Although you have heard bits and pieces of my story over the past 3+ years, I thought it would be helpful for me to allow you into my journey a little more. I shared about this on Sunday yet I wanted to invite you into some reflections about life and ministry that I’ve been processing this season.
November 4th makes it seven years that Bonnie, my wife of 20 years, passed on to the other side of eternity. As most could expect it was a challenging few weeks prior to her passing. In early October of that year (2009) my dad passed away. I wasn’t able to attend his funeral because of the declining health of Bonnie. I also had the painfully emotional conversation with McKenzie (she had just turned 16) to let here know there was nothing more the doctors could do for mom and that our time with her is going to be much shorter than we would hope for.
Within a couple of days of that conversation with McKenzie, Bonnie was admitted into Hospice care, a lovely home within 15 minutes from where we lived. For me, the decision was easy that I needed their assistance to give Bonnie the best care she could receive while also caring for McKenzie and holding down my job. Friends had been flying in for a few weeks and it was during those weeks that the richness of authentic deep friendships, which had been formed over the years, became an integral part of our journey. Some of them spent the night with Bonnie in the hospital, others hung out and ran errands and tried to keep things manageable at home for us. I have no idea what they must have thought when they kissed Bonnie and said ‘see you later’ as they returned to Michigan knowing that they would not see Bonnie again until eternity. Surprisingly, our lives remain enriched with some of our newest friends during those years who have remained part of our lives ever since.
For the 7th Anniversary of Bonnie’s promotion, I’ll again be spending time with McKenzie. I’ve also been intentional in thinking through the impact that Bonnie’s death has made on my life as a follower of Jesus, Dad and Pastor.
- Life is short! We really have no idea when our last breath might be. So as the saying goes, slow down enough to smell the flowers and enjoy the simple blessings that we often take for granted – which include our relationships with friends and family. Living and moving people into ‘community’ remains a key value for me.
- Even though I’m a documented and card carrying ‘extrovert’, I’ve noticed that since Bonnie’s promotion, I regain energy and appreciate more alone time, even seven years later. Yet, there is truth to having more time available for ministry since I’m an empty nester. No doubt I can devote a lot more of my time emotion and energy to a job that I love and feel privileged to be a part of (serving in Southern CA, doesn’t hurt either :).
- I still need to be intentional about my own self-care. As a ‘single again’ person, I’ve noticed that I don’t need as much ‘stuff’ (some call it character) in my home or life. The more I have, the more I have to move around all the time. Traveling lighter in life really is so much less stressful, and it allows you the freedom to move easier.
- I’ve learned to be more generous. Frankly, funds were very limited during most of the 11 years that Bonnie had cancer. Yet the Lord provided! We had a beautiful home, took wonderful vacations and all of our needs were met, but our savings and investments were being deflected to the nontraditional protocol of fighting cancer and the costs not covered by insurance. When we lived in Michigan someone left an envelope in our mailbox with cash in it. That gift met some very real needs as well as provided McKenzie and Bonnie with some ‘paid for’ Christmas gifts (I have this thing about charging anything). Today, I still have the envelope in my office – as a reminder of God’s faithfulness. I travel more than I would have before (OK so mostly it’s to Michigan and Phoenix) and I’m reminded that we really don’t know what the future is, so enjoy life, invest in relationships and live a life of purpose.
- I realized that even though I was gainfully employed, the medical health care (both traditional and homeopathic) and associated costs were adding up quickly. I tried to refinance the house and I worked all the ‘interest-free’ charge cards as far as I could, yet it became obvious that this fight was about to win when it came to our investments and retirement accounts (and I would do the entire thing again if I had to). A lessoned learned is to be careful not to judge people by appearances. We seldom know the ‘back story’. Bonnie used to say, “Everyone has a story”.
