Did you know that God can take what we think are the most ordinary of things and turn them into instruments of His grace, tools that take people from far away into a meaningful relationship with Him? This is my favorite story about when God did just that!
Facebook—a time waster, argument starter, face to face connection stealer. Years into this social media craze I get it, Facebook can be damaging. However, the popular site also has some benefits—making long distance relationships seem a little closer, providing a place to get information out to many people at once, forming communities of like-minded people that would otherwise never come to be, connecting people with those they long ago lost contact with. Today, I want to share my favorite Facebook memory, how this thing that many roll their eyes at became a life-changing tool.
Ping! While going about my regular business one day, I heard the sound of a chat window opening. The was before everybody used their phones to connect Facebook and messenger was not a separate app. “This is your Uncle Rick. Tell me about yourself.”
“Well,” I said, “I am married. We live in Westland and have three kids. Brianna is almost four. Ben is two and a half and Jeremiah is seven months old.”
Uncle Rick wasn’t satisfied. “Tell me more. I want to know everything.” This short conversation was the start of a wonderful relationship. Over time my uncle became more than a family member, but a wonderful friend. This friendship is something that has become a significant part of my life, and I am convinced that this friendship was a tool that changed my uncle’s life for eternity.
Over seven months’ time my uncle and I had many conversations. Sometimes we would talk for just a few minutes, and sometimes for hours. Many times my attention was divided between talking with him and other responsibilities—kids, housework, church business, and the like. Other times I was able to give my uncle my undivided attention. One such time we talked for several hours. My husband had taken the children away for the day and I was supposed to be getting ready for a garage sale. I noticed that my uncle was signed onto Facebook; I chose to start chatting. I didn’t end up getting very much done. In fact, we talked for so long that Facebook informed me that I was close to exceeding my chat limit. I didn’t even know that was a thing! Not more than a couple minutes after I told Uncle Rick that Facebook was cutting us off, the phone rang. It was him. We talked for a couple of more hours. We laughed on more than one occasion about how we were too long winded for Facebook.
Uncle Rick taught me many things. He knew how much I enjoyed my children and that I loved doing special things with them. He was constantly giving me ideas about new things I could do with them. He was at fault for more than one mess made.
One day I was looking for something to do with the kids, a project or a craft of some sort. I could almost see the grin on his face when he said, “How about making something from paper maché?” We ended up making a bowl to hold candy at Christmas. Doing paper maché with a three and four year old was quite an adventure. There was flour paste and pieces of newspaper stuck all over my kitchen, and I could almost see the sparkle in Uncle Rick’s eye as I told him about the mess. Uncle Rick also taught me how to grow beans in a jar and make several kinds of Christmas ornaments.
Talent was something that I found out Uncle Rick did not run short on. His woodwork was gorgeous. He sent me pictures of some of the things he made. I remember in particular a desk he made for his grandson. It was unique, painted in bright colors, and perfect for a little boy who liked to be creative. Many of our conversations included what project he was working on. He was also quite the handyman. He was especially good with electrical work. I remember talking to him about some work he was doing on electric eyes for some trains he had. I asked him several questions about work that needed to be done in my own house and he always had an answer, and the right one at that. Uncle Rick could fix anything on a car, too. He often gave me advice on mine and once even saved me some money when a dishonest mechanic was going to charge me to fix something that was not actually broken. He enjoyed working on the restoration of an old Bonneville.
Though his ideas and talents never ceased to amaze me, I was most impressed by my uncle’s warm and caring heart. Uncle Rick loved his wife, Nancy, so much. He wanted nothing more than to be her hero. He had three children of his own, Richard, Laura, and Nicholas, as well as three step-children. The average person would just know that he had six children. His step-daughters were no less his children than his own were. He adored all of them and talked about his pride in them often. He also had five grandchildren that he couldn’t get enough of. He spent a lot of time bragging about them. He loved me too. He always made sure that he told me. He also talked about how much he looked forward to our chats.
During one chat I told him that we were missing out on camping. A lot of our equipment had been ruined earlier in the summer. We couldn’t afford to buy anything new. At the last minute someone offered their camper to us, but not having planned ahead, we didn’t have enough money to buy food for the weekend or pay the campsite fee. My uncle loved to camp and would not let us miss out on a fun weekend as a family. He sent me a check to cover the weekend. I was so grateful, and was even more so when I learned how little money he had. It was truly a sacrifice that I will always remember and appreciate.
