July 1, 2012 by

My Friend Chuck


Categories: food for thought, lifetime heroes

Today, I’d like to tell you the story of my friend Chuck.

I first met Chuck at college in Tulsa, when I signed up to go on a summer music ministry trip overseas. There were sixteen of us on our team: ten vocalists, four in the rhythm section, our team leader (preacher) and the sound guy. Chuck was one of the vocalists, and I led the rhythm section from the keyboard.

Chuck was one of those guys who could fill up a room just by walking into it. That’s not a reference to his weight. He was just a big personality–loud, funny, sometimes bordering on obnoxious…With my own tendency to get withdrawn and moody at times, sometimes his “bigness” got on my nerves, and during the ministry trip we got into it a few times. But I couldn’t help but love him.

When you spend two months together on a trip, a mission, or even just on a bus, you get to know each other really well, and often it forms a bond that lasts a lifetime. I have that lifetime bond with all other fifteen people on that team. When our trip ended, none of us wanted to get off the bus, because we knew things would never be the same. We promised each other we’d have a reunion, but after 25 years we haven’t been able to keep that promise. We’d see each other on campus while we each finished up our degrees, and over the years I’ve seen and talked to different teammates now and then, but we haven’t all been in the same room at the same time since that trip. But every last one of them is my friend for life.

But back to my friend Chuck.

It turns out Chuck had a story to tell. It’s been 25 years since he told it to me, so the details are a bit sketchy, but he had cancer as a kid, and was not expected to survive. God had miraculously healed him. By the time we met him, he had been cancer-free for years, and there was no outward sign that he’d ever been sick. We’d never have known if he hadn’t told us.

After college, I next ran into Chuck at a minister’s conference at my old Christian college campus. It had been nearly 10 years since I’d been back to campus, and Chuck and I were both fresh into our 30’s. It turned out that Chuck had stayed in Tulsa, married a girl he’d met on another music ministries team, and together they’d had two boys. He also had another story to tell.

As it turned out, the medicine he had to take as a child to fight his cancer had eventually caused his heart to wear out, and a couple of years before we reconnected, he had to have a heart transplant. Again, you’d never have known it to stand there and talk to him; he looked as strong and healthy as ever. He and Sara had a traveling ministry, singing in churches and sharing their testimony. Once again, Chuck had been at death’s door, and once again, God had shown up and shut the door tight.

The following year, my family and I moved back to Tulsa, and again reconnected with Chuck and Sara. We saw each other off and on for the next ten years–a couple of times on purpose, but mostly by accident, running into each other around town. It was uncanny, actually. We promised to make plans to get together, but we could never quite synchronize our schedules–and yet I ran into my friend Chuck more than any single classmate during the next ten years. There were actually four of us from the old music ministry team living in Tulsa during that time, but I saw Chuck far more often than the others, just because we’d keep running into each other. I never quite figured out why that was, because we didn’t really run in the same circles. But it just kept happening, and it got really funny. I accused Chuck of stalking me. I think he thought the same of me.

During that ten-year span, Chuck and Sara had another boy, and Chuck became a local activist for organ donation. After a few other ministry endeavors, he also landed a full-time job at our old school, which he loved. And I noticed another thing about Chuck during those ten years. I told you he could fill a room; apparently, he could fill up a town, as well. I was amazed at how many people I met in Tulsa who knew Chuck, and a couple of times he would surprise me by showing up with a mutual friend of ours. Chuck had been part of this person’s church for awhile, or he was coaching little league with this other guy. Everyone at the local Chik-Fil-A knew him by name. And everyone who knew him, loved him.

So a couple of years ago, our family moved to Denver, and I stopped running into Chuck. We thought perhaps we’d run into Chuck and Sara once or twice here, too, because Sara has family here, but it didn’t happen.

And beginning last year, another chapter unfolded for my friend Chuck.

It turned out that the medications Chuck had to take to maintain his new heart had given him cancer. He and his family gathered a small army of friends to pray, and we all kept tabs on his progress through Facebook. He had a growing pain in his shoulder that wouldn’t go away, where the cancer had apparently lodged itself. A few months ago, Chuck went into a coma from a severe infection that he couldn’t fight because a stout round of chemo had eradicated his immune system. Miraculously, he woke up, and even recovered to the point of being able to go back to work. After all, Chuck had been to death’s door more times than most people. Each time, he faced it head-on with the same level of determination and faith. And throughout this battle, too, he remained constantly positive.

