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Adventures in Faith

Minister to the Dying

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"For who knows a person's thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God."  1 Corinthians 2:11

In early November, I learned via Facebook that a favorite professor of mine from college, Dr. Markowicz, was on his death bed, with only a couple of days to live. Dr. M. was notoriously difficult in the classroom--he would fail a major assignment for a simple grammatical error. After about a year of thoroughly not enjoying his methods, I realized that his high standard would elevate my skill set, and I requested that he become my assigned faculty advisor. Over the years, I got to know Dr. Markowicz outside the classroom as well. I invited him to lunch at my apartment, and he came. He invited me to play tennis, and I went. He came to my graduation party at my parents home, I saw him around town occasionally, I emailed him for advice and he answered. And so when I learned he was in his last days, I was truly saddened.

On a phone call with my father, I mentioned the professors condition, to which my dad replied that I should call him. Ah, the wisdom of a man who has been stung by death.  After I hung up with my Dad, I felt a strong nudge to call Dr. M., and even more so to ensure he knew there is a God in his last days. Mind you, while I love Jesus, I have never ministered to or prayed with the dying and the idea of it freaked me out. What will I say? What if he doesn't know God? With my heart beating hard, I told my wife I needed to leave the house to make the call, and I went into the car and prayed, "Jesus, help me now, give me some words." I turned on the radio for a minute of inspiration and I heard this verse from Matt Redmond's "10,000 Reasons":

And on that day when my strength is failing

The end draws near and my time has come

Still my soul will sing Your praise unending

Ten thousand years and then forevermore

And so I had a peace that on Dr. Markowicz' last day, I was going to call him for no other reason than to praise God. I called him, and he picked up right away.  I introduced myself and between coughs he told me that he was about to leave this world. I told him how much I appreciated him as a teacher and he replied that he appreciated me too. He brought up my sister who was killed when I was a freshman, and he said he knew what my family had gone through, and that he had followed my travels online.

I told him my life was exciting now mostly because of what Jesus had done in it and I said that I cared for him enough to want to be sure he knew there is a God. Then, I asked if he wanted to pray and he said he was good on all that spiritual stuff. I told him I wasn't sure how to say goodbye, and I wished him great peace. I hung up and wanted to cry, not because I was sad at being rejected in a way, but because God showed me His heart for this man, and showed me how important it is to minister to the dying, to simply be there. The weight of it pulled in my gut like never before.

Over the next couple of days, I kept thinking about Dr. M. I prayed for him and two days later he died. When I told a friend about this phone call, he said that above else, I was faithful to God's tug on my heart to call him, and to rest in that. I had a sense that there was a bigger picture, one that I could never see fully. I was happy that I got to talk to him, I thought it was a beautiful exchange with a dear man, so much so that when a memorial cropped up online, I wrote a short post about my talk with him:

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Then, I let the sadness of his passing go. It felt good, it felt right, he was at peace, so was I. Then a month or so later, I happened upon an obituary for Dr. Markowicz on the college's website. As I read it, I cried because it became clear to me that this was a man of faith and all of a sudden things became clear to me, and I felt I knew him better than ever before.

Dr. Markowicz, it turns out, had gone through seminary, but he was denied ordination. This was a man who, like Jesus, was rejected by the church, and organized religion very likely did not sit well with him. He had a healthy skepticism of it, he held his faith close to his heart, its likely that many did not know. He was even ministering to the homeless as part of his extracurricular activities, he launched programs to help people. I'm certain many did not know these things.

Never was it so true to me what it says in Proverbs 20:5 "the purposes of a man's heart are like deep waters..."   I found myself praising God for Dr. M. anew. I found myself praising God for the lesson that I learned, a lesson about holding the tug in my gut from God lightly, not presupposing I know what it means, even if it seems clear. I learned I cannot judge how God is using someone, whether they want to pray with you or not.

Adventures in Faith

A Tribute to Susie Afflerbach

Susie and Gregg saddled up to the copper bar I tended while working my way through college, and I've never been the same. I'm not being overly dramatic given the fresh sting of Susie's departure from this Earth, she was really someone special.

The two of them, Gregg doting on his beautiful bride and smiling all the time, Susie with her soft-spoken yet friendly way, they let a young guy into their lives at that bar. It wasn't too long before we'd hit a gallery together, they'd show up at charity events I was a part of, they'd later come to my college graduation party, my wedding. 