- For most of my adult life, I’ve been blessed beyond measure with numerous significant relationships… from my college days to working at Western Michigan University and to most of the churches I’ve been honored to serve. I have several brothers from another mother (although they may not want to admit it at times) in my life! The relationship with Diane, Bonnie’s sister, and her family remains strong and continues to grow. No doubt we all still feel the gap caused by Bonnie’s absence, yet her death has not put a wedge in our relationships (I still have the self-proclaimed title of favorite Uncle). Authentic community continues to be a main ingredient for life.
- Bonnie’s death has reminded me that it’s too easy for people to get caught up with their own family, events and work responsibilities where they barely have enough time, energy or skills to make new and develop deeper friendships. As I have shared and talked with numerous pastors concerning this observation, while at the surface may be a Southern CA challenge, is apparently widespread among many congregations, nationwide. Again a lifestyle of authentic community was essential 7 years ago and remains a key element to being a follower of Jesus.
I was singing to Bonnie, holding her hand when her heart monitor flat lined. I realized she was gone, (I prefer the word promoted). Our relationship was changed immediately. In fact as cold as it sounds, it was over. I was no longer married. McKenzie no longer had a mom. I was a single Dad, Diane’s (Bonnie’s sister) best friend was gone. Many others felt the void of a thoughtful, gracious, kind friend. For hundreds of people, everything changed on this side of eternity.
At that moment, my heart’s desire was confirmed, even more, to be urgently focused on those who don’t know Jesus. If Bonnie had not opened her heart to Jesus then at 9:40pm on November 4th, she would have started an eternity with Satan, versus being in the presence of the God who created her, loved her and gave His life for her. She really was ‘in a better place’, although I didn’t need to hear that from anyone at the moment. Without a doubt, I’m confident in her eternal destination, yet her absence continues to be felt.
Human nature testifies to the reality that most people don’t change until an emotionally significant event enters their life. I had several at this point in my life; my parents divorce, my mom’s death when I was 25, my wedding, education & changing careers, the adoption of McKenzie and now, unfortunately, the death of my bride.
It’s during this moment I was reminded again, that the church needs to be more of a hospital for the wounded, hurting, broken and godless people became even more important to me. Death is real and it will knock on all of our doors of all of our lives sooner or later, rich or poor, whether we are ready or not, whether we deserve it or not, no matter what age!
Bonnie’s passing has raised a few questions in my mind and heart as it comes to ministry. Such as:
- I wonder how hurt the heart of the Father must be, to witness so much ‘off mission’ distractions and conversations.
- Why do we spend so much energy on the little things in life – when there are so many of our friends and neighbors and relatives who remain clueless about what it means to love and follow Jesus with your heart and soul?
- Why do so many people separate their faith from their friends, jobs, schools, and keep it confined to a Sunday only experience?
- Why are so many people living busy lives, void of the ‘community’ God intended them to live in?
For New Life Community Church, while our methods to reach the lost have changed over the years (and will continue to change), difficult decisions have been made to look for and reach people far from Jesus, we:
- changed locations
- changed our name
- changed the language of the church service
- changed the musical instruments
- changed our style
- changed our leadership structure
The exciting truth is that for 85 years New Life has followed the heart of God and has had a vision for the lost sheep.
My passion is to continue to lead us in that Biblical vision, to do whatever I can, whatever we can, to find the lost sheep. Throughout church history, there will be part of the 99 sheep who don’t like this or that and who feel they have a better way to ‘do something’. Although there is always the temptation to be a sheep pleaser, God has called us as the church, and myself as one of your pastors to put it all out there for those who don’t know Jesus. It’s easy to forget that God calls each of us to be on ‘the lookout’, yet our belief that God empowers us all to do His work (the priesthood of all believers) is a reminder that we are all called to be looking for and going after the lost sheep.
Our next season of ministry will be exciting as together we move forward making ourselves available to be led by God, changed by the Holy Spirit and looking and praying for the lost…. all for His glory.
God has used New Life in some incredible ways, and God will continue to use us in the years ahead. Let’s allow God’s word to transform our hearts and lives so God can use us to be agents of his healing and ambassadors of his love to a community and world who desperately need His faith, hope and love.
“I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent”