[Thanks to Gary Scroggins for his friendship, his mentoring, and for always passing along a story to keep me moving forward with Christ. Gary told me to pass along this story as I saw fit ...]
I had lunch with Gary Scroggins this past week to get me signed-up to go on an Emmaus Walk this coming Spring, a church retreat for men and women. After catching up briefly inside his church over in Brazil, we decided to make the short walk down the street to a new restaurant that had just opened up in the former bank on US-40. As we walked the short two blocks, I asked Gary how he was doing. He paused for a moment and mentioned that the last few weeks had been a bit of a whirlwind. I knew that his wife, Sandi, was scheduled for a checkup regarding her cancer, so I was fearful that he would have bad news related to that visit. No, he assured me, all the results from their time up at the Cleveland Clinic were positive for Sandi. It wasn't that. Instead, he got word about two weeks ago that his older sister by eleven years had suffered an aortic tear and had to be rushed to the hospital and into surgery. Unfortunately, she didn't pull through. So the call Gary got was to inform him that his sister had died, quite unexpectedly and with seemingly lots of life before her. The shock was especially intense for Gary as in recent years (after losing their parents), Gary and his two sisters would call each other every Tuesday night - a standing commitment to connect via conference call even though Gary was here in Indiana, and his two sisters were back in Missouri where they all grew up.
The weight of his sister's loss was sitting heavy on Gary, and one of the things I appreciate about him is that he wears his feelings honestly, yet without being too self-centered. Gary is deeply grounded in his identity as one of God's children, and so he doesn't need to posture too much or feel the need to put on a facade. So, over lunch, I got to hear him talk about his first few steps into a journey that we sometimes have to take, but never want to: the journey into grief. His return trip to Missouri was full of all sorts of emotions: home-coming and the strange knowledge that it would never be the same, tears of sorrow but also tears of laughter when they remembered some stories about his sister's life. Like many of us have experienced, he had convened with his other sister and the rest of his family for an intense time of preparing for his older sister's funeral. Over a long weekend, they passed around stories, caught up on each other's lives, planned the service, and finalized all the details with the funeral home. Thankfully, Gary’s sister’s minister was there as well, making sure to lift much of the responsibility off of Gary’s shoulders this time when it came to being the pastor. He needed that. He needed the time to grieve himself.
Still, though, there was one thing Gary did do for his sister’s service. He told a story that came to mind, a story from his past, way back when he was serving as a youth minister. He, along with a group of adult volunteers, had taken a bunch of teenagers down to the Gulf of Mexico near New Orleans for a week-long service trip. As with all youth trips, there was plenty of “on-time” for Gary – everything from serving as chauffeur to cook to worship leader to counselor. But, sometime late in the week, his volunteers convinced him to take the afternoon while they took the kids. As a result, he decided to walk a stretch of beach on the gulf.
As he walked, he noticed a little inlet of water, and a path that followed along the side of it. He walked that path for awhile, only to stop and sit down. He stayed there for a bit, just letting his heart and mind calm down, but gradually he began to recognize something on the other side of the inlet. There on the ground appeared to be hundreds of dead crabs, maybe thousands – littered with their bone-white color. He just stared at all the shells. Not long after, he noticed a park ranger coming towards him, perhaps trying to get Gary to return to the beach. But, before the ranger could speak, Gary asked him, “What’s up with all of these dead crabs?”
The ranger replied, “Oh, they’re not dead.”
I waited as Gary let that line dangle for a moment and half expected Gary to tell me that the crabs were in some form of hibernated state.
“No, they’re not dead,” the ranger continued. “Each year, the crabs have to come up here and shed their shells so that they can go out into the deeper waters where their life will continue and they can flourish.”
Gary let the story hang again so I can let the richness of its meaning soak into my mind.
“They had to shed their shells so that they could move into the more abundant life.”
Now, Gary told me this with his heart still heavy, so his eyes watered a bit as he knew precisely what he was saying. He loved his sister deeply, and a few weeks ago, as Gary said, they made sure to handle his sister’s “shell” with the utmost respect and dignity. They did everything they should to speak about her life, to celebrate it, and to treasure the gifts they received from her life.
And for Gary (for all of us really), the great difficulty now was that all that he ever knew of his sister was what he experienced of her in that shell. The great promise, on the contrary, is that his sister was not dead. She had made the one last deep plunge into those deepest waters, the waters of eternal life.
I cherished this story, and I hope you will too. It was such an amazing allusion to what Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 5 regarding these earthly bodies we live within as we move through this world, these “tents.”
Certainly, it is hard when those we love shed their shells or leave their earthly tent. But, for those of us whose hope is in Jesus Christ, we have the assurance that those dearest and most cherished by us are not gone forever when they die. They are beyond us. They are out into those deeper waters, awaiting us too, for someday we will shed our own shells in order to go and be at home with our Creator and Lord.
Of course, this isn’t to say that this makes the losing of our loved ones any easier. It certainly wasn’t easy for Gary. I could see it on his face over lunch there in Brazil, and he was brave enough to share honestly and vulnerably.
But the hope that is ours is that we so often fail to see the biggest picture. We see through a mirror dimly right now. We must always remember that God’s purpose is for life, even for those whom we are grieving. Or maybe for that part of our life that seems dead at the moment. There is life beyond death.