Jake and decor

…And try to understand—at least that’s what the poet suggests that we do.  But really: what is there to understand?  Something horrible has happened; horrible things happen in our world.  They happen way too often; we witness them way too much.  Jake died far too young.  It is wrong on every conceivable level: he was smart, friendly, handsome, athletic, playful, clever, insightful, funny, kind, hopeful, and so in love with living life; he always saw the best in others.  And now he’s gone.  Another tragedy has darkened our world and crippled our lives.  What’s to understand about that?  As humans, we understand it all too well.   We witness it all too often.

Yet, as Jake’s family and friends, we gather here, in his church, the place where we are supposed to encounter God, a place where we desire, more than anything, to get answers, a place where heaven and earth touch, where the mystery of the divine is glimpsed and prayers are heard.  Here, today, we seek answers beyond what we can understand.  But if, by “answer” we mean explanation, I going to warn us to give up before we even begin because we’re asking the wrong questions—for the tragedies of this world cannot be explained.  We cannot begin to comprehend why cancers grow in some and not others, any more than we can explain why hearts stop or bullets fly in the direction of innocent victims, or cars wreck or children die, or why such a good kid we know and love is taken from us when he had a life of such great promise before him.  No, the tragedies of this life cannot be explained—at least not adequately enough for human comprehension.

But I want to remind you that there’s another definition for “answer.”  It also means response.  And to the tragedies of this life, God does give us a response.  He responded with His Word.  In the whole history of creation, God only spoke one word.  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  The birth of Christ, the light of the world was, and is, the only possible response to the darkness of the great sadness we now know.  So my singular message to you today is that God’s response is given to us each Christmas, if we can be open to it.  It continues with those who reflect Christ’s light and love.  It is seen in the response of friends who lift us out of our darkness, in parents who love their children and aren’t afraid to tell them so; it is seen in the response of parents who treasure every moment they have with their kids and encourage them to pursue their hopes and follow their dreams; it is seen in the response of friends who look out for one another, who shave their heads when their classmate is going through chemotherapy to remind him that he isn’t alone, the same friends who are there years later, day after day, as he grows weak and is dying, because they want him to know that he’s never alone; it is seen in the response of friends and strangers who want to do whatever they can to show they care: bringing meals, decorating his room and their house, stopping in to say “We love you—we’re praying for you;” it is seen in the response of his sister, who gave up the college experience of moving away so she could stay beside her brother and who never left his side; it is seen in the response of his parents who nurtured him with a love beyond all telling, who smiled for him each day and who fought the good fight right there with him every step along the way, but who cried themselves to sleep every night because they don’t know how to live without him.

Charles Dickens once wrote: “When death strikes down the innocent and the young—for every fragile form, from which He lets the panting spirits free, a hundred virtues will rise up, in shapes of mercy, charity and love; they will walk the earth and they will bless it.”  Jake’s spirit will also rise up in a hundred virtues that you do not now know—maybe a thousand or even a million.  It will inspire you in many unforeseen ways; it may guide you to be more vigilant in fighting cancer, more virtuous in loving children, more interested in meeting new people, more merciful in dealing with those who are down, more charitable in reaching out to those who suffer unfairly, and more patient in family interactions.  Jake has already inspired myriads of people: strangers on airplanes, volunteers at Children’s Mercy, patients at MD Anderson, old friends in Blue Springs, new friends in Houston.  He will continue to inspire you in the hundreds of virtues that will rise up because you knew him and because he will remain with you.