Lots of times they'd tell me about a musician they were going to hear, and I'd meet them on a deck for a beer to listen and catch up. When I decided to create a cd of local musicians as a fundraiser, they invited me to their house to help sort through the submissions. Once in their cozy place, Susie introduced me around to people in the photos, her cats, more of who she and Gregg were. We sat and listened and laughed and it was a simple act to invite me in, but it's a defining characteristic of who Susie was, she invited you in, be you a college kid, a wounded deer, or a fierce wolf that would frighten most.

It was a pleasure to watch Susie emerge as an artist. I think I was among her first customers when she painted on rocks, I ordered a set of the family pets for my Mom. She captured the eyes so beautifully. Then, I asked her to paint my brothers French bulldog, her paintings became an instant treasure to the recipient.

Even after I moved to Philadelphia, when I came back to town, I'd give the Afflerbach's a call, on the off chance I could catch them around town. And when I did, we talked about life including my love life--or lack of one as it often was. Gregg and Susie were so encouraging to me, they told me about how they met in Philadelphia, and how I was going to be like them and meet someone in Philly, they were sure. When I did meet a beautiful blonde of my own in Philly, they were so happy for me. 

When I met Whitney, who I just knew would be my wife, Gregg and Susie could tell, they'd never seen me so excited. Soon after we'd met, Whitney's dear cat Tyler died suddenly, and she was really upset, he was one awesome cat. I didn't know her too well, just a few months at that point, but I called Susie and asked her to paint Tyler. What she sent me in the mail was remarkable, my wife looks at it and gets tears in her eyes to this day. She called me to see how it was received, she was so upset for the loss too, and she told me Gregg had framed it, he learned how to frame, they were a team.

And yet, it was more than her friendly spirit, love for music, encouragement, or ability to paint that makes me say that Susie changed my life. No, what endeared me to her was the sense that she was truly a kindred spirit, that somehow, in some way, we were close, we were one. It was this spirit in Susie that led her to call me RyRy, a name only my Mom called me, and it just felt right, as if she was close to me like a member of my family. It was that she left the most heartfelt messages on my Facebook page, or that she noticed Whitney had "liked" a recent painting of a set of little chics she made, and when our baby boy was born, she surprised us with it in the mail. It was how she never forgot my birthday because hers was two days before, and she'd talk about how we were similar in so many ways. There aren't many people in life you just connect with like that, and even fewer when you see them once a year you pick right back up, Susie was one of those people in my life. 

I believe that man and woman, we are created in God's image. I think with Susie the God in her was just easier to see than you experience with a lot of people. And when I look at the book of Galatians 5:22 and read what are called the "fruits of the spirit, "love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control," well, Susie is one of the few people who I think you could really see all of those things in her life quickly. With a lot of people, even really faithful people, I don't always see a gentleness or a love for creation like you could see in Susie. 

In closing, my heart aches for you Gregg. Boy oh boy, brother, how to go on... There is no right answer, people will try to tell you, and comfort you, but we all ache, we cry, we ask God why. We weren't created for death and separation like this, and missing Susie will hurt. But, and this is a big huge but, deep down inside me, despite the empty pit in my stomach and the tears over this loss, I smile, I smile because I know that I will see Susie again, for all eternity in fact. There's comfort in that, we're here just a short-while and I am a happy guy having met Susie. I will remember her often, I will cherish her paintings in my home, I will think of her as I embrace nature, and I will do it with the same sentiments Susie expressed when faced with the loss of "My Girl":

It was a privilege to have had her as my friend for as long as I did. I thank God for that experience. And I also know I will see My Girl, and all my other wild friends who have passed on, again... when I cross over the Rainbow Bridge. I know they will be there to greet me and we'll be together again forever.

Adventures in Faith

The Death of My Sister (and a Heavenly Vision)

But, as it is written, "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him." 1 Corinthians 2:9

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The phone rang, it was late, I heard one of my parents get up to answer it in the hallway just outside my bedroom door. Then rustling around and footsteps down the stairs. Back to bed, though I didn't really sleep, already eery. Then more ringing, I hopped up and answered, I heard my Dad say come to the hospital. Got Daren out of his bed, into the car, driving and praying, not sure what's going on, hypotheticals in the mind.

Arrive, park, into the building, somehow it seems we know right where to go, people have looks in their eyes like they know something we don't, the hall opens into a lobby, our parents are sobbing, immediately we are awash in sorrow. Not sure what's going on, told it's not good, she doesn't look good, a decision to pull her off support will have to be made, let's go in to see her.

