(This post is about my late uncle, Timothy Steele. It’s long, and I swear toward the end. Sorry.)
"It is better to go to a funeral than a feast. For death is the destiny of every person, and the living should take this to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, because sober reflection is good for the heart." (Ecclesiastes 7:2-3)
The juxtaposition is staggering. The funeral of the man I most associate with laughter and joy. It hurts. No Steele family gathering was complete without hearing his boisterous laugh, receiving one of his legendary bear hugs, and - if you were lucky - getting one heck of a sloppy kiss on the cheek.
His greetings were the most genuine. I always knew when Uncle Tim had arrived. And whenever I arrived, he made me feel like my presence mattered, like he had missed me, like he was proud of me.
My Uncle Tim was one of the first people in the room to hold me when I was born. Although I can’t remember it, he was there on the very first day of my life. Growing up, his house was always a welcome place to hang out with my cousins. He was like a second dad, and his children like a second set of siblings.
Speaking of dad, my Uncle Tim was used by God to help my dad out of his habits and addictions and into an encounter with Jesus Christ. At the funeral, my dad spoke of it in terms of Tim saving him from drowning. I will perhaps never know how much in my life I owe to my Uncle Tim being there for his younger brother, Patrick, putting his reputation on the line to guide and love my dad toward Christ.
Also, it meant a lot to me that my Uncle Tim made it out to my wedding in Pennsylvania in August 2012. Whenever my wife and I watch our wedding video, one of our favorite parts is when Uncle Tim’s voice booms out from the back of the church after we finished our duet of Be Thou My Vision. Amidst the applause, he cries out in a weepy voice: “That was beautiful!!!” He is intertwined with the memories of one of the happiest days of my life.
Many more stories could be and have been told about Timothy Steele. However, there’s one memory in particular that I haven’t been able to get out of my head these past days since hearing of my uncle’s untimely death. It happened in the garage of Grandma Steele’s house during a family gathering when her health was declining, if I remember correctly. Amidst the normal hilarious and loud stories, the conversation took a serious turn, and my Uncle Tim spoke of the pain he felt when he looked back upon times in his life when he had turned his back on Jesus, so to speak.
Now, he didn’t speak of his regrets in terms of not knowing any better when he was younger. He didn’t speak of the pain of violating a general sense of right and wrong, but of the nagging sense that at various times he had let a person down…the person of Christ.
Encouragement in the Midst of Pain
Here’s why I find that story encouraging in the midst of pain: You don’t much regret letting down people for whom you don’t much care. And even though we have all, to the very last one of us, let Jesus down, he never abandons us. His love makes my Uncle Tim’s love pale in comparison, and he is now showing Tim even more grace than Tim showed to all of us each day.
If you ever met my Uncle Tim, you know of his gracious love toward every single person he met. These past few days have been filled with stories about this man who was a force of nature, always ready to extend his gregarious love toward even, if not especially, “discarded and used-up people,” as my cousin Whitney put it. And as my Uncle John put it, “Tim loved you like Jesus does.“
I was struck by viewing those loving, gracious memories of my Uncle Tim in light of the relationship revealed to me in that serious conversation in the garage. That is, to realize that my Uncle Tim was such a uniquely loving person, not just because he thought it was a good idea or because he just had so much love on his own, but because of the love he had received from Christ. To realize that the intense love which characterized every personal encounter with my Uncle flowed from the intense love he had first and continually experienced in his personal encounter with the crucified-and-risen Jesus Christ.
Unlike many, my Uncle Tim understood that the Gospel of Christ doesn’t just make a difference in the “afterlife,” but that it makes a difference in the here-and-now! That if knowing Christ makes no difference in how you treat the flesh-and-blood people around you who are made in God’s image, then you probably don’t know Christ. The eternal life spoken of in the Gospel doesn’t begin the day you die, it began the day Christ died and rose from the grave.
I often worry that Christian pronouncements about the good news of Jesus Christ strike others as hollow, fake, and escapist - especially in the context of a funeral. How can trite truisms about Jesus be relevant in the midst of so much pain?
But my Uncle Tim’s life on earth, painful ending and all, was not a trite truism. You know if you knew Timothy Steele. He demonstrated what faith looks like – that it has to do with more than just thinking the right things, more than just following a list of rules – it has to do with a faithful relationship to a PERSON, a relationship which then changes the way you treat PEOPLE.
Conclude and Reflect
I write this reflection mid-air, on my way back to Alabama. I wish that I had gotten to see my family members in a house of merrymaking, but it was a house of mourning instead.As we remembered the life of the man who could make you laugh so hard you cried, there was a lot of laughter and a lot of tears in the Steele family this weekend. There was riotous applause at the funeral at one point, but I know there’s still a whole lot of sadness and pain.
If you’re reading this and you, like me, are privileged to have known Timothy Steele, would you reflect on the connection between the love this man showed to all and the love of Christ which he had first received? When you seek hope in the midst of your reasonable sorrow, and you spend time dwelling on happy memories of the man, would you consider that the source of all that gracious love wasn’t a general sense, it wasn’t an impersonal force…it was my Uncle Tim’s encounter and relationship with a person.
And if you’re reading this and your pain feels too great for all this Jesus talk at the moment, if, like me, you experienced a big dose of anger at the side of Tim’s casket this weekend…that God would allow this life to end so soon…that this world is still broken and infected by Death, would you please join me in clinging to the hope that God hates death even more than we do?
Sometimes it doesn’t feel like it, but seriously, he does. For all the hopeful Christian talk at funerals, we can never forget that Death sucks.
No, that’s not strong enough. Death is fucking horrible. And I hope you agree that I say that out of concern for accuracy, and not merely vulgarity.Death’s final defeat has been declared at the empty tomb of Jesus Christ, butdammit, we’re still waiting for the final removal of Death’s presence from this world. It’s not our annoying, normal friend. It’s our alien enemy. And I don’t know about you, but when Death strikes close to my door, when it hits the ones I love, I want to rage against it with all I have.
God rages against Death. He dove headfirst into the depths of this world, into the realm of the discarded and the used-up, the dead and the dying. He himself dove into the very grave, that he might emerge from it victorious. That he might lay Death itself in its cold grave, that he might silence the bastard enemy of the children of God.
I don’t just follow Jesus to get into heaven someday when I die. I follow him because he hates Death more than I do, because in an important sense he is more heartbroken than I am over the death of my Uncle and the sorrow of the family members he left behind. And because, amazingly enough, he invites me and his people – he invites YOU – to join him in the mission of eternal life, to join him in the process of putting Death to death in our daily lives, in the world around us.
And, following the words of my beloved Uncle Tim, that’s beautiful.
(For another reflection on death, hope, and resurrection, read my sermon: “Son of Man, Can Your Bones Live?”)