The death of Frank Vega was a significant event. Last week the news came to me rather unexpectedly, and honestly, it gave me that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Traci was still in Thailand, the kids and I were on the road together so I took a morning to call a common friend. While I felt a little encouraged after the call, the reality of this life is that death stinks. Unexpected death is especially challenging.
Pastor Frank, or “Pastor Loco” as a few knew him, was an icon in the inner city of Philadelphia. He lived, worked, served and ministered the Gospel in a challenging part of the City of Brotherly Love; a part of the city that many others had abandoned because of the difficulty of the ministry.
Not only did he serve in the inner city, but he served with limited resources and often, without taking a paycheck. He lived where he worked, too, raising his kids and managing his marriage in the very place he grew up. And he did all this with his awesome wife, Carmen, who labored alongside him every step of the way. (In fact, after knowing Bishop Frank these past 12 years, I can assure you that without Carmen, there would be no Frank!)
Just last week I was talking to a friend who I discovered had once lived in Philadelphia. I took students to Philly on three occasions (each for at least a seven day trip), and visited a fourth time on my own, and so I’ve been able to learn about the city and the ministry of Pastor Frank from a limited, first-hand experience. I told my buddy about where we usually served when we were in the city, and when I mentioned Kensington, he gave me a response that I’ve heard more than once: “Wow...Kensington is a tough place...” That was Frank's place.
I met Pastor Frank in the summer of 2005, the first time I took students to work with him in Philly, as part of the summer outreach ministry of Vision for Youth. We connected right away, in part because I used my broken Spanish to crack a joke, and in part, because I loved his heart for people. His story is amazing, and the way God saved him from a life of self-destruction (gangs, drugs, violence and jail time in the U.S. and in a foreign country) is part of what makes his life’s work even more meaningful.
I made return trips with students in 2007 and 2009, and again by myself later in 2009. Each time, Frank and I had an opportunity to talk about life, ministry and how God works in us and thru us, despite our weaknesses. He often boasted about his wife, and shared how an awesome ministry opportunity almost took him out of Kensington, but Carmen kept him grounded and focused on the ministry at hand. He always challenged and blessed me each time we talked.
Since 2009, we have talked on the phone a few times, and I’ve shared a video that featured an interview with Frank to several friends, but our paths have not crossed. And now they won’t cross until the day we meet again in Heaven.
I know that there is great relief for believers when it comes to the hope we have in Heaven. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul writes of the beautiful hope of a future with God, where the corruptible, mortal bodies that clothe our spirits today, will be replaced with incorruptible, immortal bodies of glorious mystery! John tells us in Revelation, that when human history ends as we know it today, tears and death and sorrow will be eliminated from our existence. Peter tells us that in an instant God will destroy this old world, and it will be replaced with a perfect world, unbroken by sin, and ready for our eternal pleasure.
Before that glorious future is ours, there is the grim reality that death permeates this life. In 1 Thessalonians 4 Paul reminds us, “...you must not carry on over them [deceased believers] like people who have nothing to look forward to, as if the grave were the last word” (The Message). The NIV reads like this: “...do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” Notice that we aren’t told to “not grieve” but rather, to not grieve like those who live without Christ.
It’s not a quality of super spiritual Christians to not grieve, it’s just that we’re not supposed to grieve like the hopeless. Since we belong to Christ, we belong to Hope, true hope, that rests in the resurrection of Jesus from the grave. Death evokes grief, even from Jesus (John 11:33-35), because it’s not the way things are supposed to be. We were created to live in perfect communion with God, but sin mucks-up everything. Instead of harmony, love, joy and life, we live with the reality that those virtues are often overshadowed by conflict, hate, anger and death. Those things should stir some grief in our hearts.
So I’m grieving the loss of my friend, as I know you have had to grieve the loss of people in your life, too. I know Bishop Frank is in glory, and I rejoice in his gain, but I grieve the loss that Carmen and her children must feel, I grieve the loss that me and many of Frank’s friends have in our hearts and I grieve the loss of Frank from the broken people he served in Kensington. Death stinks.
Hope is spiritual F’breeze that covers the stench of loss. Christ’s death and resurrection allows us to “spread the aroma of the knowledge of Him everywhere” (2 Corinthians 2:14). In that knowledge we rest certain of our future, and anyone’s future who has put their faith in the gift God gave us, when He sent Jesus to pay for our sins. Death stinks, but hope springs eternal for those who will trust in Christ.
The Overboard Life will include walking the pathway of grief. Grief is inescapable in this life, but it doesn’t have to be experienced without hope. If we truly live life out of the comfort of the boat, and out on the water where Jesus is building His Kingdom, we will be great purveyors of that hope -- even as we walk the path of grief ourselves.
I feel fairly certain that my friend, Frank Vega, entered glory to the seven words I long to hear, when the time for my departure flight from this life into the next, arrives: “Well done, [you] good and faithful servant!” I smile when I think about the first time he saw Jesus face-to-face, and I imagine Frank has already been given a glimpse of far God allowed his ministry to reach.
Death stinks, but its power is nothing compared to the greatness of my God. So I grieve with hope, and I want to live with the kind of selfless love that Frank did, and that his wife Carmen and their family, I’m sure, are continuing after his departure. Because they too, know the power of hope that can only come from Christ. Do you?
Go ahead and take the plunge, life -- even in the face of death! -- is always better on the water.