Today, I went to the funeral for a college classmate of mine. I don’t remember the first time I met Michael. I recall playing some intramural sports against him and over the years, we would catch up with each other about our families, jobs, life, etc. whenever we saw each other. He was always nice. He always seemed genuinely interested in whatever I was doing. I remember one time when he left a message on my phone while he was driving through Atlanta. He was just calling to catch up. Last June, we caught up again at our 20th college reunion. And again, he was so easy to talk to.
If I’m honest, I must admit that there was a part of me that didn’t think anyone could be this nice. He must have an angle. I knew Michael was a financial planner, and I’ve known a few in my years. Every other one of them always eventually got around to asking me where I had my money. Michael never asked me that question. That should’ve been enough for me to realize he had no hidden agenda. But I’m ashamed to say my cynical self continued to wonder.
Until I went to Ohio yesterday and encountered the level of impact Michael and his family have had on their community. I stood in line at the funeral home for 2 hours to express my condolences to Christy and the family. And the line had been that long all afternoon. And it’s not like the line was long because people weren’t going to be able to make it to the funeral service today. At the church, there were easily over 500 people present. And every one of them gladly sat there for 2 hours and 45 minutes to worship, share stories, shed tears, and laugh about the many memories of times with Michael.
As I sat there swaying between disbelief at his passing, laughter, tears, and concern for his 3 daughters and now widow, I realized that there was no way Michael could have been this nice. On his own. It was clear that the genuinely caring person that I encountered was only that way because of his faith in Christ. The fruit of that walk was in abundance the last 48 hours in Ohio. The lines of people. The stories from friends and relatives. He even had tenants in his rental homes singing his praises. Who loves their landlord?!?!?! It was clear that what I’d observed in Michael was nothing more than the light of Christ. Because no one could fake it that long!
It’s not lost on me that Michael died on Palm Sunday and was buried on Good Friday this year. There is such symbolism in that. One of the pastors who spoke at the service today made a great observation about the connection with Palm Sunday. If Michael had known what was going to happen when he went for that run 5 days ago, he never would’ve gone. If he’d known there was any issue with his heart, he would’ve gone directly to the hospital for diagnosis and treatment. If he could’ve stopped this, he would’ve done everything in his power to do so to stay around for his wife and daughters. The Gospels tell the story of Palm Sunday and Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. When he decided to take that ride, he knew what awaited him 5 days later. And he went anyway! You can read the story. He knew what he was agreeing to. And not surprisingly, he agonized over the ultimate sacrifice that he would become. But he went ahead anyway.
Michael didn’t have the benefit of knowing what was going to happen on his run last Sunday. But I’m confident if I had asked him 10 years ago if he’d prefer to live 75 years without a relationship with Christ or only 43 in relationship with him, he would’ve jumped at the chance to walk with him. Because the end result of that first Good Friday and Michael’s faith in Christ meant that when his run ended prematurely last weekend, he ran into the open arms of his Lord and Savior.
Now, I’d be remiss if I didn’t genuinely share that I don’t understand the “why” behind these circumstances. I don’t understand why a man who was a loving husband, father, son, friend, uncle, co-worker who made a difference in his community and who did more than most to take care of his body is gone. It makes no sense as I look at it from my earthly perspective. During the service today, a line from one of the songs hit me hard: “your grace amazes me.” My first thought was, “It better, Lord. Because none of this makes sense to me. Please Lord, let your grace amaze me now! More than ever before!”
Many hear the story of Jesus and doubt its veracity. I understand that. It’s an incredible story. It sounds too good to be true. I happen to be one of many who believe the story. And I am so glad that I was able to participate in the celebration of Michael Sparks this week and know that he was a man who was not too good to be true. In Christ, he was everything he portrayed. He lived an abundant life. He made an impact for the Kingdom. I am confident that on Sunday morning, he was greeted by the Lord saying ‘Welcome my son. In you, I am well pleased.” I hope to hear the same one day. Not because of anything I do, but because, like Michael, I surrendered my life to the God of the Universe.