I am not a man of many fears. The slippery swoosh of a slithering snake would send a cascade of nerves showering down my spine. The soft dance of a spider would cause shivers to roll down the inside of my arms. A hooting owl, the snap of a dead twig, and a howling wolf are all things that are magnified by the darkness of the woods. They would make my ears twitch and my eyes search for their source. But I am not afraid of these things.
When I lie in bed at night I hear dripping water because my roommate has left the bathroom door cracked open. The air conditioner blows for hours, but the room is not cold. A steady rhythm of a blinking light illuminates my face from my laptop. These are the details I notice when fear keeps me up at night. These are the details I fix by crawling out from beneath my comforter, closing the door, and lowering the thermostat. I search the darkness for the shirt I left abandoned on the floor and throw it over the laptop before returning to my bed to think. A car drives up the hill into the parking lot and their headlights sweep through the windows making the shadows of my bamboo plants swerve across the ceiling.
In this silence, I feel the tension between who God wants me to become and the depression the other wants me to dwell in writhe beneath the skin on my hand. I feel it pull tight and release, leading me this way or that. Two options exist: a life full of mystery and promise or a life full of quiet and commonality. When pulled one way, I resist because my complacent faith is starting to be tested. I resist against the One who wants me to grow out of my complacency, the One I should be trusting. Fear is a lack of trust and I do not resist the common because I do not fear it even though it chokes and suffocates from the comfort of the closest couch. Fear overwhelms and awes so that it commands my entire attention. I suppose this attention is why God says to fear only Him. The quiet requires thinking through things instead of taking risks. Thinking through things is not bad, but the amount that fear commands sickens me. Fear drives me to inaction by making me act out everything in my mind; it leaves me exhausted.
I lie in the darkness and think of loneliness. Not the superficial loneliness that drives hormonally charged young adult relationships, but the loneliness that marks my influence on the world. A life without meaningful relationships in which I influence (and am influenced by) others on deep, metaphysical levels would be a terrible, shallow life that holds no importance once I’m gone. My fear is having an empty funeral.
I remember attending my first funeral. The trees were beautiful that day, the deepest shades of spring. They lined the edge of the perfectly hedged grass that covered the rolling slopes of the cemetery grounds, protecting this sacred place of memories from the sprawling shopping plaza on either side. I still hear the wind through their leaves when I think about it. Vibrant greens shone off the top of the leaves and when they shook, the contrast between that and the bottom dullness was dazzling. The blue sky was larger than ever before, reaching beyond the tree lines on both side of the cemetery. Soft, wispy clouds floated serenely over this place wedged in the middle of urban life. It felt wrong to experience such great loss on such a day as this.
I had finished crying before the funeral. My mom had come early to pray for the family, the friends, and the people in his congregation. I swallowed hard, like I understood eternity and death. The truth was that I didn’t know a thing at all. I had wanted to avoid this day at all costs. Experiencing death for the first time is never an experience one looks forward to, but to lose a mentor and father figure – Pastor Randy – is tougher than most, maybe save the closest of family members. I had sat on one of the neatly arranged white chairs watching these Godly men and women from my church pray, and I wept. I could not think about the other people affected, I could only think about my own personal loss. At thirteen you don’t realize the world doesn’t revolve around you.
They lifted his casket out of the hearse and I wished I was one of the eight bearers. In the three years I had known Pastor Randy, he had shown me how to live. I have tried to base my interactions with others on his kind mannerisms. His eyes were always bright and focused while he listened and I can hear his words of wisdom echo in my memory to this day. He was a strong counselor to someone just beginning to discover his true identity in growing up. The bearers walked slowly and respectfully, the crowd of almost three hundred watched in reverential silence, occasional muffled sobs adding sound to the whisper of the wind. My heart hurt. I saw his two daughters holding their mother and I remember thinking that I looked sadder than they did. They were older than I was by about six years. They probably had a better concept of eternity than I did. I still don’t understand it completely.
I don’t remember the service to this day. I just remember the massive group of people there whose hearts hurt just as much as mine did. I do remember how I heard about his death, though. My father took me to Miami to see a NASCAR race and I hate it more after seeing it live. Going to see the Homestead 400 was a quick weekend trip with him, some of his coworkers, and their sons. I have since lost the hat he bought me while there; I’d like to find it again someday. When your parents are divorced, you learn to cherish the memories you make with them by the little things you can keep with you since you have two homes. After a five-hour drive from the racetrack to meet mom in a desolate mall parking lot off the interstate, I got in the car with her to go to the house I primarily lived at. It was 11:37, the stars were not shining, and the moon was down. She didn’t start the car right away, but she did say: “He died this morning.”
Quiet crept in and for three days I hardly spoke. Tears never broke the fleshy dam of my lower eyelids. The last time I had seen Pastor Randy – coughing and lying in a hospital bed, frail like a dandelion in the wind, three days before his death – became an image in my dreams. He had told me once about not being there for his daughters and how that scared him; I still wonder how he dealt with this fear on his deathbed. The coughs echo down the corridors of my memory, seeing a man of strength in such a weakened state branded an image in my brain. The morning of the funeral came and I was still quiet.
I was standing in a long line of people to shovel dirt onto the casket when the tears came again. I do not like closure and have avoided it most of my life because of that moment. Finality scares me, yet every break since the first has been less painful, and for that I am thankful. The smooth wood of the shovel told stories of the numerous hands that had done this very act. I scooped up a shovel full of dirt and dropped it onto the red rose someone had thrown into the grave. The thought came that I would never sit down across from him at the dining room table to see his kind eyes or hear his understanding again.
This caused me to recall everything I had learned from him over the past three years. Pastor Randy took me aside once and explained the way a maturing young man should deal with his mother in the absence of a father in the home. The wisdom he discussed with me regarding the Scriptures made me begin to act according to the standards of God and act outside of myself with a larger vision for the world. The way he prayed for anyone who came to him with a need is something that I still emulate, whether for my closest friends or mere acquaintances. It made me curious if I would be able to make people step outside of themselves. It also made me curious how it would evolve in my life.
Why do men want to be known after they are gone? What drives us to want to be remembered? It is because our lives are so short. They say we are measured by what we do, but who is measuring us? In literature, characters often overcome their fears to do great and marvelous things. Aragorn takes up the sword of his lineage – the very thing he was afraid to follow because of the mistakes his ancestors had made – and frees the entire world from evil oppression. The wise and the mass population both measure him for his kindness and his wisdom, the same way I measured Pastor Randy. I cannot help but wonder how many people have not overcome their fears. I hope I can overcome my own.
The question then arises of how to leave my mark of kindness and maybe even wisdom on the world. Sadly, I am not the heir of an ancient throne in Middle-Earth nor am I a pastor. I am like Sam, the loyal gardener, or Moses, stuttering and nervous in front of people. I learned this in an unforgettable way. During the summer of 2010, I worked for a world-renowned evangelist. The youngest employee in company history, I was forced to discover a new work ethic to prepare the groundwork for this man to come in and share Christ and His grace. I was in charge of grassroots advertising and office management; my duties varied by the week. I would get nervous and stutter through the many phone calls I had to make to church secretaries and businessmen. Watching a refresher course on the counseling that takes place, my heart raced at the idea of sharing my faith and my jaw tensed. However, I felt God move while watching others being counseled, praying silently to myself for the decision they were making regarding their eternal soul. This was when eternity finally began to make sense to me.
Surrounded by thousands, I was listening to a worship song that followed the main message, and my sunglasses hid my eyes. They were watering and my shirt was littered with the drops that escaped the ledge of my eyelids. I asked God: “Who is my Aaron? How will I be able to express my faith? What is my witness?” My guitar lessons had produced little fruit beyond basic chord progressions, my oratory skills never developed, and I was never good enough to be of any note at athletics. I reached into my pocket and hit the pen I had kept there. I had been published twice, though, as a poet. It was not much, but it was a starting point. If I am to overcome my fear of being forgotten, I need to fix the emptiness of a blinking cursor on a word processor, I need to fix the pure emptiness of the page by staining it with the color of words. I can affect and influence people by the words I write. What will I write about?
The blankets are warm across my chest and I wiggle deeper into the pillows. I look up to see my bamboo plants waiting for dawn. An empty funeral can be filled with people that I influence with my own kindness and wisdom. Kindness can be portrayed without words, but wisdom needs an outlet. I sit up in bed and open my laptop to begin my search with a hunger for wisdom worth sharing.
Author’s Note: Written in 2010