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Chief Big Little Man

We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing God directly just as God knows us!

But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love. - Apostle Paul, 1 Cor. 13:12-13

This is a hard day. I wish none of us were here. I had other plans today, and I suspect so did you. I think we can all agree that the death of a loved one is terribly inconvenient. And besides that, our hearts ache; our bodies feel as heavy as our souls feel empty; our minds rewind to all kinds of memories and conjure up all sorts of thoughts, both rational and irrational. I mean, what just happened? I join you in the shock of all of this.

As I let Alex’s departure sink in, I’ve been thinking more deeply about the big, lofty things of Life, which ironically Death causes us to do. I’ve been thinking more deeply about faith, hope, and love. As a minister, I think on such things regularly. But there is something about the death of someone close that causes you to think more deeply and even differently about God. 1 Corinthians 13:12-13 came to mind as I mourned before God over Alex’s death this past week.

I started thinking about what he taught me about matters of faith; I could think of several lessons, but if I’m forced to single one out, it would be his thoughts on mystery. You see, an occupational hazard of ministers is to think that we’re somehow capable of figuring out God. In my brokenness, my own search for God and ultimate meaning often led to certitude, as I studied theology and practiced ministry over the years. And that certitude, I confess, often led to a judgmental spirit, yes, toward others, but if it’s any consolation, also pretty harshly toward myself.

Well, Alex challenged all of that, not so much with the point/counterpoint approach, but with a plea to embrace mystery. “Your God is way too small, little brother,” I remember him telling me during one of our “friendly” arguments. I don’t think he meant to, but he was quoting the Apostle Paul, who said in today’s text, “We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist,” or in the better-known King James vernacular, “For now, we see through a glass darkly.” Folks, that is Alex’s life text, if he ever had one.

If my brother taught me anything about faith, and he did, it was the vastness, the boundlessness of God, to which no one has or can have complete and full access. He encouraged me to consider mystery as the starting point of understanding God and thereby appreciating the complexity and beauty of the Life that God created.

Now, I do believe that there are things we can know about God. And when we take that knowledge to heart, found most profoundly in the life of Christ, we can experience a real level of transformation in this life, as well as in the life to come. I do believe that, not only in my head but as evidenced in my own life. But as I’ve taken Alex’s advice (which was really, the Apostle Paul’s advice too) to affirm the truth of the mystery of God, I believe I’ve become a better person, maybe even a better minister. I think. I hope. To the extent that I’ve been able to internalize the mystery of God, I have felt myself becoming more understanding and accepting and even appreciative of difference. I’m easier on myself and others, and truth to tell, I’ve probably been easier to be with. If this self-evaluation is at all true, then I have Alex to thank for the gift of mystery.

But even as I affirm mystery, the passage goes on to say, “It won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing God directly just as God knows us!” Now Alex convinced me that even on the Day of Clarity, there will still and always will be mystery, for how can the created ever fully know all that there is about the Creator? Even so, even if he’s right that we can’t ever fully know God, I believe at this moment that Alex sees more clearly than he ever has before. Let me say it another way: he knows more than we do right now.

And Alex, I say, please enjoy that. My deep, complex, moody brother, revel in the deeper knowledge of the life that we who remain can only imagine. Yes, yes, be the investigative reporter that you are and ask God your questions; but let me urge you also to put your pen down occasionally and let yourself enjoy the loving, transcendent embrace of your God. Okay, will you do that?

As for those of us who still see through a glass darkly, the Apostle Paul said in our passage today that there remain three essential things in life, namely, faith, hope and love, and that the greatest of these is love. If there is anything that our remembrances today say about Alex it is that he loved much.

Melissa, he loved you more than anyone else in the world. You understood him; you knew his flaws and you loved him anyway. He told me that more than once through the years. Dylan and Maya, you had him so wrapped around your fingers; he was madly in love with the both of you. Fellow siblings, we shared a bond of love with him and each other that no one in this room could ever know. Co-workers and friends, he loved you too as only fellow journalists, writers and artists can with each other. And it was love for the underdog and the marginalized that was behind many, if not all, the articles and stories he wrote, published and unpublished.

Alex loved others much, even as he fought off his own personal demons that prevented him from fully loving himself. I could say more about his self-effacing ways, but let I’ll share one lighthearted example. It was an advertisement for the Seattle Times, that he sent me, featuring a dignified picture of him. Before sending it to me though, he blackened one of his front teeth and wrote after the official quote, in case you can’t read it, “I love my job.” He never could fully accept the accolades thrown his direction.

Perhaps the way forward in continuing Alex’s legacy is to recommit to loving one another, to not take each other for granted, to dare to reach out in love to the throwaways, the invisible, the dispensable, some of whom he introduced to the world through his writings. What a good thing to be remembered by, not so much by our accomplishments—and Alex had many—but by the way we loved others.

I ran across a Tibetan proverb recently that is a bit more this-worldly than Paul’s summary of faith, hope, and love; but it came to mind as I thought about what Alex’s last words may have been to us. The secret to life, says the proverb, is, “Eat half, walk double, laugh triple, love without measure.”

Good word, Alex. By faith, hope, and love, we will find a way to live on without your presence in the world. But for now, we salute you, Chief Big Little Man, for a life well lived. And we are grateful for all the love and the depth and the pain and the joy and the angst and the laughter that we all experienced with you. Nothing like a run-on sentence to capture all that you’ve been to us, my brother.

Until we meet again . . . .

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