Many times the tone of our conversing was light hearted. We talked about everyday things. We told jokes. We complained about the little annoyances of life. There were several other conversations, however, that were much more serious. You see, at the time I started reconnecting with Uncle Rick, he had lung cancer. He thought about different things than many people think about on a day to day basis. He thought about death. He worried about leaving his family with nothing. He was scared of the pain that he knew would come near the end of his life. He also had many questions about what happened after death. Would there just be nothingness? If there was a heaven would his family be there? There certainly was a God; creation proved it, but was He a personal God? How did one secure a seat in Heaven if it was a real place?
Discussing the answers to these questions, and more, became a regular part of our online chats. I had decided when we first found each other on Facebook that he would be my project. I was bound and determined to lead my uncle to Christ. I would not let him leave this earth without knowing Jesus Christ as his personal savior, with the assurance of a life in Heaven with Him. During our early conversations I realized that Uncle Rick knew some of the basics of Christianity. With this in mind, I thought that the decision to follow Christ would come quite quickly. I figured that he would make his peace with God and I would go about my business. The decision didn’t come right away though. Instead, I was caught off guard when my uncle became more than my project. He became someone that I deeply loved. This made the issue more urgent, but also gave me more grace in answering his questions.
Uncle Rick had some background with the Bible. He even quoted verses to me on occasion. Unfortunately, he didn’t know if it was truly the word of God. Without this conviction it was hard to move forward to Christ’s atonement for his sin. Some of his reservations about the Bible were about translating. I was able to talk to him thoroughly about the accuracy proved by the hundreds of eyewitnesses. When he expressed interest in learning more I sent him a book by Lee Strobel that gave historic and scientific evidence for both the Bible, and even more specifically, Jesus. I only visited my uncle a few times. Once when I was there I saw the book sitting on a table with a bookmark holding a place nearly a third of the way through. I was so encouraged that he was reading it, knowing it would bring him one step closer to that decision I so badly wanted him to make.
Eventually the questions about the validity of the Bible stopped. We moved toward the more personal issues. My uncle admitted that he believed that Jesus lived, died, and rose again. The problem came with him accepting the forgiveness offered to him. He just didn’t understand. Uncle Rick told me several times that I was going into the right profession, ministry, because I had the ability to turn the simplest things into spiritual illustrations. I’m not sure this comes naturally to me. I am more convinced that the Holy Spirit gives me the exact words to say. The great love I had for my uncle and my passion to lead him to Christ prompted me to listen to the Holy Spirit and to speak, or type, the words He had given me. I recall one such conversation very clearly.
“Did you like those chocolate chip cookies that I made for you”? There was no question in my mind about the answer to that question. My uncle definitely had a sweet tooth.
“Of course. They were delicious. They’re already gone.” I was right, he couldn’t deny liking them.
“Did I have to make those cookies or did I have a choice? I had a choice. Nothing was making me bake them. I did it because I love you and wanted to give you a gift. Did you have to accept my gift?”
“Well, yeah, I had to. I would never pass up cookies.”
“Nope, you’re wrong. As much as you like cookies you didn’t actually have to take them. You could have thrown them right back at me and said you didn’t want them, an unlikely possibility, but a possibility nonetheless.”
“Okay…” I could tell he wondered just where I was going with this crazy cookie illustration.
“It’s the same way with forgiveness. Jesus loves you. He chose to die for you, to take away your sins. He wants to forgive you just like I wanted to bake you those cookies. Now it’s your choice to either accept that gift of forgiveness or to walk away from it.” He finally understood, but still wasn’t ready to accept the gift of salvation.
About a month after comparing chocolate chip cookies to forgiveness and salvation came a day I will never forget. My uncle and I were chatting like we had so many times before. The conversation started out light-hearted, but soon turned to more important matters. He knew that there was not much hope left for his cancer to be slowed down or cured. We talked about his fear of dying. I understood his fear of the pain, but wanted to make sure he had no fears about what would happen once he died, that he knew he would go to Heaven for eternity. I, like I had before, told him about Jesus’ sacrifice for his sins and his free offer of forgiveness. This time my uncle was ready. I led him in the prayer of salvation right over Facebook.
I am by no means a dancer. I rarely feel inclined to do a jig, but it seemed that since the angels were celebrating in Heaven over a lost soul found, that I should do something, too. I did a happy dance. All the while, the muffins I was making for dinner were burning in the oven. Those were the best burnt muffins I’ve ever had though, because they were burnt while my uncle made the most important decision of his life. He chose to become a follower of Christ.
On January 23, 2010, I got the phone call that I was dreading. My uncle had passed away. I had experienced death before, but this was the first time I had truly experienced loss. While I miss Uncle Rick more than words can express, I am forever grateful for Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins and the decision my uncle made to accept that. He didn’t die. He just went home and I’ll see him again someday, and in the light of eternity, that someday will be very soon.