We lost a long time Heartside neighbor recently and the following is a transcript of his Memorial Service here at Heartside, written and officiated by Rev. Andy DeBraber.
Scripture: Isaiah 53: 1-5, 12; Matthew 26:36-42; 2 Samuel 9
No less a fully human being than Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, prays, "If it is possible, let this cup pass from me," and then goes on to note to his disciples that "the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak."
I don't know how many times John prayed that this cup would pass from him.
I don't know all what happened in his often-trying life that led him to begin drinking to excess.
I don't know what demons tormented him, keeping him imprisoned to the bottle.
I do know the spirit indeed is willing but the flesh is weak.
I do know that no one grows up dreaming of being homeless.
I do know that John would not want any one of us to come into the time of trial that he faced, and yet it could be any of us tomorrow.
And I also know that John would still greet me with a kind smile and gravelly-voiced "Good morning, Mr. Andy" everyday. And I know that the demons could not keep him from dancing with joy when music seeped from his ears to his soul.
Never will we take individual responsibility out of the question when we ask why people become intoxicated everyday. There are people here among us right now who will testify to the power of God's grace, the strength of their own willpower, and the support of a community in a miraculous release from addiction. And yet any of us who have found ourselves in the grip of serious substance abuse will also testify that its chains are a dark mystery. As much as I or we might want to change someone else, we cannot.
Just as we will never neglect individual responsibility in the equation of Mr. John's life, we will also always acknowledge "the perversion of justice by which he was taken away" (Isaiah 53:8). John could have stayed in New Orleans, or returned there after Hurricane Katrina, a place most certainly warmer than Grand Rapids. But he stayed here because his daughters and grandchildren were here. The last name on his lips was that of his grandson, Jeremiah.
Somehow, in the midst of all his struggle, Mr. John shared community with those around him in a way few of us will ever know. He was faithful to his friends and they were faithful to him. As so many of you gathered here have said, "Everybody liked him."
Yet we as a community failed him. In a city as rich in resources, creativity, compassion, faith, and ingenuity as Grand Rapids, we could not find a warm and safe place for Mr. John to reside and find the sweet peace of comfortable rest. A cold, hard, wet slice of pavement was most often his bed. Or the jail cell that comes with the criminalization of homelessness and is often the best or only option we provide as addiction rehab for those who cannot pay.
"Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases" yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted." (Isaiah 53:4)
Mr. John bore in his body and soul our infirmities. His damaged feet alone bore witness to the terrors of living on the street. He was crushed for our iniquities, stricken for the transgression of our people. Some day we will make a place for all God's people to have a home, treating alcoholism for the disease it is and not a moral failing. We will no more deny a home to Mr. John any more than we would to someone with diabetes or heart disease.
However, even given our failing to do this, and recognizing Mr. John's own personal brokenness in being unable to fully love himself as God loved him, we rejoice in a God whose promises declare that for those who find themselves on the underside of life:
"Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong." (Isaiah 53:12)
And that the one who declared of himself, "What is your servant, that you should look upon a dead dog such as I am?" (2 Samuel 9:8) would eat at the table of the king for the rest of his days.
And that a room has been prepared for him and today he resides at home, sees God face to face, and knows beyond the shadow of a doubt how beloved he is.
Mr. John is dividing the spoil with the strong today.
Mr. John is eating at the table of the king today and forevermore.
Mr. John is flashing that great smile among the angels and breaking into dance in ways we can only imagine.
Thanks be to God that we got to step alongside him for awhile.Two stories from the time of sharing during the service stood out as a great testament to person Mr. John was.
A woman who was homeless shared how Mr. John held her head gently in his lap while she was having a seizure, keeping her safe until paramedics could arrive. He could barely hold himself up but he held her as long as he could, passing her to another neighbor when his strength gave out.
Another woman, who currently works with our neighbors, shared how she and her kids had lost everything - her job, their home, their belongings. They were living at Mel Trotter Ministries shelter. She was all prepared to give her two children up for adoption and end her life. Mr. John was staying in the men's shelter at Mel Trotter at the same time, and his encouraging words and smile gave this woman the strength to keep moving on and putting her life back together. She credits Mr. John with saving her life and her family. She said her family's life is now even better than before their crisis.
Postscript from Helen: We will all miss you, John. You were treasured and loved. For me personally, I will miss hearing, "Take my picture, Miss Helen." And I'm so glad I did.