One of the great privileges of my vocation is getting to meet extraordinary people and be a part of the significant moments in their lives: weddings, funerals, celebrations, commemorations, hospital rooms, and even shanties in the outlands of Africa. Taya and I have been blessed to be witness to people of great spirit in defining moments.
Proverbs 22:29 says: “Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will serve before kings…”
I wouldn’t presume to call myself “skilled” in my own work, and on the contrary I consider my talents, whatever they may be, to be quite modest. But I’ve often reflected on this verse when I’ve found that my music and ministry have brought me before remarkable people of kingly character. I’ve talked in other blogs about being invited to visit and sing for a woman affectionately known as the “Queen of Iowa”–a name coined by Andrew Peterson in his song he wrote about her–whose throne is a couch andwhose attendant is her husband who has cared for her every need for several years as she
battles both cancer and the HIV that she contracted when she was raped. Andy Gullahorn and Jill Phillips have also recorded a song about her that describes her situation this way:
Jody is a queen reigning prone upon a couch
For the past few years of numbered days
Because the virus in her body and the cancer in her brain
Are buying up the real estate
The medicine they give her trades nightmares for her dreams
Of memories too tragic to describe
But I believe
Though it’s hard sometimes
You are the Resurrection and the Life…
When Taya and I visited Jody and her husband John, the presence of God was palpable and with it a surety that we were witness to something holy. I sang my songs during which she opened her eyes and spoke her first words in several months. “I love you” she said to John, and then: “music, music, music…” before falling silent again.
I’m convinced that neither I nor my music are worthy to be audience to such beautiful moments as these, but I receive them like grace and with gratitude.
I had a similar experience recently when I was invited to the home of a couple in the Twin Cities to do a house concert for a gathering of their friends and family. Tom and Debra lost their 8 year old boy Ian to cancer a year ago on the 19th, making the day of my concert with them the 1 year anniversary of his passing. Rather than a day of mourning, they decided to claim the day as a time to celebrate the life of their little boy with friends, family, and a musician who didn’t feel qualified to be there and instead felt like he might be in over his head in the deep end of the pool.
The way they have walked out their journey is remarkable, and in their living room where nearly 80 0f us were all crowded together, we got a glimpse of a faith and a hope that has weathered the worst kind of storm. Could I weather such a tragedy so well? How would I do losing one of my boys? I barely have the strength to even ask that question…
But who knows what grace may come to us when it comes our time to face our own personal tragedies? I can only hope I would walk through them with such dignity.
Frederick Buechner reminds us in his memoir Telling Secrets that “you have to suffer to be beautiful.” The beauty of Tom and Debra’s faith is that where so many people deny their pain or run from it, they run right through it and invite us to be a part of their journey. They showed us that there is Grace to carry you through great difficulty and a Hope waiting on the other side of the loss. The God they speak of is made more real and believable to us who are blessed to know them. Again, when I’m with them, I sense I’m in the presence of something holy. They know something of God’s grace that I don’t know. They brought me in to “minister”, but theirs is the real ministry.
They endeavored to raise money for a clean water well in Africa in memory of Ian, and by the time of the night I was with them, they had raised enough for three wells! (if you’d like to contribute, here’s a link to the project as well as more of Ian’s story: http://www.firstgiving.com/ianthomashenderson)
Debra told me the story of how after his radiation treatment one day, they went to pack food in containers for a ministry that feeds the poor. Weakened and tired from the treatments, Ian packaged the food all the same telling his mom, “Jesus is happy that we’re doing this.” At 7 years old, he already understood serving the poor as an expression of worship, a worship that his parents are carrying on as part of Ian’s legacy.
They also told the story of how they stood with him on top of Grandfather Mountain after his diagnosis and she said “Ian, you know, God can move mountains”, he said, “Oh, I’m so glad I got to see them before He moved them!”
In the words of his mother: “The Lord Jesus called Ian’s name in February last year at the age of 7 years, 7 months and he flew Home. He was sick, but now he’s healed & safe for all eternity. As much as we miss him, we couldn’t wish for better than that for our dear Ian whose name means ‘God is gracious.’”
And so we gathered to sing songs and celebrate “God is gracious” in a living room in the Twin Cities.
At the funeral of a friend of mine once, I said of her that she was always “so full of life that she made death unbelievable.” In the short span of days he walked the earth, you could say the same thing about Ian.
I opened up the concert that night with the Easter hymn, “I Know My Redeemer Lives” of which my favorite line is:
He lives to grant me daily breath
He lives and I shall conquer death…
I believe it.
Jason Gray is a recording artist with Centricity Records. His latest single, out now, is "When I Say Yes".