29 October 2005

A friend of mine died of AIDS nearly two years ago now. I am glad his suffering ended – and that I can picture him in heaven instead of dying inch by inch in his Greenwich Village apartment. While preparing to share at his funeral, I thought about a line from Ridley Scott’s movie Blade Runner.

Wrestling with the complexities of life and death, a computer programmer named Tyrell says to an android named Roy “The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long – and you have burned so very, very brightly.”

Like Roy, my friend’s light had indeed burned very brightly.
In 1983, as a skinny just-turned-18-year-old, he moved from the West Coast to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. Within a few years he simultaneously graduated, came out as a gay man, and took the New York fashion design industry by storm.

His designs were everywhere … in print, on billboards, on television, in movies. He was a hot property. Hot and lonely. Hot and searching. Hot and disconnected from nearly everything he grew up believing about Jesus. His light was burning brightly to be sure … and like a welder without a mask he was going blind.

My youngest brother also spent a long chapter of his life living in New York City. And during many of the nearly a dozen trips I took to visit him there from the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s, I spent time with my blind, burning friend. Sometimes we would talk about what he’d traded in for fame and fortune. Most of the time we talked about everything but that.

My friend spent 18 years living with AIDS, and his wealth afforded him something many AIDS-afflicted men in New York City didn’t have – time. Traveling the world seeking a plethora of treatments, he went from “having everything money could afford” to literally having nothing. From prince to pauper, all his money was spent trying to live just a bit longer. And when he finally died in his donated, largely undecorated, tiny studio apartment, he was surrounded by three close friends, his mom and dad, and two of his three brothers.

We spoke several times during his last two weeks of life … talking about growing up, our parents, our brothers, and about Jesus. He was no longer hot vocationally. But neither was he disconnected any longer.

While dying of what he eventually called “the gift of AIDS”, he’d reconnected with Jesus as his First Love and told me that in doing so he was more alive than he’d been in nearly two decades.
Four days before he died we had our last phone call. I read him the parable Jesus told in Matthew 20:1-16.

In the parable, a farmer needs to hire some folks to harvest his grapes. So he goes into town and finds some able-bodied workers and they start picking at 9:00 a.m. They worked hard, but the crop was bigger than the farmer had estimated, so at noon, and then again at 3:00 and 5:00 p.m. he had to head back into town and hire more last-minute workers.

I was reading out of J.B. Phillip’s New Testament in Modern English which says that at the end of the day the farmer paid each of worker “one silver coin” for their labor. In other words, everyone was paid the same amount, no matter how long they’d been out in the field. Those who harvested all day, and those whose hands barely picked enough grapes to get stained were each paid “one silver coin.”

“One silver coin!” my friend semi-jokingly interrupted. “What a cheapskate!" I chuckled, ignoring his lame comment and after a short pause, finished reading the last verses of the parable aloud, “It is my wish to give the latecomer as much as I give you. May I not do what I like with what belongs to me? Must you be jealous because I am generous? So, many who are the last now will be first then and the first last.”

After finishing, and in a way that only a friend can do, I paused a few moments and said, “Bro, the farmer is an image of God and the silver coin is a metaphor for heaven. All the workers got to go to heaven, no matter how much they’d done for the farmer. That’s the beauty of this parable … that no matter how long they’d stayed on task – whether it was a day, a week, a life-time, or a moment, whoever took the farmer up on his offer to pick grapes got to go to heaven.”

Then my friend matched my earlier pause with one of his own and sheepishly said, “Oh. Okay. Ya, I knew that! Of course, I knew that!” And he did. He got it. Scripture had done its work and spoken Truth.

A few days later my friend died. I went to New York City to preside over his funeral and when I told this story during the service, everybody laughed at his reply, but nobody laughed at the real punch-line of the story, because like my friend, everybody there got it.

We all realized the Truth Jesus spent His life trying to get across, the Truth that was on His mind when He first told this parable 2,000 years ago: that God is full of grace (the kind of love that takes away our sin), full of mercy (the kind of love that takes away the pain of our sin), and full of compassion (the kind of love that sees us as worth rescuing). We all saw that God’s love keeps chasing us over hill and dale, to New York City and back again, all because He can’t wait to have us say that we want to pick His grapes ... all because He can’t wait to give us one silver coin.

At “the viewing”, held the evening before his funeral, I slipped a shiny silver coin into my friend’s suit coat pocket. I didn’t do it to imply that he or anybody else can buy their way into heaven. I’m not the smartest person around, but I’m not that stupid. But I wanted my friend to know that I knew that he knew the farmer wasn’t a cheapskate. I wanted to show him that I knew he was burning brightly again, and that this time he wouldn’t burn out. I wanted him to know that I knew his pain had ceased, that he’d been redeemed, and that at long last he was living face-to-face with Jesus Christ, the lover of his soul.

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