The question always came. We would walk into the church and Joey would ask, “What is God teaching you?” or “How is God is using you?” or… It didn’t matter if I was thirteen or thirty-three, Joey asked, and he expected an answer. It became part of church reality for me, so on the way there I would ponder what God was doing in my life. I knew I needed to be prepared for Joey’s question. And this expectation changed everything, because I was always looking for God.
Joey died yesterday. I started to type a gentler “passed away”, but this moment is not gentle. I know it was expected. I know he was suffering from cancer but expectations do not make the reality of death any easier.
Joey refused to wear his seatbelt. This drove me crazy, and I would argue with him the first five minutes of any trip. But this was part of Joey’s personality. When we become God’s He does not reject and replace our personality; instead, He redirects our traits. So, while Joey refused to wear his seatbelt, he was also refusing to do church the same way. He started Gateway to be a church built on the strength of its members. Their service, not paid staff, drove everything at the church.
Joey died yesterday. None of us will defy death, but I wanted Joey to prove stronger than cancer. Really I wanted God to bring a miracle. Then Joey could die in a car crash at eighty-six. “See, I told you to wear your seatbelt.” (My personality always wants to be right.)
Walking through the halls of my high school, I ran into Joey. He was there as a substitute teacher, and I gave him a hug. I guess it was weird, me, a high school guy, hugging an adult man. I did not think a thing about it, I loved Joey. But my friend was startled, “Is that you dad?” “No, he is my youth minister.” His look communicated I must be crazy. And maybe I was, with my “still burning” Energizer bunny in Hell t-shirt, but not because I hugged Joey. I have heard in more recent years that Joey was not a hugger. This is probably true, but I never knew. I was a hugger and Joey connected with me – not who he wanted me to be.
Joey died yesterday. Your mind knows what is coming, but logic does not prepare our hearts. We are left hoping for more advice. Another hug… we wonder, how we can handle this moment? But we are not expected to be strong. Instead we are called to connect with the heart of Jesus. The one who meets us where we are.
Jesus understood eternity. He knew the power of salvation. He knew this world is not the end, because His life was making all these things true. And yet, there, before the tomb of his friend Lazarus we find the Bible’s shortest verse.
We find ourselves in the same place – before the tomb. Jesus is no longer standing in the flesh. But Christ has spoken none the less. Words we could not hear called out to Joey, arise. We know this to be true. But still we stand before the tomb. And in this moment, with Jesus, we weep.