There are so many virtues to remember about Jake.  Remember how, as a little kid, he used to walk around on his toes, so full of energy and always on the go.  Remember his devilish smile, his impish grim that made you think he was always up to something.  Remember that often he was!  Some recently discovered video reveals him performing magic tricks: appearing and disappearing, floating in the back yard, hoisted by young friends behind invisible wires, lighting his shoes on fire in the garage (and his friend, too); later it was revealed that they were his dad’s shoes—he never used his own.  Remember his days in little league, his super bowl championship when he was twelve, his high school years as a Wildcat and fun times from freshman football to senior homecoming king, his days at Mizzou and his frat brothers at ATO.  Remember his quick wit, clever comebacks, and tremendous sense of humor.  Remember how he used that humor to put others at ease, making it so very comfortable to be around him—even if he wasn’t feeling well.  Remember how easily he would meet new people, strike up conversations, develop friendships and show empathy to others.  Remember how he always attracted friends—some much older than him, like a couple in Houston in their golden years where the man was taking care of his dying wife; they all became immediate friends; some much younger, like Ashton and the other children he worked with here, as well as at Kid’s Country and Primetime; some like Joe, Chris, Kelsey, Bryce, Darrin, who each considered him their best friend.  The Bible says that those who find a true friend have found life’s greatest treasure—it is a gift more precious than either silver or gold—how lucky you were to find it!  Remember how he knew no stranger, from Sherry and Charlie and the girls he met in an Irish Pub in Houston, to the ways he’d walk in on family reunions—even one of an entirely black family.  He didn’t return for three hours; when he did he said, “Well, Mom, it took them a little while to warm up to me…”  The next morning, Jane kept running into people who were asking for Jake and saying “He’s part of our family now.”  Remember his taste in music, from Johnny Cash to Dean Martin, and his enjoyment of Saint Paddy’s Day: an old soul with a refreshing spirit.  Remember his kindness and sensitivity, like on Thanksgiving Day, after they received the fatal news and the hospital was eerily empty, he said, “I feel sorry for that poor lady, having to work on Thanksgiving.”  Remember his love for family, for his grandparents, and how he wanted to speak at his Grandfather Stan’s funeral last year.  That was such an important thing for him to do—both because of their unique bond and, perhaps, because he had a premonition about the world beyond and how one man’s death can bring life to so many.









He and I spoke about that a few times over the past years.  We pondered the eternal questions and discussed the mystical possibilities.  The most difficult conversation we had was many months ago when he told me that he knew he was dying, and he knew that his parents also knew, but they hadn’t said it to one another yet.  He was such a fighter and wasn’t going to give up—but he asked the doctors to be honest with him.  And they were.  All he could say, over and over that day, was that he didn’t want to be the cause of his parent’s sadness.  He loved them and Ali so much; all he could think about was their feelings and breaking their hearts.  He eventually came to realize that the only way it could not hurt so badly would be if they did not love so deeply—and he would not want to trade away their love for anything.  Soon thereafter, he went to Houston.  Instead of being angry, he thanked the oncologist: “You bought me some extra time—I will use it well.”  And he did!  His humor kicked in again.  When his hair started to grow in spotty, patchy, he joked with Dr. Anderson, saying: “Is there anything you can do to even it out for me?”  The doctor said: “Jake, the only thing I’ve got is more chemo; you’ll be totally bald again.”  Jake said, “That ought to do it!”  When they had done all they could do there, he was put on a plane to come back home.  Though he was in great pain that final day, he took time before departing to thank everyone for helping him as best they could.

Curt, you and Jake maxed out in the ways that few fathers and sons do.  In this society where so many young men experience a failure to launch, just boys adrift without purpose, you built a son who did not choose the path of ease or comfort but met every challenge with strength of character and compassion for those who are not as tough as him.  He was strong enough to know his own weaknesses and brave enough to face himself in the dark moments when he was most afraid.  You built a son that was honest and proud, gentle and humble, one whose goals were high and whose heart was clear, who learned to laugh without forgetting how to weep.  He once told his uncle that you are the person in this world that he admires most because of your strong work ethic and kind heart.  From the first moment you set eyes on him and held him in your arms twenty two years ago to last week, when you held him in your arms again, you built a relationship that few fathers and sons attain.

Jane, in this holy season of Christmas, when Mother Mary brought forth her first born son, she was told that a sword of sorrow would pierce her heart, and that, in him, she would realize her greatest hopes and deepest fears.  In the manger scene her infant’s arms were outstretched on the wood of the crib—a foretelling that one day his arms would be outstretched on the wood of the cross, reminding us that from his moment of birth to his moment of death, he measured his love—the width, the length, the height, the depth, and the breath of true love.  The scene of the pieta reminds us of a mother’s love.  You never left his side: the hospitals, the hotels, the long journeys, the trips, the trials, the clinics, the consultations, the airplanes, the ambulances, the questions, the qualifying drugs, your greatest hopes, and your deepest fears.  I know that there is nothing more difficult in life for a mother than to bury her own child.  He kept calling out for you: “Mom…mom…I just want make sure you’re all right.”  You were never far away.  I suspect that he’ll keep calling out for you, because he’ll want to keep making sure that you’re all right; and, like before, he’ll never be far away. 

