Jesus and My Cousin Pat

Posted: June 4, 2016 by Matt Horan in Uncategorized

Pat and MasonBy Matt Horan

I grew up in the Mount Airy neighborhood Philadelphia, oldest of four siblings.  I have fond memories of our time there, even though they are increasingly distant.

As fond as those memories are, many of my greatest memories happened a couple hours north of there along the New Jersey Turnpike, in a town called Rutherford, New Jersey.

My grandparents, as well as my mom’s eight siblings all lived there.  One sibling in particular, my Aunt Cathy, kept a pretty similar schedule to my mom’s, as they both seemed to have their four kids around the same time.  As we were all born, it seemed we got a corresponding cousin in the deal.

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I recall believing, for a little while, that we each had our own cousin.  Mine was their oldest, Richie.  My brother, Mike’s, cousin was their second, Danny.  My brother Andrew matched up with their brother Pat, and then their was their youngest brother Eddie, and we matched him up with… Kate.  (Sorry Ed, I guess streaks were made to be broken.)

After we were in Florida a couple years, I got the opportunity to visit Rutherford again, a previously frequent treat that had obviously become far more rare now that the distance was so great.

If I recall correctly, it was during a break I had that Rich and Danny didn’t, because they went to school every day while I spent lots of time hanging out with cousin #3, Pat.  We actually had a lot of fun, and in turn Pat wanted to come down to visit us in Florida, which he did not long after.  I remember the whole time he was with us he kept seeing indigenous Florida things–palm trees, zoo-sized birds that just roam freely, etc.–and he’d say “I’m in Florida!” (Of course he’d say it with the northern accent that we’d all lost by then, “I’m in Flaaridah!”)

Unfortunately, the distance didn’t lend itself to keeping up with Pat to maintain the close friendship and cousinhood we’d developed.  Maybe if the internet, email, Skype, or Facebook had arrived a little quicker we could have stayed in better touch.  I finished high school and started college at Florida State, and it became a rarity to talk to my own family let alone my cousins.

My cousins went through a lot after we headed to Florida.  Their dad, my Uncle Rich, a larger than life, decorated, heroic police officer, got cancer.  He died not long after.

At one point I learned that my cousin Pat had had a run-in with police while on a family trip at the Jersey Shore.  I worried about what would become of the little guy who I’d become so attached to on my visit, and his visit to “Flaaridah.”

I grew up in a family that was as Catholic as the day is long.  I attended Catholic school, had nuns for teachers, and was an altar boy.  My family rarely missed a Sunday Mass, and through talks with my grandfather on my dad’s side who lived with us, I developed a daily discipline of prayer, and felt an intimate connection to God as a result.

Yet when I arrived at Florida State, my theology had a lot of holes in it.   I had the vocabulary, but didn’t really understand how they were supposed to fit into my life to give it meaning.  The more time I spent in college, the less it seemed to be relevant, and I began praying nightly that God would give me the answers I craved to make sense of it all.

Then a guy named Brian Owen, who was on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ at Florida State, came along.  I met him while he was visiting my dorm, and he seemed to know how all of those Christian words I’d learned fit together into a coherent theology.  I thought about what Brian said all day and into the night, and that night, in Broward Hall room 311, I told God that, from now on I would be a disciple, a student, of Jesus Christ, and the new measure of success in my life would be living like him.  I believe that God heard my prayers for understanding, and answered by sending Brian.

That day changed my life.  It was the beginning of a life so different than the uncertain aimless one I had before that the only way to describe it was being “born again.”

Years later, my mom told me that Pat had “become really religious,” and I should talk to him about it, because no one seemed to understand what he was talking about.  I gave him a call, and we talked for a long time about how Jesus Christ had changed us.  We exchanged a couple letters (that’s an old fashioned way of sending emails, kids…), and it was neat to talk to someone in my family who seemed to get my newfound faith.

Once email arrived, we started exchanging emails and sharing our faith journeys.  I loved hearing him talk about his newfound faith, because the Holy Spirit had clearly grabbed ahold of him.  He struggled to put into words what he was feeling–he had so many feelings of excitement and hope, and so much eagerness for others to know it too.  We shared the common experience of having so many friends and relatives that had lived the Catholic faith all their lives, and struggled to explain to them what had happened to us.  Usually people would say that we’d “become religious,” but we both knew that wasn’t it.

