His heart was bigger than his biceps.
No difficult feat for most mortals, but for a hulk of a man who could bench-press upwards of 405, it was remarkable. His uniform left no doubt about his profession, but in it or out, he served and protected just the same. Those who saw his badge assumed courage and honor were his obligation, but those who had known him before knew the courage came long before the clothes. He was born to protect.
I remember years before when he wore another uniform – a costume, playing the role of a different protector. Dressed as Jesus, he addressed the insecurities of those on stage with him – an athlete and a brain, a shopaholic and a potential suicide victim, children of scandal and divorce and abuse. No matter what complaint or wounded cry they directed toward themselves, each elicited from him the same response: “I love you.” To the one driven by impossible goals, “Find your perfection in me.” To the one feeling too broken to pray, “Just talk to me – I love it when you talk to me.” To the one choking on a shattered self-image, “You are beautiful in my eyes – if only you knew.” To every sorrow, every fear, every disappointment, his conviction never wavered. “I love you.”
He played the role well and I suspect it was another identity defined more by his character than his clothes. His costume was convenient, but in it or out, he loved just the same. For all the iron he could press, his greatest strength was making people feel valued. He was born to care.
A heart that big is rare theses days. Increasingly, we are becoming a fractured society and I am more than a little concerned at the creeping malaise of loneliness now lapping at the unsuspecting edges of our hearts. We live and work and shop and drive and attend to our lists, and we do much of it on our own. Like the characters who shared his stage, we have become consumed with the pursuit of our own accomplishments, with our own failures, and with the gaping cavern in between. There is no space in our schedules to love one another deeply, and many have never learned how. The media now defines love for us, and we have forgotten any other version. Love has become a commodity we want to receive freely, but charge interest to give. The result is loneliness – fathomless, disheartening, abysmal loneliness and we only know one way to deal with it. Alone.
But my friend with the heart bigger than his biceps calls me back to an era in our lives that was anything but lonely. They were years defined by a love the media often leaves unnoticed. His life overlapped with others, those on stage and at church and on the road, and when none of us were looking, we fell into being family. We were delighted in each other’s presence; we were determined to bring one another joy. We sought the Jesus he played on stage and in finding Christ we found the best in each other. It is a web of love that, though the strands seem sometimes fragile, thinned by distance and distractions, binds us still.
It is also a web that can sting. Just days ago, my friend’s commitment to serve and protect cost him his life – like the prophet Elijah he left us in a whirlwind, riding a chariot of fire. We stand now in the ashes looking back on the moments he laughed and joked and breathed and bear on our shocked and disbelieving hearts the wounds of love.
But the web that stings, also heals. Once dressed as Jesus on stage, he left us on Good Friday, the day we remember Christ’s death. I understand the disciples a little more, today. Understand their pain and their disbelief. Understand how they could have been speechless and in shock. They bore the wounds of love, but they had fallen into being family, too, and when they weren’t looking, they left us a legacy of how to hurt well; they did not hurt alone. Their binding web of love comforted them in the days following the crushing death of their friend. They gathered together in a room, they spoke of Him, they missed Him, they grieved together.
I find it interesting that both Christ and my friend who imitated Him well - on stage and off - stepped away from earth on the cusp of significant seasons. The corner of winter and spring is the spot of death’s demise every year. Browned and curling leaves may cover the ground, white spindled fingers of naked branches may still rake the sky, but the defiant yellow of daffodils, having pushed and shoved their way out of the oppressive earth, is undeniable. There is a greening, green like the color of my friend’s eyes, creeping along the ground and whispers of life after death rush like laughter on the wind.
And there is Easter. The resurrection. The deep and abiding hope, conviction, and belief that death did meet its ultimate demise, cracked and rendered powerless by a God who cast off His grave clothes as easily a butterfly its chrysalis. The apostle Paul assures us, “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first of those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinthians 15:20). He is the first, and multitudes will follow.
The beauty of believing such a thing is that those who do are assured they will follow their Lord merely through the portals of death into the glory of new life. Not only is the ultimate threat of spiritual death neutralized, the lingering series of daily debilitating deaths we call loneliness are obliterated, as well. In finding Christ, we find the best in one another, for it is the “Him” in each of us that we are drawn to and delighted by. He spins the chords of love that bind us and heal us; He gives us the great privilege of bearing wounds of love. He knows the pain and reward of them well - He bore them first.
And the strength He gives to bear them is one that surpasses the limits of mere muscle. Bulky biceps are good for other things, but stout hearts carry the true weight of others. My friend knew – he knows. Our memory of him reaches both into the past and into the future, to what he showed us and to the day we’ll thank him for it. He pointed us to the God who reminds us that in every sorrow, every fear, every disappointment, His conviction never wavers. His body may have taken flight, but his words remain: “I love you.”
“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in Him.”-I Thessalonians 4:13-14