Jonathan Tjarks is Dying
Jonathan Tjarks is dying. And I don’t mean that in a college freshman philosophy student existential dread sort of death. I do not mean it in the way that we all are marching onward toward inevitable death. I mean the man has been diagnosed with cancer and the prognosis is quite bleak. His life is full of appointments for chemotherapy and scans that end up finding more and more tumors for the medication to exorcise from his body. It can be a boring existence. He sits. He waits. He gets one injection followed by another. In all of his waiting, he thinks about his son.
His son was born just two years ago and may never really know his father as he grows up. Tjarks grew up very similarly, as his own father had Parkinson’s disease and ceased to be an active presence in his life by the time he was twelve years old, even though it was nine more years before he finally died. He never wanted this for his son. He remembers the loneliness that came to his family after the well-wishers began to drop out of their lives one by one. When his father was diagnosed, all of the friends he had made in his life stepped up to take him to appointments or to lunch or to come by and spend time with him. As the disease progressed, so did the family’s alienation from their community and all of these friendships evaporated to the point that when the funeral finally came, Jonathan Tjarks said that he didn’t know anyone there.
He doesn’t want this for his son. Years ago he joined a church, something he never thought he would do. But as time went on, his friendships grew, and so did his faith. Although cancer has brought a relentless dark night of the soul, when his friends ask how they can help, he responds,
“When I see you in heaven, I am going to have only one question: ‘Does my son know you?’”
Being a pastor, this line automatically brings with it some semiotic weight. If I were the kind of thinker who is always looking to talk you into a relationship with Christ, I would use this story to ask you “Do you know the Son?” It would be a tear-filled plea for you to look for Christ in your moments of calamity and the most horrific seasons of life. Maybe a sermon like that could change your heart. I don’t know, but I know that I am not built for preaching it, even if I believe it.
The story that emerges for me is one that begins with faith but ends with being able to rely on your faithful friends. I have had a lot of friends both inside and outside of the Church. I have kept up with many of them over the years, from all areas of my life. I can tell you good friends are good friends, no matter where they come from. With that said, there is something magical and mysterious about friends made at the communion table, gathered in pews to sing songs with lyrics so old they’ve lost their meaning to our modern ears, with a spirit of open-heartedness that only the grace of God can unlock.
It reminds me of Becky. She didn’t have cancer so none of us were worried, at least not worried enough. Becky was a retired teacher, seventy years old, but had only come to faith a short five years before I met her. It was my first time as a lead pastor. During my first week at the church, I heard from at least half a dozen people to be prepared because Becky was going into surgery. I hadn’t even met her and her friends were already including me in her care, such was their love for her.
Being so new to ministry, I was a little worried as I walked into the waiting room that morning. I had no idea what I was going to walk into. Was she going to be scared or grieving? Was she going to feel alone? What I found was Becky, surrounded by friends, wearing a headband that made it look like she had a giant pencil going through her head. Such was her humor.
We all talked easily and prayed with hopeful tears and trembling hands. I came with an agenda of offering comfort, but when all was said and done, she was the one who offered comfort to this silly and scared new pastor of hers. That was the truth of the relationship we built. We had a standing appointment each Monday morning on her front porch where Becky, always the teacher, though she didn’t know it in this particular case, she taught me to be her pastor. I was there to offer pastoral care, but she most often provided parishioner care for me instead.
These weekly meetings were some of the most gracious times of ministry at that church. It was there that I began to learn about a different version of holiness than they taught in seminary. Holiness often gets a bad rap from many who see the word as being sanctimonious and hypocritical, but the version that I began to learn from Becky was a kind of holiness that more resembled the definition that some people use that just means ‘wholeness.’ A person who knew who she was, who God created her to be, and so easily shared it with others.
This new holiness that I was quickly learning was easily grateful, endlessly kind, and used curse words as comfortably as words like grace. Sometimes a well-placed expletive is a proper response. An expletive is all you have when you find out that you’re not actually healed and the surgery wasn’t successful. Sometimes the only response you can muster is: “Well shit.”
Hers was a holiness with purple hair. Unexpected and unforgettable. Gracious and oozing authenticity. I once told her that the greatest lesson that I learned from her was to be grateful in everything, but what I admired about her the most was her ability to be herself in every situation. To that, she responded, “Well, I don’t know who else I would be.”
But it was her friendships that made me realize that something amazing was happening in her life, even as she faded away before our eyes. All of us, even me, her newest friend, visited her constantly. She was supported and loved and we would talk, much like Jonathan Tjarks did, about how we will see each other again someday. As she was dying, all she could talk about was how grateful she was for the beautiful life she experienced and all of the wonderful friendships this life had brought her.
I don’t have a point, per se. Maybe I am finding myself feeling many of those same feelings Becky did, gratitude for all that life has brought me. Maybe I am feeling gratitude, especially for those relationships in my life that feel graciously given. So today, I pray for Jonathan Tjarks and for his son. I pray for his wife. I pray for his church. I hope they can live up to what God has called them to be.