Preached on June 15th, 2011.
I met Marian and Jim Steen twenty-two years ago when I arrived at the Parsippany United Methodist Church as the new, young pastor. My first clear memory of them is of visiting in their home one afternoon during that first summer, the time of year when school teachers and principals slow down and catch their breath, and catch up on things around the house. Jim was attired in all white complete with a painter’s hat. Spattered with paint, he was happy to take a break from the job he’d taken on of giving the walls of his house a fresh coat of paint. Marian served cake and coffee as we sat together at the kitchen table. Jim Jr., still living at home, was on his way out to an after work softball game. It was a family at ease with themselves, with a clearly well-honed sense of humor.
There are stories you hear when you come to a new church as the pastor that are formative to that congregation’s understanding of who they are and where they’ve come from.
I’d heard the basics of one of those formative stories before visiting that day. It involved the Steen Family, and sipping coffee, Jim and Marian proceeded to tell me the story in more detail.
The Steens had lived a pretty close approximation of the all-American dream: A principal and a school teacher married together, sharing a commitment to value of education, working hard year after year to make a positive influence in the lives of countless children. Along the way Jim and Marian raised two handsome, healthy, happy, high-energy, baseball playing sons who were only a year apart in age – “Irish twins.” Their lives revolved around church and making a positive difference in their community; good folks for sure, living a happy and successful lives.
All was well in the kingdom. Jimmy, the older boy, was about to go off to college in West Virginia.
And then one day heart-wrenching tragedy struck. Ray, the younger son, who loved to be on the go, was out riding his moped when the accident happened.
Suddenly, instead of the American dream, the Steen family found themselves living a nightmare. At first it was uncertain whether Ray would survive the accident, but when it became clear he would, the question turned instead to whether, having suffered serious brain injury, Ray would ever regain consciousness.
Time passed so slowly. Month after month Ray lay in a coma in Mountainside Children’s Hospital. Day after day Marian drove the hour to sit at Ray’s bedside, as did Jim when he wasn’t trying to hold things together at work.
The church rose to the occasion. They prayed and they cared and they cooked and offered whatever practical assistance they could to help. Jack Kelshaw insisted that he would take off work to accompany Jim in driving Jimmy to begin college in West Virginia. Of course, he’d do it. Hey, what are church families for?
Mostly, though, the church family simply ached with the Steens. What was there to do?
The church family was there for the Steens, and yet in truth the church family was blessed even more by the Steens. Walking that road together, the church learned from the Steens what it means to walk the walk of faith.
The Apostle Paul declares, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” All things. But how does good come out of something as horrible as this?
Month after month Ray lay in a comma. The suffering of the Steens was Job-like.
Through it all, Marian was the rock. When Jim doubted that good could come out of what they were going through – when he wondered whether God might in fact have it in for the Steens – that this tragedy could somehow be punishment, it was Marian who was adamant that, No! God is loving – not cruel. Ours is a loving God, not a vengeful God! That God was with the Steens as surely as God had been present in Jesus suffering on the cross.
It is easy to keep the faith when all goes smoothly – it is quite another thing to keep the faith when you’re walking in absolute darkness, and you have no idea how you will make it through. It takes courage to refuse to give in to despair and to wait patiently upon the Lord. The Steens were a living, breathing example for the rest of their church family of what it means to keep the faith, baby — even when life is scary as all get out.
Here is Marian’s favorite story to tell – one of the defining stories of our church, of which I spoke: For eight long months Ray had remained in a coma. One day Marian, exhausted, was home. The phone rang. It was a staff person from Mountainside Hospital. “Mrs. Steen, I have somebody here who would like to speak to you.” A moment of silence. Then… “Hi, Mom.” It was Ray, like Lazarus, back from the dead.
Sometimes the old Bible stories come alive in our lives. Like this one, for instance: Mary stands weeping outside the tomb where Jesus’ dead body has been laid. She had come to anoint the body, but now the body is gone. Mary is a total mess. She is standing in a garden but she can’t smell the flowers. She sees this guy whom she takes to be the gardener. The guy says to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”
She’s crying so much she can’t really see straight. She says to the man, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away!”
Mary was a determined, strong-willed woman. In my imagination, kind of like Marian Steen. Mary figured if this guy would just show her where he’s placed Jesus’ body, well, she’d just hoist him up on her shoulders all by herself and carry him back to her house.
And then the stranger calls her name, “Mary!” And hearing her name spoken by her beloved, everything suddenly shifted.
Sing with me, will you?
I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses,
And the voice I hear falling on my ear,
The Son of God discloses.
And he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.
There was a long road to travel for the Steens beyond that blessed day when Ray said for the first time since his accident, “Hi, Mom.” Years of difficult rehab.
Marian and Jim soon discovered that there were few provisions in New Jersey for people like their son who had suffered brain injuries. They began networking with others in the state who had been similarly afflicted. They began the long, long process of patiently working the system to get laws passed and public support put in place for persons who had been brain injured.
And so the Steens became a living, breathing example of the truth of what the apostle Paul had said: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
The Steens took their personal suffering, and, loving God, they allowed God to bring good out of it. Because of the perseverance of the Steens, thousands of others people who suffered brain injuries in New Jersey and their loved ones would have an easier time of it. They would find the practical support they needed already in place.
The real tragedy of human life isn’t that from time to time we must suffer accidents and such with the pain and heartache they bring. We think that’s the real tragedy of life, but it isn’t, really.
The real tragedy of life is that we human beings so easily lose track of what is real – of what truly matters.
For instance, we lose track of the true worth of human beings. We come to think that our worth has to do with how much money we make, or how successful we are at climbing the ladders of status and power. But it has nothing to do with any of that stuff.
We were made in the image and likeness of God, and that means we were made with the capacity to shine forth love.
That’s it. Nothing else.
Everything else is just distraction. Fluff. Stuff that passes away.
But love never ends.
Somebody who is brain injured can still love mightily, as Ray Steen’s life testifies. He was loved mightily, and he loves mightily.
The Steen family helped us all see this truth.
“What does it profit a person to gain the whole world,” Jesus said, “but to lose in the process their very soul?”
A few years back we built a new sanctuary in Parsippany. Marian and Jim donated the new podium for our new sanctuary from which we proclaim God’s word. The reason I mention this is because of the words they chose to have engraved on the plaque they had attached to the podium. The words are so sweetly simple and succinct.
“God is love,” it says. That’s all you need to know. Not a God of wrath, but a God of tender mercy, who suffers with us in our trials and tribulations, and leads us through into a great ocean of eternal love.
Marian knew her Bible inside and out, and she knew that in the end the message of the Bible all comes down to this: God is love.
There are lots of other things that could be said about Marian today, but in the end they are all variations on this basic theme: God is love. Marian was made in the image and likeness of the God who is love.
We could talk about the thousand plus children whose lives Marian touched in all her years of teaching. We could talk of her love of music, and of how proud she was of her son Jimmy whose life work was about having music performed for the public to enjoy. We could talk of how proud Marian was of Ray in all his incredible perseverance. We could talk of how much she loved her grandchildren… of how faithful she was in her support of her churches… of how easily she laughed.
We could talk about how much she loved her husband Jim and what a matched set they were… How God drew them together with two quite distinctive, strong personalities, and how over nearly fifty years of marriage God melded them together into one flesh – a union far greater than their individual parts because Christ was in the center of their life together.
We could talk about what a healing blessing Marian’s love was for Jim, in whose childhood there had been a something of a scarcity of love. How good God was to bring Marian into his life to love him so fiercely and passionately.
We could talk about all these things and more, but in the end, it would all be, as I said, variations on the theme of “God is love.”