Eventually, we became a sounding board for each other, sharing what we’d been learning from the Scriptures, or small group Bible studies, or books we’d read, or sermons we’d heard.  We thought and prayed often for our family and friends, still unsure how to explain ourselves, how what had happened to us was more than just “becoming more religious.”  The struggle was great, because we had both leaned so much from our lives in the Catholic church, and had so much respect for the church and it’s heroes and martyrs, both ancient and modern.  We didn’t want it to sound to others as if Catholicism wasn’t enough, because that wasn’t it either.  The best we could do to describe it was that for both of us, Catholicism was an amazing, powerful automobile with all of the upgrades and no expense spared.  It was capable of handling tight corners, reaching high speeds, and carrying plenty of passengers.  It was like sitting in a car that had everything, even the new car smell despite the fact that it was 2000 years old.  It was perfect.

It was like we were sitting in the car–admiring it, enjoying sitting in it–when all of a sudden someone reached over and turned the key.  The engine roared to life, and then settled into a steady hum that we could feel in our feet on the pedals, our hands on the wheel, and our bodies in our seats–reminding us of the power and performance that was possible for this car we’d been sitting in our whole lives.

It felt like we were finally letting these cars do what they were supposed to all along, and every time we lapped other people who were still sitting and admiring their cars we wanted to yell to them, “C’mon everybody, start your engines!”

I’ll be the first to admit that I had a lot to learn about driving the car when the engine first revved for me.  Pat and I both, while we clearly felt in touch with God’s Holy Spirit in a way we never had before, also worried about the eternal destiny of the people we loved.  We both were convinced that the main reason someone should pray to Jesus Christ and commit to becoming his student was because this was also a moment when someone would receive the grace of God offered in Jesus Christ that would cover our many sins and allow us into the presence of God in heaven when we die.  We both developed a pretty narrow view of the purpose of God coming into the world as one of us, and so our motivation was divided between how awesome it was to feel the car come to life, as well as a desire to have those we love spend eternity with God and with us.

It took going to seminary to open my eyes to the scope and magnitude of what God had done for us in Jesus Christ.  It was not about saving us through getting people to believe an accurate enough collection of theological tenets about the death of Jesus on the cross.  Humanity’s problem is sin.  It is our propensity to serve ourselves at the expense of serving God and serving our neighbor.  Satan himself is in the world trying to undermine God’s invitations to us by giving us all kinds of self-serving options that would keep us from being agents of the work of God to bring the Kingdom of God, as we pray weekly in the Lord’s Prayer, “on earth as it is in heaven.”

We are not supposed to become followers of Jesus Christ because we’re afraid of what might happen to us when we die.  We’re not supposed to become followers of Jesus Christ because of all of the paradise waiting for us in heaven if we do.  Both of those are motivations that serve us.

God revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ.  He showed us his motivation, his character, his love, his grace, his mercy, his justice, his endurance, his kindness, and his vision for humankind.  He did not come to save us from hell.  He came to save us from sin.  You do not have to die to experience hell.  It is all around us, all over the world because of the sins of humankind.

The invitation that God extends to us in Jesus Christ is a life that is truly full.  Jesus said, “I came that they might have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10)  He taught that there were two commandments that were most important, the ones that truly identify us as disciples/students/followers of Jesus Christ to anyone who observes us.

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:34-40)

It is true that anyone can aspire to live like this by their own power.  Anybody can be selfless.  Anybody can follow the rules and behave themselves.  The invitation of God offered to us in Jesus Christ, however, is so much more than behaving ourselves.  It is being grafted into a 2000 year old community of people that have become an instrument in the hand of God to build the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.  We are not bringing people to heaven after they die.  We are a part of the work of God to bring heaven to life in this world while we’re very much alive.

It’s true that Jesus reassured the thief dying next to him on the cross, “Truly I tell you, today you’ll be with me in paradise.”  Eternity awaits, but it is not ours for the seizing.  There’s nothing we can do to earn our way there–it is a gift of God given not because we deserve it or are qualified to belong there, but because of the grace of God who loves us and desires to share an intimately interconnected friendship with us that has no end.

