Earlier this year, I was stunned to hear that an acquaintance of ours had been diagnosed with Stage IV esophageal cancer. We didn’t know Jeff Stables really well. Our paths had only crossed for a brief time while we worked as youth ministers at a local church and he served as the area director for Young Life. But I remember Jeff having an insanely crazy amount of energy and an incredibly deep love for teenagers. At the time of his diagnosis, Jeff was serving with his family in Scotland, still working with Young Life, loving on people in Jesus’ name.
As we followed the updates on Jeff’s condition and his health worsened, my heart broke over and over for Jeff, his wife Becca, and their three young boys. I wanted them to have more time together. I wanted Becca and the boys to be spared the pain of parting from the man they loved as husband and dad. Following their story drove me to my knees in tears at times, lifting them up to the God who sees, the One who knows the end from the beginning. And I was deeply convicted watching the beautiful grace with which this family met their “hard.” I saw faith that hurt and doubted but ultimately hoped in the goodness of God. Faith that blossomed in the crucible.
On December 7, 2015, Jeff realized the end of his faith as Jesus hugged him home. And my mind and heart have spun for the last week, alternating between grief for his wife and sons and wondering over the mystery of why this parting had to happen right now. My Facebook News Feed has blown up all week with tributes to Jeff. Many made me cry. A few made me laugh out loud. Most were from people I’ve never met. Every few hours, new posts would show up, waves of Jeff’s influence rolling in and crashing over the shores of our collective grief.
Jeff was only 37. That seems far too young to die. A wife is without her love, and three young boys are without their dad. The inevitable, excruciating “why?” wells up. And then there’s all those posts piling up on Facebook, each one a life changed by Jeff’s love for Jesus and his desire to share that love with people. Why take one who was so passionately pursuing God’s purpose?
Seeking answers to those questions is like chasing the wind. Pursuit of the “why” is futile. It is God who we are to chase, Him who we are to seek. If we chase the “why,” we find only more questions. If we chase God, we find the One who “does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men” (Lamentations 3:33), but who lovingly acts in accordance with His eternal purposes. We find the One who “is good to those whose hope is in him” (Lamentations 3:25). “Though He brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love” (Lamentations 3:32). God is gracious with our questions and generous with His compassionate love, even as He requires that we rest in His sovereignty.
As I pondered Jeff’s passing, something that Jim Elliot wrote kept coming to mind.
“‘He makes His ministers a flame of fire.’ Am I ignitable? God deliver me from the dread asbestos of ‘other things.’ Saturate me with the oil of the Spirit that I may be a flame. But flame is transient, often short-lived. Canst thou bear this, my soul–short life? In me there dwells the Spirit of the Great Short-Lived, whose zeal for God’s house consumed Him. ‘Make me Thy Fuel, Flame of God.'”
Jeff was consumed by a zeal for sharing God’s love and salvation. He offered himself as fuel for God’s Great Cause–“reconciling the world to himself in Christ” (II Corinthians 5:19). The number of Jeff’s years was short, but the impact of his years is eternally long. Yesterday, I sat in a packed church peopled with hundreds whose lives were influenced by Jeff’s short-lived flame. As Christ-followers, can there be any greater testimony at the end of our days than to say we were consumed by the God who created us, fully expended for His eternal purposes even to our last breath?
In John 12:24, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” In the last week, the fruit of Jeff’s life has been so overwhelmingly evident. And though Jeff’s death is heart-wrenchingly sad, I can’t help but think that he died well because he lived well.
This morning, I was sitting in church, thoughts of Jeff and his family still weighing on my heart. As the service came to a close, a quote from C.S. Lewis appeared on the screen:
“Once in our world, a Stable had something in it that was bigger than our whole world.”
I know this quote is about the birth of Christ, but my mind immediately snatched on a play on these words: “Once in our world, a Stables [Jeff] had something in it [Jesus] that was bigger than our whole world.” How blessed we have been to see Christ in Jeff. My prayers to Becca, Luke, Levi, and Ian–may God be husband and daddy, sweetly present in all the empty places.