This week, we Christians celebrate a birth, the most important of all births, but I’ve been thinking more about death. I learned last night that my friend, Paul Buursma, died at about 6 p.m. Sunday. In his early 30’s, Paul died young, as do many people who have physical disabilities. His health has been in rapid decline the last few months. We knew this was coming, but when I read the announcement from his family, it still came as a shock.
My mom and my dad passed away after long, slow declines in health. Even in their cases, living nearly three times as long as Paul, the final moment still shocked. I was talking with a colleague a few years ago whose son was killed in a car crash, leaving behind a wife and four young children. Reflecting on this loss, my colleague said, “Death is so disruptive.” Maybe that’s one of the reasons death always shocks, even when death has been knocking at the door for some time. Plans, dreams, expectations all change. When someone we love dies, we pass through a doorway into a new reality. The cold reality that we can never go back shocks us.
Paul had been a volunteer with the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) for nearly 5 years. (At least, that’s the best guess that Paul and I could make when this topic came up a few weeks ago.) His official duty was delivering interoffice mail. Unofficially, he functioned at the Grand Rapids CRC office as CHO (Chief Hospitality Officer) for half a decade. Paul had a keen memory for names, important dates, and significant events in people’s lives. He found out about prayer concerns, and followed up with people the following weeks. He talked sports with sports lovers, and followed the Calvin College teams carefully. He maintained a positive spirit, even when his pain was great, even when he did not feel well. He brought cheer along with the mail.
God called Paul to bring cheer. Paul pursued this calling at several other places too, including Calvin College. When he was too weak to get out, he would phone me to let me know he would not be coming. He never expressed disappointment about not being able to deliver mail. Instead, he expressed disappointment about not being able to deliver cheer. God called him to remember names, dates, events. God called him to bring mail with a smile. God called him to care. Paul embraced his calling to deliver cheer seriously and winsomely. There must be at least a million photos on Facebook of Paul with friends documenting his pursuit of this calling. I praise God that he allowed me the privilege of becoming one of Paul’s friends.
As we light candles, sing carols, open presents, eat feasts, and worship the newborn king this season, we embrace hope that the shock of death will one day cease. The Resurrection and the Life came into this world as a fragile baby. After his crucifixion, he was raised from the dead so that death may die. Paul’s death brings new life for him. Those of us who loved him remain shocked by death’s finality, and we live in the hope that death will die. Because Paul loved Jesus as his Lord and Savior, he lives on, bringing cheer in the presence of his Lord and Savior.
Visitation will be on Tuesday and Wednesday, and a memorial service for Paul will take place at the Chapel of Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, on Wednesday at 5 PM.