To My Departed Friend

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I couldn’t speak at your funeral. I could read Matt 11:25-28 for you — the passage you’d selected yourself, from which you drew deep courage and peace when the tempests mounted. But I couldn’t deliver a speech. I probably should have, but the memories of the past six months crowded out more gracious images. Those last days were such a small sliver of your life, a momentary breath,  but to forge past them felt like pressing into the jungle, struggling against stalks and splayed leaves that wouldn’t yield.

Beyond the tangled dark, I know your life lights up the valley. I discern glimmers piercing through the canopy: the memorial garden you lovingly tended for friends who died of HIV. Your delight when Pip asked for seconds of your shells and meat sauce. Your sarcasm. Your laughter. Your diligent hours spent preparing Bible studies for preschool and small groups. The stacks of Bibles you passed out to medical staff every time illness forced you back into a hospital bed. The way your tenor filled the sanctuary as you belted out a solo of Witness to glorify the Lord. How you sang it again, all for love of Jesus, with an oxygen tank at your side and plastic cannula in your nostrils.

The glow of these moments filters through, but to reach them I have to overcome the memory of your limp hand in mine during your last day. The paranoia and delirium that seized you as your illness advanced, sharpening your words with uncharacteristic bitterness. My desperation for one of your doctors  to sit down with you and lovingly give you the big picture. My anger that they waited so long to do so.

As a clinician, I’ve guided so many people in hospital beds through their final moments. But you were the first friend with whom I’ve walked this dreary avenue.  As with so many families to whom I gave the heavy, awful news at an ICU conference table, the aftermath has broken my heart. I miss you, dear friend. I yearn to update you about the kids, to share a laugh and a prayer as we used to, everyday, usually during inopportune times. The impulse to reach for my phone surfaces. Then my heart twists, and the tears well up, as I realize, in a moment of foolishness, that only silence will answer.

And yet, there are so many points of grace. That you found your way to hospice on the one day when your thinking cleared enough to consider it. That you spent your last days in beautiful surroundings that inspired you. That those you loved surrounded you, reading the Word, praying over you, singing hymns while you passed into the arms of Jesus. These are mercies that seemed so remote for the past six months, when you shuttled from the hospital to rehab and back again, never really returning home. That your last days flowed with such peace, is evidence of God’s continued grace and work here on earth.

And that grace sustains us. You once asked how I was going to tell explain your death to Pip and Bean. I’d said we’d been preparing them all along. We’d explained it’s normal to feel sad, but we can also glean hope and joy from knowing you’ll be with Jesus.

Brother, I’ve found comfort from this same truth. I yearn to sit with you again, but solace springs from knowing you’re in His presence. In those last few months, you clung to Isaiah 6.  You’d been downtrodden in your suffering, weary from the constant barrage of illness, wondering God’s intent in it all. And then, the image of God in the temple in Isaiah 6 flooded your mind. You saw the throne, the brilliant folds of his robe billowing out to enfold you. “God is closer than we all think,” you told me. Your eyes shone.

His love and mercy pour out upon us even here, now, in the shadow of death (Ps. 23:4). I think of our love for you, and how even as we grieve ours is an imperfect love, paltry compared with that of our great God. And now, you are wrapped in HIS love! His presence, His love for you envelopes you, as the train of His robe sweeps throughout the temple. You’re freed from sin. The fetters binding you to this broken world have loosened, and you dwell forever in the midst of our risen Lord, who loves you with a power we cannot possibly comprehend. How can we not rejoice, through our tears?

I think about all you’d endured — a decade wandering the streets of New York, the emptiness of despair, breathlessness, countless hospital stays when a normal life seemed out of reach — and I’m grateful to God for bringing you home, to reside with Him. But then I think of those same moments, and of how you saw God at work in all your sufferings, and I swell with gratitude that God gave us you. We were honored to share our table with you for a few precious years (especially when you brought fried chicken. . . your cooking undoubtedly exceeded mine). In everything you did, and to everyone whom you touched, you were a living witness to God’s faithfulness and goodness. When a good Samaritan rescued you from the streets after a suicide attempt, you saw God at work. When an inability to breathe forced you into the hospital yet again, you seized the opportunity to proclaim the Gospel to the woman cleaning the bathroom, and the roommate coughing from across the curtain. You sent prayers of praise to our church — to those who should have been loving on you! — from your hospital bed, rejoicing in God’s good work in all things.  I studied and worked in medicine for fourteen years, and never in all that time did I see people respond to sickness with such praise for God.

For you, to live was to proclaim God’s love for us in Christ Jesus. There was no living, without witnessing.

And that witness, my dear friend, will continue to reverberate through the lives you’ve touched, circling out like ripples on the water, drawing all nearer to the solid rock of Christ. Bean has been sleeping with your memorial card hugged near her heart. For all of us gifted to know you, a corner of our hearts will forever bear your imprint.

You asked us to sing Blessed Assurance at your funeral. We rest in the blessed assurance that you now reside with our heavenly Father, freed from the toils of this world. Through your witness, we further lean into our own blessed assurance that in Christ, we too have a home in heaven. And we too will join you one day, and also see God’s glory filling His temple, enfolding us in a love we cannot fathom.

Until that day, we thank God for our days with you here on this earth. We thank Him for you, dear friend. We thank you for the love you showed us while you walked with us. And while our hearts ache to see you again, and the tears sting anew each morning, through the blessed assurance of the Gospel we know we will see you again. We love  you and miss you, and yet we smile because we know you rejoice with Jesus. And for His grace, we sing, “Halleluia!”


9 Comments Add yours

  1. shauna says:

    Sorry for your earthly loss, but what a witness! Thank you for sharing your friend’s story.


    1. Katie Butler says:

      Thank you so much Shauna.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Mariellen says:

    I’m so thankful you were able to write and express, in such beautiful tones, the legacy your friend left as well as the glory he is experiencing in Christ now.


    1. Katie Butler says:

      Thank you Mariellen. Blessings to you.


  3. Pamela says:

    Thank you, thank you for sharing, Katie. The ripples of Witness are flowing, and being received. To Witness again.


    1. Katie Butler says:

      Thank you Pamela.


      1. Melissa says:

        Reading these words that were penned in grief about grief and loss is absolutely liberating and emotionally releasing. Praise God for the steadfast hope we have even in times of grief. Thank you for still pointing us towards the cross during this aching moment of your life journey.


  4. Melissa says:

    I really enjoy reading all your posts. Have been blessed by them in many ways. Each posts are so finely articulated.
    Wishing you could post more, but no pressure.
    Thank you


    1. Katie Butler says:

      Thank you so much Melissa! Blessings to you and yours this Good Friday.


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