They say you can’t take it with you, but I think that they’re wrong
‘Cause all I know is I woke up this morning, and something big was gone
— “Terry’s Song”, Bruce Springsteen
Monday morning, I woke to news that I still find difficult to comprehend: Roger Shates, my brother-in-law, passed away in his sleep, the victim of a massive heart attack. Roger was 32 years young.
I got to know Roger when I started dating his older sister, Sunny. I was a Senior in high school and Roger was a freshman. I have a few distinct memories of those early days. I remember picking Sunny up for our first date at the Mt. Juliet Babe Ruth baseball park because Roger was playing a game that Friday night. In a portent of things to come, we actually stuck around to watch an inning or two before we left for dinner. I remember giving Roger an Easton baseball bat, the nicest bat I’d ever owned. My baseball career ended after my Senior year, but I hoped Roger could coax a few more decent years out of the ol’ bat. I remember driving like a banshee down Hickory Ridge Road in my old Honda Accord on our way to Opryland, Roger sitting in the front seat grinning from ear to ear. I even remember catching him as he tried to spy on his sister and me as we “said goodnight” in the driveway, his mischievous crooked-smile shining back at us from upstairs.
Roger helped me load a U-HAUL truck and drive it to Kingsport, TN in the summer of 1999. I had just agreed to serve as the Youth Minister at the Northeast Church of Christ and I had exactly one day to take a load of furniture and clothing to our new apartment. Roger woke up at the crack of dawn, drove five hours with me to Kingsport, helped me unload all of our furniture, and rode back to Nashville with me when we were done. Quite a day’s work, and all he asked in return was a pizza. I know I came out on the better end of that deal. All told, Roger helped us move 3-4 more times after that. I always knew I could count on Roger because he was family. When I married his sister and officially became his brother-in-law, Roger was on the stage with me as one of my groomsmen.
Roger was the little brother I never had. Over the years, we had plenty of good talks. I knew how he felt about pretty much everything: politics, church, God, girls, music, work, his country. He and I could find almost anything to laugh about. One year for his birthday, I took him to Cedar Point to ride the roller coasters. We rode a ride called the “Millennium Force” in the very front seat; they say on a clear day, you can see across the Great Lakes into Canada from the top of this ride. Roger and I squealed like girls the whole way down, but as soon as it was over, there we were, running to the back of the line to ride again. We made that trip several times over the years. Most recently, we had been talking about taking our kids with us, but we both knew the truth: deep down, the amusement park trip was always about our sense of childlike wonder and joy, no one else’s.
One year, Roger went with our group to Winterfest in Galtinburg. During one of our devotional sessions, he came up to me with tears in his eyes. I asked him what was wrong and he said he’d begun to doubt God’s love for him. It was all I could do to wrap my arms around him — Roger was always a big kid; he was a starting lineman for his high school football team. As I prayed with him that day, I learned that our brotherhood was about much more than simply sharing this woman — his sister, my wife. We were drawn together by a tie that ran even deeper, the deepest of all bonds really, a bond forged by association with the blood of the Nazarene.
Roger’s life was made difficult by circumstance, some of which were the result of his own choices, but many of which were beyond his control. At another critical time in Roger’s life — which happened to coincide with the unloading of another moving truck outside my home — he confided in me once again that he was struggling with God’s love. And so once again we talked — not as minister and congregant, but as brothers. I told Roger that no matter what anybody had ever told him, the Gospel truth of his life was that he was loved: deeply, wholly, without condition. The enemy would have us believe the lie; he whispers in our ear that we’re damaged goods, that we’ve made one too many mistakes, that we’re just beyond the reach of God’s grace. But God counters this with an enduring love that cannot fail. This is what defines us: not our mistakes, but our acceptance of this love, a love that is the most powerful force in the world. And once again, our bond of brotherhood was fortified by this truth.
So it is fitting now, in this present darkness, we turn once again to this truth. We turn once more to this message of enduring love and hope. I’m reminded of our talks, Roger, and now I’m the one in need of this word. Today you remind me of the belief we shared, a belief that love is more powerful than our mistakes. Today you remind me that although we shared so much — Sunny, Cedar Point, U-HAULs, our argument about “backstrip”, our love of movies and this family — our greatest bond was in Jesus. How ironic that you would be reminding me of these things today…in this hour when YOU are the one who is “moving on”.
Now, my brother.
Now you know.
Now you know how fully you have been loved all of your days.
Now you feel what I could only try to explain.
Now you experience what I could only attempt to describe.
Now you are basking in the warm embrace of that loving presence that once seemed so elusive to you.
Enter well into your rest now, dear brother.
And upon your remembrance, may our doubts recede back into the bowels of hell from whence they came.
Now, dear brother.