I can still remember when I heard the news. The world was reeling in shock over the sudden death of famed actress Carrie Fisher, lauded primarily for her iconic role in the Star Wars saga. I was reeling myself as well, but not for the same reason. The news that was weighing on my heart like a gunny sack of rocks was the diagnosis received by my Aunt Angie around the same time, the kind of diagnosis that all of us would tremble to hear: terminal brain cancer. The contrast between the tragic reports of what had befallen these two women could not have been more striking. Carrie Fisher mourned by millions around the world; my Aunt Angie by a circle of people much smaller and more geographically confined. Through the films that she made, Carrie Fisher will continue to live on for generations to come in the hearts and minds of those who never met her; Aunt Angie will also be remembered, but only by those who had the privilege of knowing her personally. The first will forever be enshrined in the annals of cinematic history; the second will perhaps be forgotten, as most of us will be, after a relatively short amount of time.
Time. We act as though it belongs to us by right. But it does not, as we should know this by now. Is it not strange that after millenia of observing human death, that dark specter that eventually comes for us all, we continue to be surprised when it occurs? I can recall the headlines, the blogs, the Facebook status updates when Carrie Fisher passed, people from countries around the world and in multiple languages expressing shock and dismay. It might be comedic if it were not so tragic. From the dawn of time, no human being — none! — has ever been exempted from having to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. And yet we are shocked when one more does so. There is a word for this, the apostle James called it “arrogance”: “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes…. As it is you boast in your arrogance” (Js. 4:14, 16). None of us is guaranteed tomorrow, nor even today for that matter. Every day is a gift. Every day is grace. Or, as my Aunt Angie put it, “every day is manna”.
This is why she did not use the daily bread that fell to her lot for her own selfish ambition or benefit, but broke it and gave it away with selfless abandon and generosity. You see, Aunt Angie was a life-long missionary in Mexico. For the majority of her days on earth, she worked tirelessly at the side of her husband — my Uncle Dick — to bring the bread of life to the spiritually starving. Countless lives have been strengthened, nourished, and saved from eternal death as the result. Like the Savior whom she loved so dearly, she was a seed that fell into the earth and died so that it could bear much fruit. Her faithful labor in the fields of the Lord is now reaping a harvest that only the storehouses of eternity will be able to contain. When she departs this life to be welcomed into the presence of God, she will not have wowed many eyes with big-screen glim and glamor, but she will have fed many hearts and souls with the food that lead to eternal life. We do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. For Aunt Angie, this was not an abstract notion, but an urgent question of life and death. For her, every day was manna, and she lived to share her portion so that others might live.
The value of a life cannot be measured by the status that it attains. That which looms large in the eyes of the world appears small in the eyes of the God who has chosen the weak and foolish things of the world to shame the strong and the wise. If the cross of Jesus Christ has turned everything on its head — making the first last and the last first, making the great insignificant and the insignificant great, making the famous anonymous and the anonymous famous — then Aunt Angie is a superstar in the kingdom of God. To be sure, her passing, likely at this point to be a matter of only a few more ticks of the clock, will not receive so much as a passing mention in the world’s newspapers and mass-media outlets, but how precious will it be in the sight of the Lord! Her absence from the earth will not be mourned by millions of people around the world, but her entrance into glory will be celebrated by the innumerable hosts of heaven with deafening shouts of joy and raucous songs of victory. Her sacrificial deeds in the service of the gospel may be forgotten a hundred years from now, but they will endure for all eternity in the lives of the people who were saved through her faithful witness, luminous example, and loving care. Few will be those who visit her grave, but many will be those who meet her in the place specially prepared for her by Jesus himself.
Speaking personally, I cannot begin to articulate the impact that Aunt Angie has had on my own life. I regret not having had more time to be around her, moments which were few and far between. Yet through their regular prayer letters from the frontlines in Mexico and the frequent reports of family members, I was both humbled and convicted, encouraged and challenged, to pursue a life and ministry of greater faithfulness and fruitfulness of my own. I will never forget the time when I heard that she and Uncle Dick were moving, at a not so tender age and after having completed a successful ministry of many years in one part of Mexico, to another city in order to begin a new church-planting work. Whereas most people at that stage of life would have been looking to retire to some comfortable spot to fritter away the rest of their years, Uncle Dick and Aunt Angie were resolutely determined to use their remaining time in the continued service of their Lord and Savior who had first called them to missionary work and who had evidently not yet released them from it. My great hope and prayer is that I will live up to their example and carry forward the torch that Aunt Angie is soon to lay down.
I regret that I am not able to take leave of my own missionary work in order to return home and express these thoughts to Aunt Angie and the family in person. I also regret that I will not be present for the funeral and memorial service. Yet I have no doubt that Uncle Dick and Aunt Angie, who themselves have faithfully supported our family’s ministry in Italy for many years, would have it no other way. As much as I would like to be there, I believe that I can honor Aunt Angie’s example best by continuing to do the work to which God has called me. She will soon be taking her place among the great cloud of witnesses that has gone before, and I know that she will be cheering me on. I look forward to the day when all things are made new, and I will see her once again, resurrected and radiant, and finally have the opportunity to thank her for her life of faithful service. I am sure, however, that I will need to wait quite a long time when I get there, since the line of people wanting to do the same will no doubt be very long!
But for now, I can only write this little tribute in her honor. Aunt Angie has fought the good fight. She has finished the race, and she has kept the faith. Now there is laid up for her a crown of righteousness which she will receive as she hears the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your master.”
Update: Aunt Angie passed away this evening, 30 April 2017, around 8:00 pm EST. She is now free of pain and full of joy in the presence of her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Please pray for the many family members and friends who will be grieving her loss in the coming days, weeks, months, and years.