Monday, May 30, 2016

The Death of a Saint

Two weeks and a day ago, I sat in our church service and listened as one of the men in the church, Travis, gave a talk before we took communion.  He fought back the tears as he talked about his dad's death earlier this year and told us how, on the day he passed away, Travis was sitting by his bedside at 6:00, thinking that his dad was going to get better--and then at 6:05, he died.  Travis encouraged us to be intentional in how we live our life, treasuring our relationships and, most of all, making sure that we are ready at any moment because death comes without warning and you just don't know when it's going to be your time to die.

One week and a day ago, I sat in our church service--a "normal" service--and saw our brother in the Lord, Travis, for the last time.

Two days ago, I sat in that church building during the funeral service for Travis; and the tears flowed as the news of his death, which had so shocked me--almost to the point of disbelief--when I heard about it, at last became real.

Travis was born the same year as Jeff (he wasn't old at all), and he and his wife Chrissy were married the same year Jeff and I were (1997 wasn't that long ago).  And yet death doesn't just visit the old; it also sneaks into the houses of middle-aged men and knocks them down, collapsing those who seemed so mighty and leaving their loved ones absolutely stunned.  So it was with Travis.  His heart gave out without warning, and angels carried him home to heaven.

We were out of town when it happened, enjoying a family get-away up in the mountains of western North Carolina.  We didn't have any internet or phone service where we were staying, so it wasn't until Wednesday morning when we were driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway and came to a spot where there was enough clear, unobstructed air for us to get cell phone coverage that the news came to us.  Jeff checked his email, read about Travis, and made some exclamation that alerted the rest of us to the fact that something horrible had happened.

At first, he didn't tell us what it was, not wanting the sorrowful news to steal the joy of our special family time (although he did assure me immediately that it wasn't any of my family); but as we rolled along the Parkway, he began to speak to me--in Hebrew to keep the kids from understanding.  He expressed that it wasn't the leader of our church who had died, but that it was one of the elders.  In my Hebrew (which has gotten rusty in the 11 years since we left Israel), I asked sorrowfully, "The old one?"  No, it wasn't him.  Then I asked in greater surprise, "The man who was at our house on Sunday to eat?"  No, it wasn't him.  And then, with immense incredulity, the thought came that it might be Travis.  No, surely not him!

Yes, him.

It was impossible to believe what I was hearing.  Most of the time, it still feels that way.

As the knowledge of Travis's death soaked in, we realized that it would be better to tell the children, rather than leave them wondering what the bad news was (had something happened to Grandpa? had our house burned down? what was it??), so Jeff gathered them around and, surrounded by some of the prettiest scenery in God's creation, he told them what had happened.

Their immediate concern was for Zac.  Zac, the son of Travis.  Zac, the one who was having a birthday that very day--the day after his dad died--and was now 11 years old, David's age.  Zac, their friend.  Zac, who was now fatherless.

As our trip continued, our thoughts often flew over the mountains to our home area in Virginia--to Chrissy and Zac and the rest of the family, and to our other friends in the church who were grieving such a sudden departure of a treasured part of the body.

Various memories of Travis came floating through my mind, but the most vivid was from the day he was ordained as an elder.  April 12, I believe it was.  Just over a year ago.  I remember the oil from the anointing glistening on Travis's head (he didn't have much hair to soak it up or hide it!).  :)  I remember the serious air he had as he stepped into this significant role in the church.
Most of all, I remember his humility--surely one of his most outstanding traits--as he knelt down on the floor and gently washed the feet of some of the children in the church.  My Shav...
...and my Moriah...
...were two of the ones who received this blessing from him as he demonstrated his willingness to serve the flock that God had placed under his care.
He had such a heart to serve, even to "the least of these."

The time he washed my children's feet is the memory that is most vivid to me, but my most recent memory of him comes from eight days ago, his last Sunday on this earth.  Two things stood out to me.  The first was how, during a time in the service when the congregation can ask for prayer for various people and situations, Travis reminded us to pray for Julia, our minister's wife, who was leading the singing that morning and had gotten emotional and obviously had some things on her heart that were concerning her.  Out of all of us, he was the one who saw her need and urged us to pray for her right away.

The second memory is from after the service when I was walking towards the back of the sanctuary on my way to the car.  Travis stopped me and jubilantly showed me his wrist.  He had had a patch of bad eczema there; but a few days before, his wife Chrissy had stopped by our house and had picked up a tube of the ointment from China that we are using for Benjamin (and have gotten such amazing success from).  We had told them where we ordered it from, but since it takes a while to come all the way from China, we wanted him to begin to gain the benefit of it as soon as possible, so Chrissy took it home to him and he started using it.  By Sunday, he could tell a big difference; and he happily showed me that.  We were both so pleased.

It was our last conversation.

It wasn't long at all after we heard the news of his death that I thought about the communion message he had shared just nine days before he died.  It was as if, completely unknowingly, he had preached his own funeral message.  The urgency of his message that day was amplified a thousand times by the passing of his own life so soon after.

Since Travis's death, the verse I keep coming back to is Psalm 116:15, "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints."  At first, it seemed strange to call such a heart-wrenching event "precious"; but as I pondered it further, I think I began to understand a little bit.  If we could only look at death from God's perspective, we would see that it is but a doorway through which each of us will someday walk.  What's so scary about a door?  Absolutely nothing, unless you fear what is on the other side.  But when the other side is heaven forever, with all the pleasures and glories of being in God's presence eternally free from the troubles of this world--be they diabetes and eczema or temptation and sin or the pain of broken relationships or any number of other trials we face here on earth--there is NOTHING to fear and EVERYTHING to gain!  For God, Travis's death was an enthusiastic "WELCOME HOME!" to one of His beloved sons; what rejoicing accompanied such an event!

Seen from His perspective, of course "precious" is an accurate descriptor of such a homecoming!

Seen from this side of the door, the rejoicing is dimmed as the ache in the heart wells up so fiercely.  I think of Chrissy and Zac, and my prayers are reduced to simple cries of "Oh God, help them! Strengthen them! Be near to them!"

He will, I know, and He is.  And meanwhile, all of us who had the privilege of knowing and loving Travis look forward with unquenchable hope to the reunion we will someday have in heaven with that gentle giant.

And then, we will never say goodbye.


Carol Slater said...

I truly believe that we all know when our time is near. I have heard others speak of things happening like this. It is sad that Travis was taken so young but I am sure that his family will begin to realize that God had a greater plan for him.

Olivia said...

What a beautiful tribute! Prayers <3

Psalms 34:18; Psalms 63:7; John 16:22