If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
[Romans 14:8-9 NRSV]
When a friend dies, someone whom you have known nearly all your life, it’s like a part of you has died as well. Such was the case on the evening of July 3, 2017, when I learned of the death of Ronnie Spencer.
After the initial shock, the sadness set in. A more accurate description would be pain, numbness. Automatically, my mind raced through a series of flashbacks. The memory bank was in highly active mode, recalling all the time we spent together.
My family moved to Clairton, Pennsylvania when I was in the sixth grade. I can’t recall how Ronnie and I met, but he and I and a couple other friends — Stew Johnson and Bo Webb — became nearly inseparable. A few years later, Ronnie’s family moved from Park Avenue to Millvue Acres, a housing project where we lived. Our apartments were in the same building. I spent about as much time at his house as he spent at mine.
As high school graduation was approaching, we even considered joining the navy together. My mother would have none of it, so that idea ended quickly. I went off to college, he became a sailor.
Back in those days, mail was the only form of social media we had. I lived life on the high seas vicariously through his letters, envious of his travels and all that he was seeing of the world – Guantanamo, the Gulf of Tonkin, the Mediterranean. That was heady stuff for a guy in his late teens. Ronnie wrote often, and he would include photos and postcards whenever possible.
He wound up in San Diego, and ultimately, Hawaii, where he lived until his death. His trips home were rare, but we would try to connect whenever he got back to the mainland. We last laid eyes on each other at his mother’s 90th birthday celebration in July of 2016.
But we called each other faithfully on our birthdays – he would call me on October 31, I would call him on December 31.
Last March, my wife was at a Peace Corps reunion in Hilo. She called him to see whether they could get together, but he wasn’t able to make it. In our last conversation, we were hoping to see each other this summer. Obviously, that won’t happen either.
A couple months ago, Ronnie’s sister, Anita, had let me know that he had been diagnosed with a rare blood cancer that was incurable, but treatable. The “treatable” part buoyed our optimism. The miracles of modern medicine have extended many a life beyond expectancy. This time, such was not the case.
These are the deaths that test one’s faith.
As one whose vocation entails consoling others in their time of grief, I have said more than my share of words of reassurance and comfort to individuals and families whose loved ones have died. I encourage them to trust in God’s promise of life eternal; that, as the apostle Paul tells us, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” [Romans 8:18]
But, who comforts the comforter? This is one of those days where my confidence in all that I proclaim confronts the reality of my pain. No words, no matter how eloquent, can fill the void that has been created like a crater in my soul.
I know that time is a great healer. I can only allow that to happen and pray that I, along with Ronnie’s family, can be lifted out of sorrow and into the peace of God’s abiding presence.
O God of grace and glory, we remember before you today our brother Ronnie. We thank you for giving him to us to know and to love as a companion in our pilgrimage on earth. In your boundless compassion, console us who mourn. Give us faith to see that death has been swallowed up in the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ, so that we may live in confidence and hope until, by your call, we are gathered to our heavenly home in the company of all your saints; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen
[A prayer from Evangelical Lutheran Worship]