Tubes, machines, swollen, black, blue, a sight i will never forget, make your way to the side of the bed, hold her hands boys, they are so swollen, as soon as we do, she dies.

Everyone crying, doctors, nurses, parents, me. A blur of tears. A blur of everything. Eventually, we exit the building, into the parking lot, the sun is coming up, traffic is building, cool air, the Earth is still spinning, it feels odd that it is.

Drive home...ringing, many phone calls, soon many flowers, it smells like a flourist. People visit, so many people, they bring food. They cry. They sit and talk and listen. So many cards in the mail.

Soon a funeral. A flood of tears, I learned to cry so hard. Damn, man, my sister, my big sister, she's not showing up anymore.

Days, a daze. Enough for me, I need to get back to something. I need to get back to college, my freshman year. How will I sleep? I can't sleep. I haven't slept for a week. I'm going to try...I lay down to sleep, and I do.

And then I'm awake. Oh my God! Hop out of bed, right next to me, there she is, my sister in full color! Immediate tears. I'm sobbing. I wrap my arms around here as tight as I can. Right away I ask over and over, "Are you okay?" She says nothing. I keep asking, she keeps saying nothing.

Then I lift my head and turn right to see her, to verify. I look right into her hair. It's glowing and flowing. Oh my God! She's wearing a red Gap hoodie, the same one she is known for wearing, we buried her in it. This is unreal...even as I type this, the words cannot express the sight, the feeling, the realness.

Then, she asks me one thing, "Where is Daren?" I tell her I don't know, and then, she's gone.

I jerk awake...sit up completely. I am completely shocked. What just happened. My sister is not in the room, but something is. There is a breeze...a poster hanging above my bed has a corner loose, it's waving in a breeze that otherwise does not exist. I wipe my face, which is soaked in tears.

On my God! I notice the time, just after five in the morning. Do I write this down, will I forget? I can't move for an hour. And yet eventually I return to sleep.

The next morning, I get up, shower, dress for school. I go down stairs to leave the house. I walk past the family room, and I see my brother Daren sleeping on the couch. It hits me like a wave...a sense of emotion and peace and understanding and so much more washes over me. Daren, my brother, is known for always sleeping in his bed. Many sleepovers growing up, Daren always retreats to his bed. Many guests visiting the house at this moment, they all insist we sleep in our beds. And yet, there is Daren sleeping on the couch, he's not in his bed, this is completely abnormal. "Where is Daren," the question Danielle asked me now makes complete sense to me.

I walk over to the whiteboard in the kitchen, and I write Danielle is okay, tears flowing from my face.

Off to school, walking on air, because I have an unexplainable sense that my sister, who had died one week earlier (and I would later confirm this vision was exactly one week to the minute after her death) was okay, she was in Heaven.

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Another week goes by. This time, I'm out driving with friends. This is what we do to "get away," we drive around the back roads of Lebanon County, PA, not caring if we get lost, and it's not too hard to get lost because there aren't many landmarks when it's all fields and pitch black. We just drive, listen to tunes, shoot the breeze. So, I'm driving, one friend up front, another in the back, when I make a right hand turn, and then all of a sudden, it happens.

High above me, and yet visible to me even as I'm driving, my sister, again. She's glowing, she's white, she isn't really a figure anymore, but more of a presence in the clouds. She's clearly in another place, again, words don't work to describe this. And she says to me, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry this happened. Tell everyone I'm sorry. And then, she's gone. All this while I'm driving, and just when it ends, I look up to see a road marker and realize this all happened right when I had turned onto the same back country road where she was killed, just a mile down the road.

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These two things that I saw, what happened to me in this story, this gave me the most incredible sense of peace I could ever have over my sisters death. Even more importantly, it gave me a 100% certainty that there is a Heaven. And later in life, I started to work backward from this belief in Heaven to analyze the reality of God, the Bible, and Jesus Christ. Even though I was raised going to church and learned the lessons, it never really sank in to a soul level, it didn't sink in until I later poured over it, questioned it, and experienced it in this way, and many other ways since. Now my faith is central to who I am, I know that even through the death of my sister, God is so good, and his plan is far greater than I can understand. I now believe that God works through visions like these all the time, and he does miracles far greater than we will ever understand. And so, my sister's death, while a terribly sad occurrence that changed my family forever in deep ways, is also part of the foundation of my faith, and in that way, it is among the biggest gifts I've ever received.