actually carries WAY more weight than our English word. It describes deep intimacy and relationship, not the superficial act of being in the same place at the same time. He went on to say that this is the word used in John 1:1 when it says that “The Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Jesus wasn’t just “beside” God; he was one with God. The next example he gave was 2 Corinthians 5:8 – that “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” I found his remarks so powerful that I started recording his discussion on my phone. I had no clue at the time that God was stirring something in me about that verse for a specific reason. On Sunday after Suzan’s body was taken from her home, my mom told me that she had gone inside with the man from the coroner’s office and prayed a prayer of release over Suzan. When she had finished her prayer, the man joined in agreement with my mom and quoted 2 Corinthians 5:8 – “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” Wow. Only God.
Besides the sweet thing God did with that scripture, he also led Andrew and me to head home from Charlotte a day earlier than we had originally planned. Because of that, we got to see Suzan one last time as we passed by her house on the way to ours on Saturday evening – and were able to immediately get to Ann upon hearing the news on Sunday morning. And my mom will always treasure the good phone conversation she and Suzan shared the night before she died. Suzan called her Saturday evening; they talked for a good while, and it was a very sweet conversation. God also orchestrated things on Sunday morning. My mom didn’t go to church, which is unusual for her. Because she was home, she was there to get the news immediately and to tell Memaw (her mom) and then to go to Ann’s to tell her. She would have been heartbroken if everything took place while she was at church and she had not been able to be there for Ann at such a crucial time. God is SO in the details.
Crissy, Suzan, and one of her best friends, Kathy
Suzan and my mom after the Christmas Day snow in 2010
Suzan at my parents’ house Christmas 2011
One week after losing Suzan, we received more heartbreaking news. One of my mom’s brothers – my Uncle Stan – had passed away in his sleep. As with Suzan seven days earlier, it was Sunday morning when we found out. I was actually leaving my hotel room to head home from our church ladies’ retreat when I got the news. I froze. All I could think about was Brian, Mandy, and Barry, Stan’s three children. Stan was only 62; this was very unexpected. I was so overwhelmed and shocked that it didn’t even dawn on me for several minutes that not only had my cousins lost their dad but Memaw had also lost a child, something she prayed would never happen. Now, she and Ann (sisters) had both lost a child within a week of each other. I cried all the way home. Thank goodness I had ridden with my friend, Zaina, and didn’t have to drive myself home. All of this love for Stan just came gushing forth. I couldn’t wait to get home and see my family.
Brian, Barry, and Barry’s wife, Michele, did not arrive in Spartanburg until the next night. It was so hard to see them and Mandy in such pain, not to mention his wife, Brenda. In situations like this, you wish you could make it better, but all you can really do is be there with them. Before this, I had not given much thought to losing an aunt or an uncle. I guess I assumed it would be a long time before that ever happened. I had no idea how much it would hurt. I also had no idea just how attached I was/am to my extended family – and how much I counted on that family unit remaining intact. Things just don’t feel right now. There are five children in my mom’s family, and now only four are living. I hate it. It feels so incomplete…and wrong.
I knew that I loved Stan, but I had no idea how deep that love went. Stan had such a heart for the Lord and great passion in general. He brought life and laughter wherever he went. He was very sharp in the Word and could really speak about it with great authority and conviction. One of his very favorite verses was Romans 8:14 (which happens to be his birthday, August 14th): “Those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” This paragraph from his obituary, written by his son, Barry, describes him perfectly: “Beloved son, brother, husband, and father, Stan was a gifted athlete. He excelled in boxing and baseball in his youth, signing a Major League Baseball contract with the now defunct Seattle Pilots. He played professionally for the minor league affiliate, the Billings Mustangs. At 24, he experienced a powerful encounter with Jesus Christ, and subsequently influenced numerous relatives and friends to follow Jesus. Full of youthful exuberance, Stan loved to make others smile and had the heart of a champion.” That is Stan. His heart shone so brightly.
But he often struggled with feelings of failure. He felt uncertain, at times, about whether he had really pleased the Lord with his life. Sometimes he even seemed to doubt his family’s love for him. He just had no idea how deeply he was loved! But now he knows with absolute clarity. That brings great joy to my heart. It also brings me joy to know that Stan is with his dad again. Papa died on September 29, 1994, and it hit Stan very hard. In fact, I believe he was at Papa’s grave when he got the news about Suzan. She died on the 19th anniversary of Papa’s death.
