Remembering Jonathan Byrd
Seven years ago today, Jonathan Byrd, a dear friend of mine, suffered a debilitating stroke that resulted in his eventual death two years ago last week. That means for almost five years he lived a life of limited communication; bedridden and robbed of many of the faculties that he used to translate what was in his brain to what he could communicate with his mouth. I watched him slip away, a little at a time, and gradually saw the sparkle leave his eyes as his health continued to deteriorate. I clearly remember when he let me know that he longer cared to live and that he was ready to “go home.”
But when I think of Jonathan, I really don’t think of the shadow of a man that he had become. Rather, I think of the giant of a man who was my friend. And he was a giant of a man! Physically tall, and big, you couldn’t help by notice when he came in the room. He had an infectious laugh, and a gift of hospitality that you just couldn’t beat. He was one of the most generous and giving people I have ever met. He was fully committed to raising money for Christian ministries and over the years raised hundreds of millions of dollars to advance the cause of Christ in the world. In addition to all this work, he collected, refurbished and sold antique Bibles, and helped many of us in ministry by working with us to raise funds for our causes. He also was fully engaged and invested in a Bible college in India; and was the first one to recognize that I entered people’s lives when they were in life “transitions.” He predicted that I would write extensively on the topic, and I guess he was right. You could even say that this blog is named for his observation of what we all need – Transitions by The Book!
As important as he was to the Christian community, he was also a great business person. He understood how people think, and what drives us to excellence. His unique ability to assess the human condition allowed him to be a thought leader; something that caused him to to be able to lead the pack when it came to innovative thinking and critical path successes.
While all this may sound good in a resume, there is a much more personal side to this journey. Because when Janet and I decided to leave the corporate world and pursue a ministry objective, Jonathan was my most important sounding board. He encouraged and mentored me in how to “do” ministry and he himself delivered the message the evening that Janet and I launched Chaplains at Work. That one evening he helped us raise more than $60,000 to assist people and families struggling with the trials of career transition.
He and his wife, Ginny, included us in every major event they hosted at their cafeteria and banquet center – which, by the way, was the largest cafeteria in the world. They were generous hosts, and treated us with dignity and respect. They joined our journey with us – never leaving our sides; and loving us well in the process. That’s rare – because when a corporate guy leaves his business, he suddenly finds out who his true friends are. Most people run for cover when they figure that you can no longer benefit them – but not Jonathan or Ginny. It was an unconditional friendship – not based on what either of us could do for the other. It was a Christ centered friendship with mutual goals – to advance the Kingdom of God on earth.
And now, seven years after that life altering day, when Jonathan stayed in intensive care for a long time on the brink of death, when Janet and I kept Ginny company day after day as Ginny stayed by Jonathan’s side, when he lost the ability to communicate the Word as he had so effectively done year after year, I can’t help but be drawn to the best that he had to offer. Not than Jonathan didn’t have his faults – he did, like all of us do. But now is not the time to dwell on his shortcomings, but rather to celebrate his life.
In fact, Jonathan was the driving force behind my choice of seminaries, and he set up the initial interview for me to check out the school he suggested. He encouraged me to study formal Greek and Hebrew so as to be able to read the original languages myself, without having to depend on how other commentators interpreted the Scriptures. And I am grateful for his insight, because on hindsight, all the things he suggested were things I ultimately did. And he celebrated my successes with me; and I am eternally grateful for that.
Now, as many of you know, I am not tied to numerological meanings in the Bible, but there is strong biblical evidence to suggest that the number 7 was a time of completion. Priests had to be set apart for 7 days to be clean, the world was created in 7 days, Noah and his family were in the ark 7 days before the Flood, every 7 years the ground was to lie fallow to allow a year of rest, every 49 years (7 x 7), there was to be a year of Jubilee, and of course, we are to rest on the 7th day, the Sabbath. There are many other examples, but I think you get the drift.
So, tonight, the 7 year time comes to an end, and it is time to start over again. Those of us who loved him have mourned, and although his death was only 2 years ago, the Jonathan we all knew ceased to “live” as we knew him, 7 years ago. We have come to the realization that he is not coming back, and although we will be reunited with him one day, that time could be years off. In the meantime, we must roll up our sleeves and continue the good work that he began. So tonight, in honor of Jonathan, who actually chose the verse for our ministry, I am heading to Gal. 6:2, “Bear one another’s burdens; and so fulfill the law of Christ.” No verse is more appropriate of how he lived his life – he certainly bore my burdens, and the burdens of others, for years – that is his legacy.
So my encouragement tonight is that there is still work to do. Those of us still here must pick up the torch and continue to advance the Kingdom of God on earth. So please do your part. My prayer is that God will inspire you and that you will accomplish more than you ever thought possible. When special people impact our lives, and speak into our journeys, we experience rare moments. It is time to pay those memories forward by bearing the burdens of others. Hang on to those memories, as they are the impetus for us to do even greater things in the name of Christ. Have a great day in the Lord.