On a cool March Saturday years ago I struck up a conversation with another dad as we watched our sons practice soccer in the forest preserve in north Hoffman Estates. It turned out to be a conversation that would carry on for 18-1/2 years with one of the best friends I will ever have. Given that Mark, my dear friend and brother in Christ, stepped into eternity as his earthly life ended last Friday night after a 2-1/2 year battle with mantle cell lymphoma -- yes, cancer -- I cannot confirm this part of the account with him, but knowing Mark it is more likely he started the conversation.
Mark was wearing a Mizzou sweatshirt; I was wearing a Wisconsin sweatshirt. Both of us representing the alma mater. We started talking college hoops, the first of many such conversations over the years that would eventually take us on road trips to Tulsa/Oklahoma City, Dayton, Omaha, Kansas City and back to Tulsa/OKC to the 1st and 2nd round of March Madness (or the 2nd and 3rd round now that we have the First Four). That first Saturday, we had that wonderful experience of quickly realizing we were talking to a brother in Christ as we shared our first taste of the fellowship that was at the core of our relationship across those years. We regularly thanked God for the gift of the friendship and fellowship we shared. It is the closest thing I have known to what I imagine David and Jonathan had.
That first conversation was indicative of the easy, free-flowing, deep conversations we would share over the next 18-1/2 years. A more accurate description would be that it flowed like one continuous nearly two decade conversation. Regardless of how long it had been since we last met, we picked up the conversation so easily. Sadly for me -- for all of us -- the conversation has ended.
When Mark and I got together, we talked of our families. Mark was so blessed by Debbie and so proud of his sons; they always made it into the conversation and into our prayer. We talked of our work as we walked through many job challenges and changes together as we together trusted in our God to again provide for us, his children. We talked of the ministry that God and our churches entrusted to us. Mark was often a sounding board and a trusted source of counsel for me in ministry, especially these last 3 years as i have served as an elder at my home church. Mark's experience was so helpful to me. And most importantly we talked of our individual walk with the Lord as we pushed and encouraged each other to walk in a manner worthy of the calling. Mark had a real understanding that the will of God is our sanctification. I remember discussing a line from "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing" -- "O to grace how great a debtor daily I am constrained to be." Mark reveled in that grace. He was a model of that tension every follower of Jesus should live in -- seeing our sinful flesh and how we fall short yet moving forward and changing in God's strength while shining brightly to a watching world.
We always closed our time together in prayer. Mark was a prayer warrior for me. He strengthened my hand in the Lord as Jonathan did for David as described in 1 Samuel 23:15-16:
David saw that Saul had come out to seek his life. David was in the wilderness of Ziph at Horesh. And Jonathan, Saul's son, rose and went to David at Horesh, and strengthened his hand in the Lord.
As I searched for a story to share what I knew of Mark, the March 2006 NCAA road trip to Dayton echoed for me. There are several things from that weekend I won't soon forget --literally every day wrapped in fellowship even as we ate, drank and slept basketball. One story captures so much of Mark for me.
As much as we waited to catch Mark napping in his seat in the middle of 20,000 screaming fans -- I am still not sure how he could do that -- what really struck me on all these trips was how Mark would strike up a meaningful conversation with the guys seated around him. On that March Friday up in section 300-something of the University of Dayton Arena, Mark talked with some of the Ohio State fans around us and the men from our group. As I left our seats to get something to drink, Mark was deep in one of those conversations. Not wanting to interrupt -- and also wondering how he had the interest and capacity to continue in these conversations even in that setting -- I simply asked if I could bring him back something to drink. A while after I came back to the seats, that conversation ended. I moved into the seat next to Mark and asked what they had been talking about. I was almost floored but then again not surprised by Mark's answer. He had been talking through a difficult circumstance with this man and had the opportunity to tell him of his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. In the middle of that arena, during a trip centered on basketball, Dairy Queen, more basketball, amidst jokes of hotel reward points and napping, Mark was ministering, he was making an eternal investment in another soul. There are so many more examples from just that weekend -- let alone all the other times we shared across the prime of our lives -- of Mark ministering by listening and talking easily with me and others.
The passage that came to mind as I thought of what to share about Mark, my dear friend and brother in Christ is Philippians 2:1-4:
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
When I visited Mark in mid-August before Kim and I left for a 2-week vacation, I sensed that I needed to tell Mark what he meant to me. I couldn't count on another opportunity. After we prayed, I told him that he would leave a huge hole in my life. This week I have wondered how I will fill that gap. And as i prepared to share about Mark, my dear friend and brother in Christ, it occured to me that was the wrong focus. The accountability and prayer partner relationship I enjoyed with Mark was unique. Instead of looking to replace it, i choose to be grateful for it.
Praise to you my God for the fellowship and biblical friendship you gave me with Mark. I know your grace is sufficient for all here as we mourn.
Thank you, Mark, for encouraging and strengthening me and for the blessing that you were in my life.
As we wrestle this morning with grief, we can rejoice that Mark -- who had that great relational capacity and a very keen sense of his daily need for grace -- is enjoying the most important relationship, the most satisfying relationship, as he is in the presence of His Savior and Lord Jesus Christ, the source of that life-giving grace. Hallelujah!