In the midst of our deep pain, we have treasures to hold onto from the last week of Stan’s life. Stan was at Suzan’s funeral; so I got to see him there. He hugged me afterward and told me that he saw God’s anointing on me as I spoke. Then we told each other “I love you.” Words can’t describe what a gift that interaction is to me now. I will hold it close to my heart as long as I live. He headed to his car after we talked, and shortly after that, I heard Jan King ask someone if that was Stan. She knew him a very long time ago because he attended Evangel, but she hadn’t seen him in many years. Once she knew it was him, she asked that person to run and catch him before he left so she could speak to him. Before he even made his way back to her, he had tears streaming down his face. He told her how deeply her message about Jacob had ministered to him. They shared a precious conversation, and Jan ended up praying over Stan. It was very healing and encouraging for him. He headed to Memaw’s afterward and met up with the other four siblings – Boyd, Dave, Sue, and my mom. Ann was there too, and they all had such a great visit together. That wonderful visit, just three days before Stan’s passing, is another treasure our family will always hold dear.
What overwhelms me is God’s incredible love for Stan. Love so incredible, so strong that He literally chased Stan down at Suzan’s funeral to speak His heart to him. I see God fathering a dearly loved son when I think about this precious interaction between Jan and Stan. Words can’t do justice for the beauty and power of that kind of love.
God gave some amazing gifts during Stan’s last week on earth, and though his departing was sudden and hurts deeply, God’s hand in this story is undeniable.
Brenda, my mom, and Stan at Barry and Michele’s rehearsal dinner
My mom, Stan, and Sue on Barry and Michele’s wedding day
Sue, Stan, Memaw, and Boyd at Memaw’s November 2011
Stan and my mom at Memaw’s – Christmas 2011
Stan and Memaw (holding her birthday gift) – Christmas 2011
The five kids at their most recent “Five Alive” gathering – July 19, 2013
Boyd, Dave, Stan, Sue, and Kay
My mind and heart have been all over the place the last three weeks. One thing I know for sure: God has put eternity in our hearts. Death doesn’t feel right because it’s not right. It’s not the way God intended it to be. Sin is what introduced death to creation. We, being made in God’s image, have eternity in our hearts. We don’t want to die, and we don’t want our loved ones to die either. Even if we’re given ninety years, it still isn’t enough. We want more.
And that’s not a bad thing. God made us that way. He plans to fulfill that desire in our hearts. This – this earthly, temporal life – is NOT all there is. The end of our lives here is NOT the end of the story! How I thank God for that! That’s the point of the Gospel, and that’s why it’s called The Good News. It’s unbelievably good news that God has given us access to eternity with Him through His precious Son, Jesus.
God is also reminding me continually that earth is not my home, anyway. “Our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). Lots of things don’t end the way we think they should or tie up neatly on this side because the story isn’t finished yet! We haven’t yet come home! I realize that I have been guilty of investing too much in this temporal life and getting too attached to things that are passing away. There’s nothing like the death of a loved one to jerk your heart back into a right perspective.
Another neat thing that God is reminding me of, too, is that God sees the depths of our hearts. Most people bring that up and attach a negative connotation to it. “God sees all the nasty, filthy, no-good things inside of us and loves us anyway.” While there is definitely truth to that statement, the flip side is just as true. He sees the beautiful, hidden treasures inside of us that few, if any, people on earth ever recognize about us. God fully and completely “gets” us. (Laurie, our pastor’s wife, keeps bringing this up lately, and it is exactly what God has been speaking to me). Not only does God see the gold inside of us that is so often missed by others, but He identifies us according to those righteous attributes, NOT according to our shortcomings. The Good News gets better and better. I personally think it should be called “The Do-a-Round-Off-Back-Hand-Spring, Insanely Magnificent News!”
God is also showing me that everything about our lives is a gift. God didn’t have to create us in the first place. But He did – out of His great love. So even though thirty-two years, or forty years, or sixty-two years seems short according to our human standards, it was a gift to have been born in the first place. And once we’ve crossed over into eternity, forever and ever plus thirty-two, plus sixty-two, or plus ninety-five is all the same thing. We’ll all be with our Lover forever and ever and ever and ever, and it won’t matter how long each of us lived in our earthly bodies.
God does not set us up to disappoint us. I’ve seen too many evidences of that in my life already. We need to have a holy, joy-filled expectation for heaven. We are sad right now, but I know that Stan and Suzan aren’t. They don’t feel cheated, and I’m sure they wouldn’t want to come back here even if they had the chance. They are experiencing everything their hearts could have ever wanted. Which reminds me of two C.S. Lewis quotes, one of which I read at Suzan’s funeral:
“All your life an unattainable ecstasy has hovered just beyond the grasp of your consciousness. The day is coming when you will wake to find, beyond all hope, that you have attained it, or else, that it was within your reach and you have lost it forever.”
“But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world… had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
This fairy tale ending that God has in store for us gives such glorious revelation of one of my favorite scriptures:
“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.” –Psalm 116:15