On January 5, 2007, my son Justin was swept off of a 70 foot cliff by an avalanche. He died twenty minutes later and I lost a dear friend, a courageous advocate, and one of the great joys of my life. He was a phenomenal skier who would regularly do backflips off of cliffs in the back country of Colorado and Wyoming and wherever else the powder was calling. He skied with the best in that sport and received endorsements from several companies as a result of some incredible feats captured on film.
He also had the tender spirit of an artist and grew up beside me in my workshop. He and I worked together for most of his 25 years - building toys at first, and then artwork and many of my clients have purchased his carvings through the years.
Justin and I enjoyed the creative process and thinking outside the box. When it came time to eulogize my son at the memorial service, I suspected that he would want me to do something out of the ordinary. I could have glorified him, I suppose. But what made him special was the depth of his conversations, the origin of his values, and the nature of our shared faith. So this 'eulogy' is my feeble attempt to capture those things that we had together and to give voice to his passion for the restorative and redemptive power of God in the lives of ordinary people.
Justin, I love you. You are a man of power and integrity. You honored your Maker in all that you did and because of our shared hope, I long for the day when I'll see you again. Nothing here could match that joy. This is for you... and the Lover of our Souls.
I would like to honor my son by telling you about the last time that I saw him and a conversation that we had. Justin had been working on a collection of short stories on the topic of ‘exile' and in particular, that kind of exile that we impose on ourselves when we've been hurt and we make a conscious decision to choose protection over intimacy. So we talked about this and also about integrity and courage and what it means to not just stand up for what's right - regardless of the consequences, but also to look deep inside ourselves to see what kind of gunk might lay there. We acknowledged that this kind of courage is probably the hardest kind to practice. We talked about how difficult it is for someone who's been crushed or wounded or damaged in some way to engage in any self-examination because it's almost unbearable to look within when we aren't sure about our own value. And so our conversation led to the topic of human value, what determines it, and those ultimate questions in life: “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” and “Where am I going?”
We were working in my studio, sculpting gravestones with sayings on them and we realized that there are certain times in our lives when we are more likely to ask those ultimate questions. The first time is when we are in our early twenties - just heading out in life. We are aware of our gifts and talents but they are largely untested. There's anxiety but there's also optimism and idealism. We figure that even if we screw up, there's still time to fix things. But we wonder what our worth is determined by. Is it based upon what we can produce or how much we can earn or is it based on something else?
A few years pass and suddenly, we find ourselves in a mid life crisis, and those haunting questions return. Now we have teenagers, and they're telling us that we're boring and that we need to “get a life.” We answer: “I'd like to get a life but I have all these obligations.” But we know they're right. We know we're stuck in a mundane rut and there's this hole in us - it's empty and we need to fill it with something. We look back at our lives and we see that we've reached some of our goals but there are a lot of other goals that we thought we would have reached by now. Maybe one of our parents has died and we are painfully aware of our own mortality. For some, a panic sets in and they say, “I will never be young again.” We may begin to do stupid things like buy a red sports car or look for joy in the wrong places and all the while, this hole in us is growing and we hear the sad refrain from that U2 song playing over and over again in our heads: “…but I still haven't found what I'm looking for…”
The next time we consider these questions is when disaster strikes. We lose a loved one or we watch as jetliners slam into the World Trade Center and thousands of people are incinerated within minutes. Church bells ring in New York City and long dormant cathedrals fill up suddenly with people all wondering the same things: “Who am I - really? Why am I here - really? Where am I going - really?”
I remember just after 9/11 watching a guy interviewed on television. He was just standing on the streets of New York City - like one who had nowhere to go. He had been an investment broker who had developed a successful business that had been located in one of the Twin Towers - on a floor that had taken a direct hit. He was late for work that day and escaped, but all of his life's work and all of his colleagues were gone. He was just standing there shaking his head saying, “All my life I pursued money and defined myself by the accumulation of wealth and now I see it's meaningless.” He then asked, “How am I going to define myself now?”
The last time that we ask those ultimate questions is at the end of our own lives. We may have a terminal illness or maybe we are 90 years old and healthy like my Mom but we know that life doesn't go on forever. Now those haunting questions are rephrased. Now we ask, “Who was I? Why was I here? Where will I be going?”