Chuck’s pain worsened, and the doctors again began aggressive treatments. He spent many a day in ICU, struggling perhaps as much against the effects of the medications as the cancer itself.

This week, my friend Chuck went into the arms of the Father, his family beside him. He was 45.

There are obviously a lot more questions than answers surrounding Chuck’s homegoing. Why did this guy have to go to the brink of death so many times during his life? Why would he die of cancer now after God obviously spared him from death, not once, but twice? Actually, I’m not really looking for the answers to those questions, especially from the mouths of humans, because so often our attempts to explain these mysteries end up sounding really trite, or making God sound really bad. The truth is, we don’t know, and we may never know in this life. God is still God, and He is good.

But there is one thing in particular that I do know about my friend Chuck. I know that he touched more people in his 45 years than most of us do in twice that time.

Since his passing, Chuck’s Facebook page has filled with tributes and outpourings of love from people who knew him–telling stories about him, sharing how he blessed their lives just by being Chuck. Young people who were inspired by him, co-workers, friends, college classmates (and of course most of the people from our music ministry team)–sharing stories, sharing photos, sharing videos, remembering. Among these is a touching tribute from one of his sons, who of all people ought to feel angry at God (and who admits he’s struggled with faith in general), who tangibly felt the grace of God at his father’s passing and wants everyone to know about it.

What an amazing legacy.

I can’t tell you why things didn’t turn out the way we all had hoped it would. I can only tell you this was not a defeat. So many lives touched. So many people blessed. So many rooms filled. My friend Chuck glorified God with his whole life. He faced death over and over with a positive attitude that was nothing short of inspiring. He spent his healthy years making a difference, all the while making sure everyone around him knew Who was responsible for the fact that he was still on the planet, still filling rooms by showing up. Defeat, my eye.

A lot of rooms are going to feel very empty for awhile.

Here’s what I’ve learned from the life of my friend Chuck: a life is lived best when it touches other people’s lives for the better. A life lived solely unto itself is a waste of precious time and energy. How many of us walk around on this planet with the primary goal of accumulating enough stuff around us to keep us safe and comfortable until we die? What kind of legacy will we leave with that attitude? Chuck is gone from us too soon, but his was a life of significance, as attested by the hundreds of people who can claim him as a positive influence–myself among them. I don’t have Chuck’s winning personality–not even close. But when I pass into the arms of my heavenly Father, if a third of the people feel about me the way they feel about Chuck–I will consider it a life well lived.

I guess that reunion we all keep trying to plan will have to wait awhile longer. But it will happen. Meanwhile–thank you, Chuck for sharing your life with us, and for showing me what a life well-lived looks like. I am forever grateful to have known you. Goodbye, my friend.

Musician. Composer. Recovering perfectionist. Minister-in-transition. Lover of puns. Hijacker of rock song references. Questioner of the status quo. I'm not really a rebel. Just a sincere Christ-follower with a thirst for significance that gets me into trouble. My quest has taken me over the fence of institutional Christianity. Here are some of my random thoughts along the way. Read along, join in the conversation. Just be nice.

6 Responses to My Friend Chuck

  1. Pingback: Wednesday Link List « Thinking Out Loud

  2. Nicole Garrett

    Thank you for sharing that about my brother!! He was truly a man of God and had a bigger faith than anyone I know . I remember asking him back when he received his new heart ‘chuck how do you do it? And he said Nicole you and I grew up knowing faith is what healed me the first time so faith is what I have and have to keep!! He was an amazing person and the best brother ever!!! I love him and miss him so much and one day we will be reunited and I can’t wait!!!

  3. Lauren Kitchens Steward

    JJ! ! Thank you for echoing our hearts. Robin & I are on our way to Tulsa now & your prose touched me as we approach Chuckie’s homegoing tomm! Biggest hug & hoping wecan still pull off that reunion this side of heaven!:)

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