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.
It’s time to announce a major shift in my professional life. I’ve spent the last 13+ years as an attorney representing employers before courts and government agencies. I’ve had the privilege of helping people manage their businesses and their “human capital.” On more than one occasion, I surveyed the players in the dispute du jour and wondered (usually to myself) where we would be if the parties had fought as hard for their personal well-being as they were fighting over this lost promotion or that reduced bonus. But the truth is that was only part of the process.
At the end of 2008, I left a law firm and a group of people that I really enjoyed to shift gears in hopes of having more time with Jen and K-Man. At the time, I felt a pull to find a job in the counseling arena. Before I went to law school, I earned a masters degree in counseling psychology, but I never pursued it as a career. In early 2009, I was still helping some of my clients with various legal matters, and that morphed into me opening my own legal practice. Over the next couple of years, I was able to spend more time with the family and pursue some hobbies and interests that had gone largely ignored.
By early 2011, a few things in our life converged, and I explored the idea of returning to law-firm life. I had a great opportunity that offered challenging work and another solid group of people to work with. I hoped I’d be able to practice law and still enjoy the family time that we had carved out for ourselves. (NOTE: if you ever find yourself “carving out time” for your family, please reexamine your day-to-day.) In the end, what I’d hoped for did not come to fruition and, if I’m honest with myself, it affected how I did my job. Of that, I am not proud. It was time to move on.
Since 2008, I’d had the idea of getting back into the profession of counseling rolling around my (mostly hollow) noggin. I’ve explored the licensing process on two different occasions during that time. Over the last 3 months, I’ve searched for counseling positions, applied for some, and met with other professionals about getting my foot in the door. But nothing came of my efforts.
Last Sunday was the first Sunday of February. At our church, our pastor asks people who have birthdays in the month to stand up on the first Sunday and share something they want the Lord to give them for their birthday. Over the years, the scope of requests has ranged from spouses to children to jobs to a truck. My birthday is this month, so I stood up last week and shared that I wanted a counseling position. During the last song of the service, the guy standing next to me, Jim, asked me if I knew Marcy Hardy. He said that he thought she was looking to grow her counseling practice. I had heard her name but didn’t have her contact info. Jim didn’t either. But at least, I had another lead.
As I was leaving, another guy walked up to me from the other side of the church. Jeff asked me if I knew Marcy Hardy. I said, “Funny. Jim just asked me the same thing.” (Jim is Jeff’s father-in-law.) Jeff had Marcy’s contact info and forwarded it to me. I emailed her and told her my story and that I was looking for a counseling opportunity. She offered times to meet. We met on Wednesday this week. In the interim, she did some homework on me and discovered a number of shared friends and contacts. It turns out that she is at the ground floor of a new counseling center (after over a decade counseling elsewhere). She felt that she really needed a male presence at her new location. After meeting with her on Wednesday and Thursday, it was clear to us that our meeting was not coincidental. She offered me a counseling position in her practice (Haus Calls), and after discussing it with Jen, I accepted. I start this week. We’ve spent the weekend painting my office and getting some things in order.
Whether you look at this from the beginning of 2009 or 3 months ago or 1995 when I graduated with my counseling psychology degree, I believe that the timing for this is perfect. I’m excited about what the Lord has for me professionally and what He wants to do through Haus Calls as we work to help people.
If you find yourself questioning what you are doing professionally or if you believe the Lord is directing you in a particular direction, I would encourage you to flesh that out because it always feels good to be in step with what the Lord has for us.