Like all of you over the last week, I’ve been reflecting on Jim O’Brien’s life. And I think we all probably knew this already, but it’s been confirmed here today through the wonderful messages from Lizzie, from Pastor Sid, and from Sherry—Jim O’Brien lived a good life. Didn’t he?
And, you know, this was a man who faced a lot of difficulties! If you ever got an email from Jim, he would sign off with his initials. It wasn’t exactly his initials though. He’d sign off in all caps “JOB”—Jim O Brien. Now, you know there’s this man in the Bible named Job who’s famous for his great suffering, so I asked Jim one time—are you having a little fun with that name? And he smiled and laughed—he was having fun with it. Because Jim knew what it was to be Job, to suffer. And he knew how to keep it in perspective, to keep on smiling.
Sherry told me that during one of his last trips to the hospital, the nurses fought with one another to do Jim’s intake because they all knew who he was because he was there so much, and they also knew what a charming and sprightly fellow he was. I want him! No, I want him! He’d been in there so often—with heart failure and pneumonia and infections and kidney failure—that they knew him by name, and they knew that whatever he was suffering through wasn’t going to get taken out on them. Right? That’s who Jim was. He was still going to be charming, and funny, and humble, and gracious, and kind.
Jim wasn’t given a perfect life. I’m not saying that. He didn’t live a perfect life. I’m not saying that. I’m saying he lived a good life. This is what a good life looks like. If you get a perfect life, I’m not even sure you get a chance to be good—not really. But when life gives you trouble, and you give back love? When the world gives you pain, and you give back healing? When you turn your worst mistakes in life and your biggest challenges into your greatest mission in life? That’s what a true good life is! And that’s the kind of life Jim lived.
And I’ve been reflecting on his life, and I’ve been reflecting on this last message that he left for us here: This piece of scripture (Jesus walking on the water) which his son, Rory, read so well. This was Jim’s favorite piece of scripture and he picked it out for his funeral. He wanted us to hear it today. Even if you’re not Christian, you’ve probably heard of Jesus walking on the water, but that’s only half the story here, right? The other half of the story is about a man named Peter, a man who is both faithful and frightened, stepping out of the boat into that stormy sea, and nearly being swallowed up by it.
Now Jim O’Brien was one calm, level dude, wasn’t he? Was Jim ever afraid of anything? When I look back over Jim’s life, I see a lot of scary moments. Imagine Jim the Navy man submerged just off the coast of the Soviet Union at the height of Cold War in a sub called the USS Halibut—which does not sound like a very spacious boat— for weeks at a time. I’d’ve lost it down there. Imagine Jim the firefighter, running into a burning building, the ceiling comes crashing down on him, it leaves a big ol’ dent in his helmet. I’d’ve been afraid! Imagine Jim the addict, admitting that his life was out of control, deciding to get sober, looking his alcoholism right in the eye and facing up to himself. I’d’ve been terrified! Imagine Jim’s first kidney transplant. Imagine his second kidney transplant. Imagine him learning just in the last few months that he’d need dialysis for the rest of his life. I’d’ve been mortally afraid every time. Imagine Jim working as an addiction counselor in detox with clients and patients who had hit rock bottom and who didn’t see any way forward for their lives. Imagine someone landing on your doorstep and realizing that you may represent their very last best hope. And you don’t know if you’ll be enough. I’d’ve been a nervous wreck every day! How did you do it, Jim? How did you face that kind of fear? How did you stay so calm when the seas were so rough? How did someone who suffered so much and who was surrounded by so much suffering still live a good life and not end up drowning—swallowed up by all that pain?
Jim’s answer for us, the answer to the question of his life, is inside his favorite piece of scripture. He’s telling us how he did it—the lesson he learned that saved his life. Jim didn’t know how to walk on water. He may have looked like he did at times, but Jim didn’t walk on water. Jim wasn’t fearless. He may have looked at times like he was, but the fear was still there as close to him as my fear is to me and as close to him as your fear is to you. Jim didn’t walk on water, didn’t live without fear, and didn’t save himself, Jim had simply learned that when life knocks you down and the world tries to drag you under, if you reach up out that stormy sea you will always find the hand of grace!
That was the power at the heart of Jim’s life. Jim learned how to take a hold of the hand of grace. It was the hand of grace from Jim’s Higher Power! It was God, as Jim understood God, who lifted him up and dried him out, so to speak. And so Jim’s answer—the answer that changed his life, the answer that motivated his life’s work in addiction recovery, and the answer that Jim witnessed transforming countless lives—leaves us now with a question. Jim leaves us with a question: What’s your Higher Power? How do you understand God? Is it possible that Jim’s understanding could be a part of your understanding? Is it possible that the strength and faith and love and purpose that Jim found in his life could be a part of your life? Is it possible that the hand of grace that saved Jim is being held out to you too?
I’ll tell you what I’m absolutely sure of—that early last Thursday morning when Jim’s tired, beautiful heart beat its very last beat, Jim O’Brien was not swallowed up by death. Because I know that Jim had a hold of the hand of grace that held and steadied him his whole life. His whole life is a testament to that power! On Thursday morning, the storm of death may have raged all around him, but Jim didn’t go down. Because Jim’s Higher Power lifted him up out of that storm, put him back in the boat, and sailed him to the other side.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations