Manic-depressives normally aren’t good role models; but Mike was a dreamer who changed his world – and mine.
A man of faith, but no great saint, Mike was well aware of his faults. While the family would joke that “when they made Dad they threw away the man and kept the mould;” they loved him deeply.
With one daughter and two sons, he and Betty had adopted a second girl. And years later, when a neighbouring mother could not cope with newborn twins, they and another church family stepped up to foster them.
Everyone knew who belonged where, and the twins’ birth family kept in touch. Mike and Betty and Dan and Selma – the second couple - played no heroics about their arrangement and the church family backed them with their nourishment and support.
Around the church, we often trembled at the sudden energy of Mike’s highs – up past kite-level - when nothing could stand in his way. And when his lows took him lower than a pregnant ant, he could still discern God’s grace protecting him in the fold.
But against his scattered backdrop of jobs and failed business ventures, his dream of building a two-level house saw him snap up an elevated allotment that sloped towards the lake in the middle of town.
The architect’s plan featured large windows overlooking the lake: revealing its morning light; or its midday sparkle being scuffed by surface breezes; or golden sunsets with reflections enmeshed in the trees along its western shoreline
After engaging a builder, Mike kept his costs down by personally digging, sawing, hammering, climbing ladders, mixing concrete for the paths and setting out the garden. He followed through on the input of each of the different tradespeople; for night-security work freed his afternoons to keep things rolling. He accepted my progress-checking visits as offers to be his go-to man for tools or materials, or to lift or hold: “After all, pastor, your boss knows so much about carpentry - from way, way back!”
Throughout the project his highs and lows evened out, and one day he was quietly glowing as we filled the gaps between newly-laid plaster wallboards: “God keeps blessing us, and we want to dedicate our house to him when it’s finished!”
A few short weeks later, they hosted a memorable church family celebration that overflowed with generosity and a deep sense of God’s pleasure.
Six months later, Mike was diagnosed with leukaemia - with a six-month prognosis.
We sat and waited.
We watched Mike get weaker.
Didn’t God know what he was doing?
Yet our search for God’s presence underneath all those questions was a life-changing experience for his family; for our church family and as the nurses gave extra support for their colleague Jenny, who was Mike’s daughter.
Mike’s last two weeks saw real deterioration in his condition.
He was never a mountain of muscle. But now, entering his room, I saw he had become a shrunken physical parody of ashen skin stretched over bone. Unable to feed himself: with tubes, bags, catheters, drips and wires connected to monitors that scrawled and blipped coloured paths across the screens. All recorded on the charts that congregated at the foot of his bed.
As his pastor, I knew I had to encourage him. But how to be true to God’s promises; offer hope and still stay realistic?
Mike’s drawn features creased into a thin smile: “Pastor, it’s beautifully simple and it’s simply beautiful.”
Was he trying to comfort or protect Christian doctrine? Was he in denial? Was he trying to be brave?
But why try to prop up something that he knew was not true? For liars never make good martyrs!
We could get lost in intellectual questions that demean human pain for empty reasons.
It was impossible for anyone visiting Mike to ignore the strength that filled his room: strength that he was too weak to activate; and that we did not know how to manufacture. And why would we, when someone we loved was dying in such a physically-draining manner.
No theological study has ever fully encompassed for me how Mike was inviting us into God’s presence; preparing him and us for a new dimension of his grace that’s so good that our questions, our doctrines and our fears all evaporate in the wordless depth of its reality.
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