Don’t forget to remember his laughter.  I recall a year or two ago when a doctor suggested that you fatten up Jake, so you kept feeding him.  Recalling a nursery rhyme you used to tell, he said: “Gosh mom, what do you want to do, eat me?”  Last week at Hospice House, when he asked the doctor how long before he would die, the doctor said it would be soon but that he’d be given a medicine to make him more comfortable; the doctor said he could take one or two glasses and that it would taste like wine, to which Jake said, “In that case, I’ll take two.”  In his final days at home, when he was sleeping most hours of the day, so tired, so weak, but still wanting to know a few more things about Jesus, or what his body would be like in heaven, or whether he could meet someone there and get married, I spoke about what the Bible tells us and what we know from revelation; as I spoke he kept nodding off but, at one point, he opened his eyes and gave me that million-dollar smile that we all know—more of a smirk—and said: “I think I missed some of that—but I can’t be the first person that ever slept through one of your sermons, can I?”  I assured him, he wasn’t.  Jane—when I think of you caring for Jake, staying awake and holding his hand while he slept, I recall the words of William Shakespeare: “Good night, my sweet prince, may the flight of the angels watch over you while you rest.”

Ali, I know that you don’t regret not going to Springfield in August.  You wanted to be, and needed to be, close for your brother.  You paid attention to the hundred little details that would make him more comfortable.  You slept in the bed next to his; whether midnight or 3:00 a.m., if he woke, you would wake.  If he needed a glass of water, you jumped out of bed to get it; you tried to anticipate anything else that might help.  If he inadvertently pushed away the oxygen hose, you knew how to adjust it, or his pillow, or anything else to make it easier.  I think that what is even more beautiful than your desire to remain by his side was his willingness to let you be his chief nurse, not to mention his desire that you share every moment together that you could. This may seem stupid or even inappropriate to say, but I want to say that some day you will get married; and the man you choose to marry will eventually become like a son to your parents.  I believe that Jake will help you find your soul mate and will help to regain happiness for you and your family.  Though none of us now knows who your husband will be—and it won’t happen for a long time—I will begin praying for him now, that he will understand how wonderful is this family that he will one day join.

It was on the darkest day of the year, last week, when he told the three of you the words that you dreaded to hear: “It’s time—I need to go to the hospital.”  And the next day, at Hospice, he said: “You’ve got to let me go now.”  You had no idea how dark that darkness could be.  But, I wonder, is it possible to discover light in the darkness?  Dare you find hope in your sorrow?  Dare we sing our Christmas Hallelujah today?  The Hallelujah song that Jake liked speaks of dreams, some realized and some broken, how a young man and future king is favored by God and given a secret chord to compose a heavenly sound, but all it adds up to is a broken Hallelujah; he has earthly desires and heavenly aspirations, a faith that is strong; but he needs more.  Rather than just a maybe, he seeks proof that there’s a God, though somehow he instinctively knows that the place that calls him is a place he’s been before, and that even though we think we know what’s real, there exists a reality that is even more real than ours.  Jake’s life was, in some ways, spent composing his own Hallelujah, the chord that he struck pleased the Lord.  Our conversations about life and the eternal questions often ended by admitting that in our human limitations, we cannot understand.  But our “I don’t know” was always a faith-filled “I don’t know;” it was a broken Hallelujah; like the shattered fragments of colorful stained-glass windows, light enters and dispels our darkness; and in our earthen brokenness there is still a celestial Hallelujah sound. 

It’s true that nobody knows how to fix what has happened.  The only cure for our pain and sadness is the gift of one another: the laughter of friends, the goodness of family, the memories of Jake, the stories we tell, his spirit that lives on in our hearts, the grace of God and the possibility that something far greater than we can imagine is in store for us.  In our search for meaning, in our desire for answers, in our tears, we pause on our journey, sit down with our friends and help them.  We hold each other up when we can, we lean on each other if we have to, or we just put our arms around them and cry about it together.

Good night, sweet prince, may the flight of the angels watch over you while you now rest, as you sleep in heavenly peace.


shamrock and peace sign
Jake with Fr.Don, friends
shamrock, peace sign