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Why Did You Have to Die So Soon?

May 4, 2014

A fellow teacher of mine and I decided to stand on the balcony during the students’ chapel hour.  At the time, no students sat in the balcony section, so Joel and I climbed the steps in order to find a few chairs and enjoy the chapel speaker from a different angle.  The lights were dimmed during the final song in order for us to be reflective on the message to come.  I stood on the balcony and reflected upon the many amazing blessings that God had brought into my life.  My Lord Jesus, my blessed wife Jill, my family, our fixer-upper but enjoyable home, my church…

…my brother Bruce.

Bruce was something else, let me tell you.

1bbbThe oldest of the ten children, Bruce oversaw us and led us during difficult times as well as hilarious situations. He was thrust into so many responsible roles as a child watching over the rest of us, even helping out my mother in times of need.  As an elementary age child, I woke up late one night and glanced into the dimly-lit hallway of our rented house in Hershey, Pennsylvania and saw my 12-year old brother hugging and consoling my mother after my father abandoned us and her only brother had just passed away from a brain aneurysm.  As a Radio/Televsion Broadcasting college student, I ran one of the television cameras at a packed auditorium and filmed Bruce receiving the Commencement Award for the highest honor in art achievement.  When I later changed my major to Bible, Bruce and I would sit on the floor in the dark hall of our family home in Delaware, chatting late into the night about both our dreams for the future and my upcoming ministry in California.  He was a Christian who cared about his siblings and took an interest in our growth. He was always ahead of us, and we willingly ran to catch up with him.

Bruce wore a number of hats in his youth; he was a Boy Scout leader, an organizational whiz, and an accomplished artist.  He won awards in numerous contests, including an all-school talent show trophy for a mime act he conjured up within weeks before the event.  He unofficially became our youth leader when our tiny country church had no official teen pastor.  Over the years I saw him organize Christmas parties, home gatherings and especially Halloween “fright night” events.  On one particularly memorable event, Bruce had the group of church teens cut a path through the woods and set up traps and scary situations for visiting church groups.  He put himself at the concluding scene of the whole “Scare Mare” walk-through by – I am not kidding – burying himself alive.  When the group would approach his “grave” he would come roaring out of the dirt, fresh with ghoulish make-up and a guttural bellow.  After one particular group ran screaming and sobbing out of the woods, Bruce came staggering over to us. “Argh, my head,” he groaned, clutching his jaw and forehead.  “That group was so scared, they rioted before I even got all the way out of the grave.  One of them stepped on my face.”

Yes, he was a genius.  But he was also one of the funniest persons I’ve ever known.  I think you could ask anyone who knew him and they would use either one of two words to describe him:  “zany” or “crazy.”  The guy was nuts, and we siblings were his willing audience.

I had arranged some guys in our little youth group into a traveling team of comedic entertainers who would visit other local country churches throughout rural Delaware and Maryland, performing skits and giving small Bible messages.  When Bruce came home from college we invited him along.

He was part of our act.  Oh, brother was he ever.  He brought down the house.

In one skit he was simply supposed to be the Wild Man from Borneo, held on a leash.

And stay quiet.

But that wasn’t Bruce.

The minute he came out into the public eye, he stole the show by foaming at the mouth, screaming, and so help me, he grabbed a corner of the carpet and started chewing on it.  I don’t think we ever got to the punch line. Come to think of it, we didn’t need to.

On another occasion, Bruce arranged for us to travel to another church and perform some skits, one of which was a drama in which Bruce gets robbed and he runs across the stage wearing only a giant beach towel.  Our car had troubles and we arrived late at the little Milford, Delaware church.  The play opened with Bruce bursting through a side door and screaming that he’d been robbed.  Bruce made the best of it, clad only in a brightly colored towel.  He ran out screaming and waving his arms before a stunned audience.  It got the attention of the congregation.

Because we were in the wrong church.  We had gotten the addresses mixed up.

He took off running to the car.  We had to run to catch up with him.

I do not recall how we got out of there without getting arrested, but once we realized our mistake, nobody ever moved as quickly in a getaway as we did.  To this day I wonder what those people thought of a half-naked teen running into their evening service, screaming and then exiting again, never to be seen…

He didn’t have to be on stage to go nutty.

As a teen, I had saved up enough money to buy a pair of jeans and a new shirt at a fairly upscale store.  Bruce joined my brother Brent and I on a trip to the mall to the store and I pulled out some shirts off the rack, checking them out in front of the mirror.    I got so absorbed in the clothing I forgot to locate Bruce.

Bad move.

We had made it a habit to keep an eye out for him, because he was always trying to pull a prank on us.

Well, I forgot.

And Bruce got me.

He had dropped to the ground fully across the store and was bellying a crawl, military style, across the floor underneath all of the clothes racks.  When he got to me, he wrapped his arms around my ankles and yanked as hard as he could.  I went crashing to the floor, stunned, while he kept yelling “Banzai” and pummeling me.  Brent and I were laughing so hard that of course all three of us were kicked out of the store. He ran so hard to the car that we had to dash to catch up with him.  I wore humiliation and multiple bruises for about a week.  It was worth it.

Bruce would lead our group whenever we traveled to youth conferences.  He would help organize family campouts.  He would donate untold hours of service work to the church.

This all came to mind as I stood on the balcony, flooding my heart with memories of an amazing brother.

Bruce died of a massive heart attack the year before.

I lost my oldest brother.

In the darkness of that chapel I turned and walked to the back of the balcony and sobbed uncontrollably. Joel was aware of my grief and kindly looked the other way as I wept openly.  Ah, Bruce.  How I missed him.  I miss him still.

Yet the reality of our very existence as Christians hit me as never before.  Bruce is in Heaven at this very moment.

He is experiencing everything we Believers have sung about, prayed about, read about and talked about.  Bruce took a step across that Great Divide that strikes fear into every man and woman.  He entered the door of death and yet he wasn’t destitute.

He walked right up to Jesus.

Bruce had suffered numerous ailments since childhood; now they were non-existent.  Just as Revelation 21:4 attests, Bruce faces no more pain or sorrow.  He experiences no more crying.  Death tried to defeat him.  It only set him up for victory.

I often wondered why God had to take my brother.  I think I know now.

Bruce was the oldest in the family.  He was the leader and example to us all. I think he was leading us into the next step in our existence and letting us know that it’s glorious and even a bit zany and fun.

I miss you, Bruce, but I’ll catch up with you.

Mark my words, I’ll catch up with you.



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