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Grief

Last Monday, our seminary community was shocked by the sudden death of professor Jannie Swart. Despite having only served on the faculty at PTS for a year, his loving and enthusiastic faith had transformed the culture of the entire campus. The Lord used Jannie in such powerful ways that even people he never met were compelled to come to Friday’s memorial service.

My first encounter with Jannie was the day he approached me at the New Wilmington Mission Conference in 2013 and said, “We have to teach a church planting class together.” Jannie drew people into relationships in such a way that we couldn’t help but be implicated in whatever he was doing. Soon three other friends and colleagues had joined us and we planned the course I wrote about here.

Anyone who met Jannie felt as though they had made a new close friend. For me, Jannie was a friend, but also a colleague. We co-led the Church Planting Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and served on Pittsburgh Presbytery’s New Church Development Commission together. We only worked with each other formally for less than a year, but I am forever thankful for the time I spent laboring under his guidance.

On Thursday, my co-pastor and I attended the memorial service at the church which Jannie had pastored in Oil City, PA, before coming to teach in Pittsburgh. Friends, parishioners, and colleagues all shared testimonies about the love, joy, and zeal which marked Jannie’s ministry. One person recalled having once asked Jannie why he gave himself with such devotion to his ministry. Jannie’s response: “I really believe this stuff!”

He really believed this stuff. That Christ’s death and resurrection had conquered sin and death. That the Gospel called us to be reconciled not just to God, but also to one another. That the two greatest commandments truly and simply are to love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.  He really believed this stuff.

And he didn’t just believe it in sermons or books. Jannie believed it in ordinary conversation and daily life. That’s what set Jannie apart. Many of us in the Church believe this stuff when we’re preaching or writing or counseling. But Jannie believed it every minute of every day. Every word he spoke radiated confidence that God was alive and active in the present moment. He spoke and lived with an awareness of the reality of God, not just when he was teaching, but when he was sharing a beer with you, or receiving your hospitality, or spontaneously stopping by your office to say hello and share his joy.

It was this spirit of true belief that Jannie called us to when he preached at the PC(USA)’s Evangelism and Church Growth Conference one month ago. His sermon there has been recalled many times in the past week because of his exhortation to laugh at death. I remember the very beginning of the sermon, though: He began by running up to the baptismal font and asking if we really believed that Jesus Christ is living water. If we really believed that fullness of life is to be found in relationship with Jesus, our hearts would be overflowing with desire to share that love with the world (John 7:38). This is the gift I received in Jannie Swart: a friend and colleague who knew the love of God in the depths of his being, and from whose heart flowed streams of living water. Thanks be to God for a man who really believed this stuff.

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This week’s guest post is from Rachel Luckenbill, another close friend and a member of The Upper Room. While Jen wrote last week about the challenge of becoming a mother, Rachel’s post is about the challenge of losing her mother. The annual House of St. Michael Devotional Conference, which she mentions, will happen again this Friday and Saturday (details available here).

About the author: Rachel Luckenbill lives in Pittsburgh and is beginning her dissertation on contemporary American literature and Christianity at Duquesne University. She blogs about her Pittsburgh experiences at rachelluckenbill.blogspot.com. She likes being around people, taking minutes at church meetings, eating the desserts her boyfriend bakes, and playing piano.  She tries to spend as much time as she can hanging out with Chris’s and Eileen’s dog Bruiser.  He’s such a good dog.

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I am a person who expresses herself best and most often with written words.  But for the past year since the death of my mother on January 7, 2012, I have had no words to write. My heart and mind have been full of experiences, full of images and moments which I will never forget.   I have longed to release them onto paper or the computer screen so that I can give them new life – speaking them into community, so that I can make room for new growth inside of me, so that I never forget the work that God has done as He led me through facing my deepest fear.

Finally, a few days over one year since her passing, words are beginning to trickle in.  With these brief paragraphs, I hope to begin a practice of using words (some public/some private) to record, to listen to, to grieve, and to treasure the memories and transformative moments of Mom’s last year of life and of my first year without her.  I begin with two moments both of which occurred in the first week after her passing and for both of which I heartily praise God.

The first occurred the morning of January 8, the day after she died, as I stood, emotionally and physically exhausted, in a Sunday morning worship service with some of my dearest friends in Lebanon, PA. I felt utterly full of power. I’ve never experienced the Holy Spirit that tangibly before that moment. The Spirit was literally not just sustaining but was coursing through me, overflowing my heart with a truly inexplicable joy – the kind that can only be felt in the midst of the deepest sadness.  And I knew this power while surrounded by people who had journeyed with me through the darkest of years and who knew the depths to which Jesus had been transforming my heart.  I would never want to re-create the circumstances that prompted the Spirit’s striking internal takeover – Mom’s passing marked the culmination of, for her, six years of struggle with cancer and dementia, and, for me, six years of care-taking and slowly losing the person whom I loved most dearly.   But if I ever again experience that evident, close, exhilarating, and sure knowledge of the Spirit’s presence, I will rejoice.

Just less than one week after Mom’s passing and the shock and the preparations and the services and the relatives and the friends, I returned to Pittsburgh where I live.  I had planned to attend the House of St. Michael Devotional Conference on January 14 and 15. The grief was strong, the emotions were still at the surface, and the physical exhaustion was ever present. But that sustaining power, while it changed in degree of intensity, remained.  I remember choosing to go to the conference in spite of the freshness of the grief because I knew that I would be surrounded by dear friends, brothers and sisters in Christ, and space to feel, to hear, to rest, to simply be.  I spent much of my time at the conference nestled on the floor in the midst of a room full of old and new friends, wrapped in a blanket, made still by grief but lifted up by music and meditation, my mother’s Bible open in front of me – her handwriting in the margins and my own tears marking the pages.  As the conference closed, a woman named Lisa whom I did not know well at the time but am now grateful that I can call her friend, crossed the room and took me in her arms allowing her own warmth and presence to offer the comfort for which words were inadequate.  Power, comfort, sustenance: I have known these things through the welling up of the Spirit inside and through the external embrace of the Spirit in the arms of a spiritual sister.