My Dad died in 1988. He was a phenomenal artist and received the praise and affirmation of many all his life and when he died, he left some of his best paintings to his family. After the funeral, my Mom said to me, “Dad left all these paintings but…what am I going to leave?” I answered, “Mom, you nurtured us and adored us. That's worth more than all the artwork in the world.” When I was telling this to Justin he made a comment. He said, “Sometimes I think we're all just slabs of meat marinating in a culture of emptiness and it's the kind of emptiness that tells us that the tangible is more valuable than the divine.” Even when we are rock solid - even when we are on a strong foundation, we can be consumed at times by self-doubt. At times like these, we just wonder, “Did I matter?” I think my Mom's question gives voice to one of the deepest longings in our hearts. Does my life have significance? Is there any meaning to it at all? …or is this just a cosmic crap shoot?
As our conversation progressed, Justin and I began to ask what really determines our significance and our value? Is it only based on how well we perform in the classroom or the boardroom, or the courtroom, or the bedroom? Or is it based on something else and if so, what? Then I told him about one of the most important experiences of my life involving his sister, Emily. It was 1992 and I had just completed 15 years of successes and I was feeling pretty proud of myself. But then I set a moderate goal and failed completely in a very public and humiliating way. I was angry at myself and angry at a few people who had prevented me from reaching that goal and I was in a deep blue funk for about a year, wondering, “What's it all about anyway?”
Then one night, Emily asked me to tuck her in bed, so I did. She was just three years old then. I read her a story and prayed with her and turned the light out. But she said, “Daddy, will you stay with me for a while until I fall asleep?” So I did. I climbed under the covers and put my head on her pillow - our noses were only inches apart. She was looking at my face but I was being a space cadet. I was wondering, “Why does God love any of us? Why does He see us as valuable? What is it?” I knew that God wasn't impressed by our performances. I knew that it had to be something else. I knew that he cared for the vulnerable and the weak and the afflicted and the widow and the orphan and people who weren't doing too well. He loved little Zacchaeus up in the sycamore tree - even while that tax collector exploited his own people and betrayed his nation for an occupying power. And yet Jesus called him down from the tree and wanted to transform his life.
So why does God care? I was thinking these thoughts when all of a sudden, Emily called to me: “Daddy. Daddy.” Earth to Daddy. Back then she had the habit of sandwiching my face between her hands when she wanted to get my attention and so she did that and I said, “What, Emmy?” Then she took her two index fingers and stuck them up her nose and said, “Do this.” So I stuck my fingers up my nose - which sent her into hysterics. But I just looked at her and thought, “Boy, do I love this little girl.” I thought, “I just adore her. I'd do anything for her. I'd go into a burning building. I'd die. I wouldn't want to live without any of my children.”
Then suddenly I remembered that Emily wasn't always a very good performer. Just a few days earlier, she had taken a green magic marker with indelible ink and drawn a picture on the brand new wall-to-wall carpet in her bedroom. One week before that, my wife and I had parked a new Honda Civic in the driveway and Emmy had taken a stone and scratched a smiley face in the side of the car. But I was looking at this giggling girl with her fingers up her nose and I thought, “I don't care about the carpet and I don't care about the car. What I care about is that I adore her and she adores me and there's this fulfillment that comes from intimacy that beats everything. It suddenly dawned on me that that's why God values us. That's why God made us. That's why God put us here. He wants to adore you and He wants to be adored. That hole in us is going to be empty until we get it - until we understand that there's something that transcends the red sports car or whatever else that we put into our lives to ease the pain. He desires us and once we understand that, suddenly those ultimate questions aren't just questions anymore - they are personal invitations that have been hard-wired into our souls by God himself - inviting us to draw close to the only One who can satisfy us forever.
But as soon as Justin and I considered these things, we both realized that there's a huge problem. The problem is that none of us is three years old anymore and anyone who's spent any length of time in this world has been damaged by it. When that happens, we often choose exile. We choose a fortress. We choose to isolate ourselves. We don't act like happy little three year olds anymore.
