Saturday, November 21, 2009

My Tribute

No, not a tribute to my blog. It hasn't been good enough to deserve such a thing. Ten posts in the last year? Wowsers. Not that I'm planning on improving or anything - I just needed somewhere to right down my memories and thoughts on my Uncle Bert. In other words, my tribute.

At this point in time, my uncle - great uncle to be exact - is not doing well at all. He became unresponsive three days ago, and though he has woken up a few times, he has generally been in this state. Just a week ago, he was up and about, writing, discipling, and encouraging others. Yet this turn for the worse has not really been a surprise. Doctors told him he wouldn't make it 'till Thanksgiving - a year ago. He has lived much, much longer than anyone ever gave him, and he has taken many dips up and down since then. Somehow, however, he always seemed to get back up on his feet and keep going, keep witnessing, keep loving and serving his Lord. Though I would never go as far as to say that his faith kept him alive longer than anyone anticipated, his positive attitude, even in the worst of all his ailments, made every one of his words echo with love for his Saviour. Not that he was literally saying "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus" 24/7. Yet, as I think about it, in a way he really was. The reason he was so optimistic about life was because he had faith. He knew that God's plan for him was a perfect plan. He therefore spoke every word in that light. The product? A whole conversation that may not even have the word "Jesus" in it, yet everyone who hears knows that Bert loves God. I think that is truly what being the fragrance of Christ means. It doesn't mean saying and thinking "Jesus" non-stop until death. It means living life, speaking conversations, and even sleeping sleep with the "glasses" of knowing that you are a new creation. A creation that has all its hope in God.

A little more about my uncle -

Yes, that great uncle. The mysterious one who lives in a grass hut in a tribe out in the wilderness of Africa. It seemed so distant. So surreal. Yet even now as I walk through he and his wife's house, I see evidence that such things were true. A plethora of animal carvings make it unnecessary to bother going to a safari. Traditional carvings in black wood of Afrikaners almost look grotesque hanging on walls and sitting on book shelves. Verdant hills demand the viewer's attention in pictures of Africa. His Africa. The Africa he spent fifty years in, telling others of Christ's love and atoning work.

He was the mysterious uncle that was coming to visit us. Somehow to an eight-year-old (approx.) like me, when I heard he was from Africa, I expected him know...look how he was supposed to. Plates in his lips, piercings, skulls around his neck, etc. (note: no offence to anyone of African descent. This is just what I thought Africans who lived in tribes were supposed to look when I was eight.) When he got out of the car, much to my surprise and disappointment, he was normal. Just another of those boring grown-ups who do boring things and talk about boring stuff. That was the last time I can ever remember being disappointed with him. He sure didn't quite look like he was supposed to, but every other African legend I had heard suddenly came to life when he was around. Because of British influence in Africa, he had picked up many (odd to an American eight-year-old, I might add) habits. Becky and I would sit, almost in a trance, as we stared at him dunk his graham crackers into his tea. He would tell us stories of that far-off continent, lulling us into an ethereal state of dreaming about grass huts, voodoo, and snakes. Suddenly, without warning, he would start singing hymns, "John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt," or "There's a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea." I think the "There's a hole in the Bottom of the Sea" needs a hole drilled in it for some of the substance to be drained out, for I remember Uncle Bert once taking Becky and me on a walk and singing that song at the top of our lungs - for the whole walk. And no, it wasn't a particularly short walk. My uncle was also very intent on getting us to learn Swahili, so everyday, out would come the sheet of paper with some new words to add to our growing vocabulary of necessary words to get by in Africa: tea, dog, spoon, thank you. And then would come the stories. I remember him once telling of how they had put their son down to bed for a nap in the afternoon. His wife went to go check on him, and low and behold, a very large snake (6-8 ft.?) was comfortably taking his nap on the floor beside the crib. Another time (which actually happened much more recently), Uncle Bert's wife brought some laundry to the laundromat. When she arrived, she found natives doing voodoo around the laundromat. Apparently, something had gone askew for the natives the day before, and after blaming it on the laundromat, then proceeded to put a curse on this building. Such were the stories he told, and sad was the day he left our house to return to that strange, distant place.

