“If there be any truer measure of a man than by what he does, it must be by what he gives.” – Robert South
I grew up as an only child, which means that I spent a lot of time around adults. And it must be said that I had a fantastic group of parents, family members, Sunday school teachers, mentors, teachers, and coaches who influenced me to become who I have become today. But if I had to pick one adult outside of my parents, the person who influenced me the most would be my Uncle Tom.
I had the fortune of growing up in the same town as my Aunt Marian and Uncle Tom (in fact, my Aunt Marian was my sixth-grade math teacher). What that meant was that I saw them often, in particular, at church each and every Sunday. I remember as a young child sitting in church eagerly awaiting my Uncle’s arrival. In my line of work now, I’ve come to recognize just how important that was in shaping my view of church at a young age. After all, your parents, they have to care about you. But my Uncle took a genuine interest in me and made coming to church something I looked forward to.
My Uncle Tom was also the first one who put me in front of a computer, and for those of you who know me well, I am a hopelessly addicted tech geek who has loved the Mac computer since the mid-80’s. Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? started me off but the list went on. I remember my Mom saying to my Uncle “Are you sure that’s ok?” and he’d reply with a smile “Anne, he can’t hurt it”. My Uncle Tom trusted me and was willing to let me explore something new on my own, knowing full well that I might in fact mess something up. But, I had the freedom to explore, because I knew that if I did mess something up, Uncle Tom would find a way to fix it.
Perhaps most important, my Uncle Tom taught me never to accept an easy answer to a hard question. My Uncle’s hero in the bible was “Doubting Thomas” and he thought it fitting that their names were the same. Needless to say, as I pursued a call to ministry, topics of faith and theology often came up. I distinctly remember meeting up for lunch with my Uncle when I was home from college. In the course of our conversation, the topic of AIDS came up. He asked why God would allow such a thing in the world if God was in fact so loving. I responded with some freshman-at-a-Christian-College-response that I am sure was theologically correct. My Uncle smiled, smirked even, and said “Right, but he could do something, but he doesn’t”. My Uncle quickly recognized two things. I had in fact given him a theologically correct answer, but the answer wasn’t appropriate to the question because it was too easy. As many of my youth group kids will attest, I am often pushing them to think deeper than the correct but easy answer and instead think about the issue on personal and theological grounds. I credit much of that to my Uncle, who would often push and push and push as I struggled to answer the tough questions he posed to me.
As I reflect on his life and now his death, I have mixed emotions. On the one had, there is the pragmatic side of me that recognizes the facts. He was 83, he had battled bladder cancer, and he was ready for his life to end. All things considered, he had about one bad month right at the very end. Up and until then (these are his words) “I was strong, I could do what I wanted”. As someone who has watched people suffer for years at the end of their lives, I am grateful for the blessing of only one month. The personal side of me though isn’t nearly as pragmatic. While it hasn’t hit me fully yet, I know it will, in particular the first time I walk into my Aunt and Uncle’s house and see the office where I spent so many hours of my life. The stark realization that my Uncle is gone will hit me and hit me like a ton of bricks. My Uncle is gone. There will be no more lunches at Applebee’s. There will be no more phone calls discussing politics, football or the Yankees. Those are gone, that chapter in my life is officially closed now. And there is loss there.
There is much in life my Uncle has taught me, and so much I am grateful for. In particular, I am grateful that my Uncle gave (and gave, and gave) of his very self. His obituary has two lines in it that are as perfect as they could be: “… and his beloved nieces and nephews” and “His later years were focused on his grandchildren…” My Uncle invested in the lives of his grandchildren and nieces and nephews in real and tangible ways. He adored his grandchildren and that was evident to anyone who knew him. And he loved the nieces and nephews. Perhaps my most profound sadness in this whole situation is that my two children will have but fleeting and brief memories of this great man. This was a man who had an important job and a Doctorate in Education, but he would count all that as loss compared to his deep love for his family.
My hope is that my kids can have an adult in their life like my Uncle Tom; someone to encourage, support and challenge them as they navigate through life. And my hope is that when my dying day comes, there will be those who will think of me the way I think of my Uncle Tom.