Some of the people that Justin loved the dearest were people who had been raised by alcoholics. They had learned at an early age to avoid emotional pain at all costs. They would say, “I'm not damaged. I'm not wounded. I'm actually stronger because of what I've been through.” Meanwhile, all their friends saw them as wounded creatures on the jungle floor - fluffing up their feathers and raising the fur on their backs - trying to look bigger than they were. Some of them had all the sex they could ever hope to have but they never knew intimacy because that would mean baring their souls and not just their bodies. But sometimes, out of all that emptiness and misery and solitude and isolation, we hear an iconoclastic voice pleading and calling to us, “What you call safe isn't really safe.” And we hear the inaugural words of Christ saying, “The Spirit of God is upon me to proclaim release to the captives…and to set at liberty those who have been bruised.”
Justin and I then talked about what that liberty looks like. I heard from one of his friends who told me that when my son was in a pub in Wyoming, he stood up on a table and began to make fun of himself. He was just laughing at his insecurities and inadequacies and he got everyone else laughing. By the time the experience was over with, people thought, “This guy is pretty cool. He's letting down his guard and being real with us and maybe it's safe to do the same with him.” Guys became buddies. There was a sense of community and there was grace.
Sometimes I think that the real reason that we toss God from our lives is because we're completely terrified of the freedom that He offers. It's the freedom to stand up on a table and be real. It's the freedom to go to another person and say, “I'm sorry. I was wrong. Would you forgive me?” It's the freedom to let go of our rage and forgive others. It's the freedom to have that kind of intimacy that we were created for - both with others and with our Maker.
Justin was known for living life to the fullest. I think if he were here today, he would want to say to anyone who is terrified of that freedom, “What could be more terrifying than a life of cowardice? What could be more tragic than knowing that there may be loved ones who have desired us their whole lives but never got to have us because we withheld our souls from them - fearful of being fully known?” I think he'd say, “What could be more hopeless than entering eternity trapped in a cage - a cage of our own making, emptied of God, emptied of intimacy, and emptied of all meaning?” I know from numerous conversations with my son that he wanted something more. He was willing to sacrifice himself - sacrifice his ego and be real to get it. He heard the voice of God calling to him: “Come away my beloved, from that emptiness. The mystery and the meaning of suffering are found in the intimacy that it brings.” He knew that God offered him a satisfaction of the soul that he could find nowhere else.
I was wondering if we could all do something in Justin's honor? You don't have to do it if your heart isn't ready. But tonight, when you are in bed and the lights are out and you're all alone or your spouse is asleep, ask God to sandwich your face between his hands. Give him your full attention. Then take your two index fingers and stick them up your nose and say:
“Lord, here I am in all my glory and all my shame. I'm frightened by this freedom that you offer but I'm tired of running from it. I'm tired of being that wounded creature on the jungle floor. I'm tired of being an expert at avoidance and denial. I'm tired of that broken part in me and I ask that you would heal me and bring me back to the place where I desired intimacy more than the empty promises of this exile.
God I'm tired of the trappings of religion. I'm tired of taking communion without having communion. I'm tired of that naïve gullibility that's so often associated with kooky beliefs and cultic thinking as if true discipleship has nothing to do with the piercing, analytical, discerning, probing, penetrating mind of God.
I'm tired of fig leaves that can't conceal my shame. I'm tired of the fleeting splendor of my accomplishments.
I'm tired of scholarship that's defined by moral skepticism and human arrogance. I'm tired of that paralyzing cynicism that could never heal or redeem anyone from anything. I'm willing to be true to my own cynicism by being cynical of even it. I'm willing to peel back all the layers of hurt and shame and resentment and rage to find out what lurks beneath and to ask myself, “Why in the world have I replaced a Fountain of Living Water with a scum filled bucket that could never quench my thirst?”
I'm tired God, of being haunted by the same questions that haunt everyone else in this world and yet I feel so completely alone. I just give up. I surrender. I lay down my arms and I take off my masks. I return from my self-imposed exile.
Just romance my soul, Lord. Just turn my heart to putty and let me melt into the arms of One who has already rushed into a burning building to save his child. God, let me be the kind of person who can walk through life with confidence saying, ‘I know who I am. I know why I'm here. I know where I'm going. No one is going to shut me down.' And when my life is done, let me strap on a set of skis like Justin and outrun the avalanche of this world's emptiness one last time. Let me sail off into eternity knowing that I had the opportunity to draw close to the Lover of my Soul and I took it. I didn't run away in fear, but I finally embraced you Lord, with total abandon.”
Check out "Jackson Hole Skier Lived Life With Intention, Generosity | New West Network"
If you have any comments or questions for Will, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org