About a year ago, on a very common Sunday, we got to the part of the worship service where we were encouraged to pass the Peace to the people around us. This has always been one of your favorite times because it encourages the parts of being with people you really enjoy, like hugging and shaking hands. In particular, you always liked coming up to the main altar area where the Worship Team stands (and where we are marooned, due to the relatively short time span of the Peace) to hug and say hi to everyone on the team.
This particular Sunday, I noticed that someone was coming with you: Pastor Steve. Since he normally spent his Peace time in the pews, and because it was his last Sunday before a surgery to get some relief for a debilitating back injury, I hopped down the stairs to get to him before he started up, thinking that he probably had a question about the next few minutes of the service.
Instead, he reached out his hand. “Hey, your hair looks really nice today!”
I gave him a suspicious look as I took his hand; he had been making fun of my purple/pink hair since the day I first dyed it, usually prompting me to joke about whatever he was wearing in return.
“No really, its growing on me” he laughed.
“Well thanks!” I answered “Because it really *is* growing on me!” We laughed at my terrible joke, and then he turned back to the pews as I turned back to the band. Remembering what day it was, and how crazy things can get right after the service, I quickly turned around and called back to him.
“Hey, if I don’t see you again, good luck tomorrow! We will be praying for you.”
He smiled at me and said “Ha! You’d better see me again!”
But you know how this story goes.
That was the last time we saw him, and those were the last words that we were to exchange.
It is strange to realize that it was a year ago today that our friend and Pastor Steve Vineyard left this Earth suddenly and tragically. That under the massive pile of rubble left by a merciless year, the grief of this loss is still alive and well, undeterred by what has and will come of this world. I sang at his funeral. I wept at the unexpected gravity of the black veil across our pulpit. I have been to the place where his body rests in the ground several times.
But it still feels too cruel to be possible. Perhaps it is the relatively small amount of time I have spent at the church since his passing, but I still expect to find him there. Typing in his office, walking in the halls, playing the piano in the sanctuary.
You had experienced loss before, Danny, but never so unexpectedly. You had never been invited to such a heartbreak; a friend who was here one moment and gone the next. Not a long battle with illness, not an obvious period of physical decline. That it would only be another month before the world, and ultimately church, as we knew it would change was such a blessing.
After all, it is hard to know what you are mourning when the world is upside down. When your routines, your places and your people are reduced to a screen shot.
It took us awhile to convince you that Steve had not simply gone to Chesapeake to live with the Duncans, some of our best friends as well as the previous ministry leaders of our church. We knew you needed something tangible so we took you and your brother to see him. And, as we arrived at the cemetery, the reality crashed on you immediately like a rogue wave in calm water. You wanted to leave but we weren’t ready. You paced around the car by yourself, working through the things that only you know.
Steve had big shoes to fill in your mind; Pastor Randy was the minister you knew and when he left many of your favorite people in the world went with him. Steve would come up to you every Sunday and try to talk and for solid months, you ignored him. He never pushed you to like him, but he never gave up.
Often Steve would carry a very little Ezra around the sanctuary on Sunday afternoons as we chatted and got ready to go home. One day while we were at the playground waiting for your Dad, you turned to me and asked me why he wanted to carry Ezra “all the time”.
I answered that Pastor Steve’s kids had just left for college, and he missed them. You considered this quietly for a moment and then looked up at me with softness in your eyes.
“When Ryan left and I miss him.”
And there, in that common sadness, you found a path to a new friend.
What I wish you knew about Steve is how hard he worked for you, or more accurately, how much better your life is for how hard he worked for me. He challenged me in ways that I found infuriating for a long time because I wasn’t ready to hear him for what he was actually saying. I heard “I think you should be doing more, regardless of your situation” when what he was offering was that I should not be afraid of asking for help to do the things I feel called to do. He helped me find ways for you to connect and thrive at church, which allowed me to do more than I thought would be possible again for this perpetually exhausted and overextended Mom. He helped me realize I was not letting you down to occasionally pick up a flag and fight for a cause that wasn’t exclusively yours.
I told him that someone had once encouraged me to change my focus and accept help, saying that “in some seasons you are called to give, and in others you are called to receive.”
He thought for a minute. “I think that is true” he said, “but in most seasons, we are called to do both.”
If the first four years of your life, Danny, were about discovering Autism and what it is, every moment since has been about coming to terms with what it isn’t. It always comes as a surprise when something I felt was balled up in disability’s tight fist can actually be untangled and recovered. Steve found us several years deep into steady and deliberate steps back; leaving two jobs and making countless changes to better manage Autism and what it was.
But then, those lunches at Mimi’s. Those conversations in empty pews and hallways.
The expectations he lovingly laid out like breadcrumbs for me.
He reminded me of something critical that Autism wasn’t: the end of my usefulness. The end of my ministry. If anything, it could be the beginning.
And let me tell you Danny, our friend Steve would hate “church on the TV” even more than you do. But I do hope we have made him proud. And when all of this is over; when the dove returns with the olive branch and we set foot on dry land, may we do so as better people than boarded the arc back in March. Let us take an example from Steve who, with his big smile and dry wit, was never afraid of an honest, fresh start. May we remember that the worst thing is never the last thing, and that this year was not meant to be the end of us.
If anything, it could be the beginning.