My first memories of my Uncle Randy involve camping. My siblings and I would be just beginning to stir in our tent, and we would hear Randy rustling around in the campsite, getting the coffee going and singing his own version of a coffee brand jingle — “Coffee’s perking and Randy’s lurking.”
I couldn’t fully know the influence a long-distance uncle had in my life until he was gone. Last week he passed away unexpectedly. He never came home from work to the soup my aunt made for dinner.
I feel the sorrow of my uncle’s death more than past losses. Perhaps part of this is that I have been fortunate to enjoy extended time with many of my relatives. The grandparents I grew up knowing have lived long lives. But my uncle’s death hits closer to home. He’s only two years older than my dad. My cousins, who are my age, have lost their dad. And although I know many lose a parent much earlier in life, it’s still an abrupt parting.
But isn’t it always? Clearly, death is not God’s original plan. You feel that keenly when you lose someone you love. Though I can rejoice for my uncle, who knew Jesus, it still messes up so much here. Some things can never be made right again in this life.
A Different Sort of Grief
I celebrated Uncle Randy’s life with my family over the weekend, and while there were tears, there was also laughter. My uncle, who was the ultimate joker, would have loved that. But as I enjoyed the warmth and love of family, I would suddenly be reminded that one of us was missing. These moments served as a cruel reminder that I have no control over how long my loved ones will be with me, that I can’t even assume they will be there for what I deem an appropriate amount of time.
At the same time, it is true that those who know Christ grieve differently. We do not grieve as those who have no hope, Paul says (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14). And I felt that deeply as we celebrated my uncle’s life.
Nearly 1,000 people attended his funeral. He was a teacher in the same community for many years, and his impact was widely felt. Through the tributes and testimonies, it was clear that my uncle lived the Gospel. In fact, after becoming a believer as a young man, he was the first to tell my father about Christ.
Leading the Way
Despite the rich legacy Uncle Randy leaves, his death is still a horribly sad disruption — for those of us on earth. Paul wrote:
For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account” (Philippians 1:21-24).
What happened last Friday was a net gain for my Uncle Randy. Years of fruitful labor have done their work and will continue to pay off for many generations to come. But it was a loss for those who love him — people like his devoted wife, three children, six grandchildren, brothers, nieces and nephews, and so many friends. Today it seems fitting that he was always the first one out of the tent on those family campouts. Uncle Randy is now exploring the presence of God — just ahead of the rest of us.