Several years later, Uncle Bert was forced to move back to the US because of his declining health. He eventually settled down in Denver with his wife. That was probably 3-4 years ago (?). Back then, the doctors didn't give him much longer to live. Ever since then, he has been up and down. He has such a will to live and to keep going for God's glory, but in a way, I can imagine that it would be very hard to die over the period of several years. Yet, leave it to Uncle Bert, he has never seemed unprepared to die. In fact, every time I saw him, I (sadly) was a little surprised that he seemed to be ready to be whisked off the face of this planet at any second. He had peace and was perfectly content to be here on this earth how ever long God wanted him to be here. He has never seemed to lack faith. He just keeps going on and on. Never has he "officially" retired. In fact, when I was at his house a few days ago, I saw papers he had been writing and books he had been studying. He's never stopped. All the in-home hospice care-givers know him and are in awe of him.

But really, how does he do it? How can he seem to always be living for Christ? Even as I was in his room a few days ago, he wasn't completely responsive, and in no way was he trying to recite verses. Yet, there just seemed to be this presence of peace and of joy. Despite the fact he most definitely wasn't sitting there trying to check off points of the Decalogue he had kept, he naturally was loving, caring, and obviously loved God. The reason he could do this was because he had his eyes on Christ and Christ only. We all get way too caught up in trying to keep little nit-picky things in the Commandments, and yet, if we are living in faith, these things happen naturally and without us looking like we're trying to keep every. letter. of. the. law. I love the illustration of how if we are in a boat, we're heading to a goal (Christ) and what comes off the back of the boat (the wake which represents our works) is just the natural product of keeping our eyes and goal centered on Christ. If we start focusing more on the wake, the only thing the world will see is our hard work at keeping the Decalogue. In other words we aren't in the boat to try to produce the wake. The wake comes naturally. If we start focusing more on the wake, the world won't see even a glimmer of Christ in us.

You know how you'll be going along living your ordinary little life and all of a sudden *BAMM!!* something will happen to make you re-think everything? That's how Uncle Bert has been for me. Every time I see him, I am reminded of how it is impossible to look on Christ and our works at the same time (another great quote I like to pretend is my own :D). His living in faith has given him that peace, rest, and joy that comes only from truly knowing and having a relationship with our God. Even in this whole slow dying process, he has seemed perfectly ready to die at any time. In fact, I don't think I've ever known anyone so ready and willing to die as soon as his Lord calls him. He's really made me even consider whether or not I could happily and readily die...right now. Just a couple months ago when I was working in the ER, a 16-year-old guy was killed in an accident. As I watched him breath his last, I almost started feeling frantic, wanting to know that he knew Christ and that he wasn't dying in unbelief. But there wasn't anything I could do as I watched his life slip away. Combining that experience with thinking about Uncle Bert and his life has really made me re-think what in the world I think I'm doing here and why so often I take this precious thing called grace for granted.

I have to say that as I typed out this post, "Day by Day" kept coming to mind as a hymn that definitely describes my uncle.

Day by day, and with each passing moment,
Strength I find, to meet my trials here;
Trusting in my Father’s wise bestowment,
I’ve no cause for worry or for fear.
He Whose heart is kind beyond all measure
Gives unto each day what He deems best—
Lovingly, its part of pain and pleasure,
Mingling toil with peace and rest.

Every day, the Lord Himself is near me
With a special mercy for each hour;
All my cares He fain would bear, and cheer me,
He Whose Name is Counselor and Power;
The protection of His child and treasure
Is a charge that on Himself He laid;
“As thy days, thy strength shall be in measure,”
This the pledge to me He made.

Help me then in every tribulation
So to trust Thy promises, O Lord,
That I lose not faith’s sweet consolation
Offered me within Thy holy Word.
Help me, Lord, when toil and trouble meeting,
Ever to take, as from a father’s hand,
One by one, the days, the moments fleeting,
Till I reach the promised land.

Bwana Asifiwe, or Praise the Lord!