Tonight as Chris, freshly home from work, sat on our bed, removing his shoes while August climbed on the comforter around him, he said: “I have sad news.”
“Ah, man.” I said, thinking his sad news would involve his having to work when we’d already scheduled something wonderful. It wasn’t that.
“I got a call today from Phil’s wife, Jennifer. He died. The funeral’s later this week.”
Phil was our next-door neighbor in our town outside Philadelphia. A small African American man with a booming preacherly voice, he had been suffering from stomach cancer on and off since we moved in three years ago.
Our home was a twin (duplex) and Phil had lived in the other side for forty-something years. He knew the entire neighborhood and everyone knew him. When we first moved in and searched for some wireless internet to sneak until ours was up and running, I laughed to see a network named “Jesus Saves” floating out there in the wireless realm. It didn’t take long for me to know that it belonged to Phil. I learned it on our first encounter actually. As quickly as he could tell me his name, his love for our home’s former owners, and his recent treatment for his cancer, he was speaking of the Lord. He couldn’t talk about Jesus without his voice booming. He was in love.
As a Christian with a tendency to think carefully before speaking about my faith, I was often uncomfortable with how easily Phil spoke about Jesus, with no hesitation or thought of the reaction or comfort level of the people around him. His style was never mine; but I always admired him for it. He was retired and spent much of his time preaching in prisons and praying for his neighbors.
After August was born, every time we passed Phil outside, he would remind me that he always prayed for “Augustus” (he could never remember that his name was just August): mostly for his soul. And though my mom didn’t love it when Phil mentioned to us eight days following August’s birth that my son was already a sinner in need of grace, I always appreciated his authenticity. I knew that his prayers for my “Augustus” and his wretched soul were honest and faithful. I always loved waiting for what Phil would say next.
Phil met Jennifer at church. From the story he told me last summer, I think he loved her for the past decade or so. But he was divorced and had such high standards of marriage that he was unwilling to pursue her while his ex wife was still living. She died the winter before last, and Phil was there beside her bed, thirty some years after their divorce. He showed up in our yard last summer before we moved, Jennifer’s hand in his, and announced that they would be marrying that next month. I was a little stunned. But they’d been friends a long time and felt it finally time to be together.
My childhood pastor, Brother Shad, died this past Sunday. He was the man who baptized me, held my hand as my fingers clamped shut my nostrils and dipped me backwards into the warm bathwater of the baptismal. He was my pastor at the same time as Reagan was president and they were interchangeable to me. (Brother Shad had the same dark brown streaked with gray, parted and raised.) And really, when you’re seven, what ‘s the difference between the brave man preaching in front of the congregation and the one speaking at the camera on the news?
When I was in college, I spent a week in Santiago, Chile with my home church on a mission trip. Much of my time there is a blur but what I won’t forget is an elderly Brother Shad, nearly ten years past his retirement as pastor, praying out loud in the car as we drove through a broken and impoverished village. He loved the people and he wept for them.
Tonight, as we stopped to pray before dinner, while August was shouting out his thankful list during the prayer: “Daddy! Mama! Basia! JoJo!,” we prayed for Phil’s wife as she grieves. And we prayed for Phil as he enters eternity with the same vigor with which he prayed and preached in this finite place. The thought came to me that I may never know what Phil’s prayers on behalf of my little boy might accomplish in August’s life. But I hope Phil gets to find out.
I hope the same for Brother Shad, the sweet man who held my back and pronounced me baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I pray that as he is reunited with his wife and dear friends, he is sat before a stadium of faces, mine included, who learned to love Jesus under his leadership.
Death is still surreal to me. I’m relatively young and have had an easy life. But in these moments where its reality creeps up and whispers to me that my life is quick flying helium-filled balloon, flicking around the room for a few seconds before it spits its last puff out, I’m reminded that I want to live with vigor and faith, remembering that what matters is what I can offer the people around me: whether it’s my prayers, my time, my words or my tears.