It has taken me time to begin to glimpse the multifaceted enormity of the salvation that Jesus Christ brought to this world, and the more I learn, the more I realize that I am still a beginner, with much, much further still to go.  But I do know this–that the invitation to this friendship with God is offered to each of us, and Jesus Christ is the one sent to teach us how to create and nurture and grow this friendship.  There is no greater demonstration of the love of God for humankind than his willingness to step into his own creation and become a part of it–even when he knew that if he did, his creation would reject him, mock him, torture him, and kill him–in order to offer us salvation from ourselves and our sin.

What turns the key and starts the engine is our commitment–our enrollment as a student of Jesus Christ.  When you enroll in some schools they give you books and a locker.  Some fancier schools might even give you an iPad.  Enrollment as a student, as a disciple of Jesus Christ gets you the Holy Spirit.  In one of his indiscernible mysteries, God is one person, yet three persons as well.  There is the Creator, the father who was God long before us.  There is the Savior, the son who was God with us.  Now there is the Holy Spirit, the ever-present counselor who is God within us.  In the car metaphor, the Holy Spirit is the hum.

This enrollment, this ignition is simple.  It is realizing that we have been trying to create a good life according to our own limited wisdom and experience, and recognizing that our limited vision for our lives is nothing compared to the vision of the One who was before us, was with us, and is within us; who has watched every second of our lives, and loves us anyway.  It is then admitting as much to God in prayer, recognizing our sin and weakness, and confessing them freely and openly, bringing ourselves out of the shadows and into the light.  It is then asking forgiveness, and knowing that it is given the instant it is asked.

Finally, with a willingness to leave our old life as a student of our broken world behind, and embrace a new life as a disciple of Jesus Christ, we ask to be taken into the arms of our new teacher, the way a nervous kindergartner meets their teacher on the first day of school with their new backpack and lunch box.  Just like a good kindergarten teacher would, your new teacher embraces you and walks you to your very own desk with your name on it in perfect handwriting, as if to say, “Welcome home.  You are right where you belong.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about my cousin Pat the last couple days, because his journey in this life has come to an end.  It wasn’t supposed to end this week.  It should have gone on for a long, long time.  Over the years I sometimes had trouble sharing this growing view of the joyful salvation offered us in Jesus Christ.  It seemed that he had a tendency to hang on to a darker version of this salvation–one with a nagging fear of judgement and inadequacy that he could not let go of.  I wish we’d talked more over the last couple years, and had more chances to get him to see the light that can overcome the darkness.  Now I know, however,  that there was something in him that often kept him from seeing much light at all.

I am reassured to know that, in his last moments, the love of God continued to hum within him.  Despite the darkness that wanted to consume him and choke out his faith and his thanksgiving for the love God showed him in Jesus Christ, he remained aware that this savior is one that does not leave our side, no matter how dark the darkness might be.  I’m reminded of a hymn written by a pastor named George Matheson in 1882:

O love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
that in thine ocean depths its flow
may richer, fuller be.

O light that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to thee;
my heart restores its borrowed ray,
that in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
may brighter, fairer be.

O joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
and feel the promise is not vain
that morn shall tearless be.

He spoke of the love that would not let him go, one that led him to consider oceans, torchlight, rays of sunshine, and rainbows following the rain.  George Matheson was blind, and couldn’t see any of these things.  He lived in darkness, and still God revealed his love and light to him.

My cousin Pat knew a darkness that the rest of us really cannot understand.  What I do understand, however, is that, in the midst of the darkness, the love of God would not let him go; in the midst of the darkness, he was never alone; and now, after the darkness, he has awakened on a tearless morning, to stand in the blaze of God’s sunshine, on a brighter, fairer day.

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Comments
  1. this is so beautiful and comforting thank you Matt

  2. That was absolutely beautiful and comforting. Thank you Matt

  3. Pat was one of my best friends growing up, and we remained friends for 30years. This was such a great tribute to one of my “brothers”. I too had a born again experience after growing up Catholic. Pat and I would shoot each other some verses via txt and messenger. I always knew he had some demons but obviously never saw this coming. I am just heartbroken that we couldn’t have done more for him, or been there in those last hours of hopelessness. Thanks again Matt.

    Rob Connolly
    Conlb42@yahoo.com

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