The call came at 6:30 in the morning from my wife. “Uncle Earnest died last night” she said, and we launched into a discussion about travel details. I had a 7AM meeting, then some teaching at 9 and more meetings and reports all day long, so that there wasn’t time to process. “97” I remember thinking to myself when I heard the news, “is a good long life” and went on with my day.
It wasn’t until the early evening commute to the mountains provided some space to grieve that the enormity of this man’s role in my life hit me. I’m driving east and the hillside and peaks are a riot of color. The wild lit greens of cedar, hemlock, and fir are a base, capped by the alpenglow of scree fields above tree line, and then topped by pure cloudless blue. If creation invites gratitude and contemplation, my music playlist pours gas on the flame.
The distance between the city and home is just enough on a stunning night like this to blossom my soul. Only now, bathed in the grace of creation, do I begin thinking about the loss of my uncle. James Taylor’s “Close Your Eyes” lyrics speak of loss and love:
So close your eyes You can close your eyes, it’s all right I don’t know no love songs And I can’t sing the blues anymore But I can sing this song And you can sing this song When I’m gone
A few tears begin, because I realize that, indeed, I’m singing my uncle’s song now that he’s gone, for he’s the one who introduced me to the song that is my calling as a pastor and Bible teacher. He was the one I called in about 1977 and said, “I’ve made a terrible mistake! I’ve agreed to teach the high school Sunday school class tomorrow!”
“That’s great!” he said.
“No! I have no idea how to teach the Bible!” He asked if I was assigned a text and when I said ‘no,’ he told me to come over to his house right away.
It was a Saturday afternoon and now that I’m a pastor, I know how precious and restorative Saturday afternoons can be, ought to be. Yet there I stood at his door, an interruption to his perfectly good Saturday. He invited me in and with enthusiasm usually reserved for sports fans, said, “you need to teach Joshua 1 – it’s amazing” The dining room table was stacked with commentaries and we sat down to study together. First, observe the text. Then interpret it. Then apply it. Then check your books for more insights. “Keep studying until you’re excited about it” he said. Being a pastor, I’d entered into his world, and he was thrilled by that. If I was Luke, he was Yoda. If Frodo, Gandalf.
“How long will that take?” I said, overwhelmed.
“It doesn’t matter” he said. “It will happen if you stick with it.”
And it did happen. We studied together a bit, and I took all his books home with me to scatter on my own kitchen table. Observe. Interpret. Apply. Repeat. It took a while, but by midnight I was excited about Joshua 1, not as a lesson to share, but as life-giving fuel for a kid who’d just lost his dad a couple years earlier and was racked with insecurities. “Be strong and courageous!” it says, over and over again. If ever I needed courage, it was that moment in my young life. Not for teaching only; that was the least of it. I needed answers, hope, joy, guidance, boldness, vision for the canvass of life that lay ahead.
The next morning I did it; stood before 20 high school students and shared what Joshua 1 meant to me and what it might be able to mean to them too. I called my uncle the next day to let him know that, as terrified as I was, the lesson had gone well enough that they’d asked me to teach Joshua chapter 2 the next week.
“Can I keep the books for a while?” He laughed and I taught again, and again, and eventually made my way to seminary because I found that I meet the real living Jesus time and time again when I opened the Bible and I wanted to learn how to study it well. That would lead, eventually, to a pastoral role on a tiny island and eventually to lots of study, teaching, writing, shepherding, leading, in what we call ‘pastoral ministry’. Being non-denominational, I had no vast family with whom to share my trials, so my uncle became my mentor. It was formal, with curriculum and weekly goes, or a fee, the way mentoring often happens today. It was casual, woven into real life. At holidays we’d chat about ministry challenges and he’d give advice and pray for me. He passed books on to me, and one entire set became the basis for my teaching of Genesis that I offered to the Torchbearer community for so many years. Those books sit on my shelf to this day, published in 1891.
When James Taylor is finished, Sufjan Stevens shows up on my play list. “Amazing Grace.” Of course. I can’t go home yet, not ready. I make my way to the Alpental mountain valley, where I park and wander the base of my naked ski hill as the sun sets and the sky darkens. “Grace indeed” I say to myself as I recognize how God brought this man into my life who allowed a Saturday interruption to invest in an insecure kid, and then kept allowing interruptions for the next 40 years.
The mountains fade to black, metaphor for the inevitability in all of our stories. And yet, if we live well, we’ll have the privilege of investing in others. We’ll allow ourselves to be interrupted. We’ll encourage and affirm the slightest shred of giftedness and fan it into flame. And if we do, someone else will sing our song when we’re gone.
Thanks Uncle. Your songs plays on in my heart, life and ministry