Living in the Dash
A friend of mine, Ann Joyner, is the author of Not Worth Saving: How a Severely Handicapped Boy Transformed Lives. I was privileged to read an early transcript and write an endorsement that was included in its publication. Ann and Jerry had two sons, Drew and Matthew. Matthew, their youngest, was born with severe mental and physical disabilities … he would never communicate verbally or learn to read or write … but he would profoundly touch lives.
Matthew died when he was 21 years old. Her book was about his life.
I had been given the opportunity to serve as one of their pastors at the First United Methodist Church in Arlington, and during my time there, Ann had served as a part-time staff member. Just after I began my doctoral degree at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, MO, they moved their family to Overland Park, Kansas, just outside of Kansas City, so I was privileged to stay with them when I would go up for my residential requirements.
During that time, they became part of the United Methodist Church of Resurrection, before the church had bought land and begun journeying toward becoming the largest church in the entire denomination. I had worshiped with them when they met in a school, and I had worshiped with them in two of their sanctuaries as their church began to expand and grow.
At some point after I had graduated, I remember Ann telling me that the church was opening a new columbarium (a final resting place for cremated ashes) on the campus and that they had paid for niches for her, Jerry, and Matthew. And she told me, “We are now living in the dash.”
When I inquired further, she sent me a poem she had read (which is now very widespread) about how tombstones and monuments will have a person’s date of birth and their date of death separated by a simple dash. But those two momentary events frame a lifetime of living. In that dash are all our dreams and our hopes … our losses and our failures … our living and our loving. And it is all wrapped up in that dash.
In her book, as she told the story of Matthew’s life … his dash … I remembered the times I had been with him, and the ways he would coo and make an effort to communicate. There was one visit, where I had a lot of writing to do, and I had agreed to watch Matthew while Ann and Jerry went out for the evening.
I was stressing over the work I had to do, but I also was worried about a matter I had deal with back at the church in Texas. Mattie had been glued to the television, but he crawled up next to me on the couch as I sat there with my book in my lap. It was like he could sense my stress. He curled up under my arm and just stared into my eyes. In those days, I had grown a full beard, and as I looked at him and talked to him, he put his hand up and just started stroking my beard.
He was at once curious about the tactile sensation of a hairy face and how he might offer his own sign of comfort in that moment.
In his own way, he was living in the dash … making the most of life as he saw it … and he was inviting me to see the world the way he saw the world. It was an invitation to simplicity. It was an invitation to grace. I didn’t need words or complex reasoning.
I just needed to be reminded of the primacy of love. Life was complete in that moment.
After Matthew’s death, the church commissioned a huge stained glass window across the front of their new sanctuary, and it stretches from wall to wall. The glass is 100 feet across and 40 feet tall.
You can find more information on the stained glass window at Church of Resurrection by clicking HERE
Matthew is featured on the far right side of that window (which more broadly features the three gardens of the biblical witness), and he is in the garden of promise. The image of him and the little girl is enlarged here, but he sits at the feet of John Wesley’s horse. He is reading a book and talking to a little girl of Native American descent. Reading and talking were two things he never did in this life.
He is in the flow of the great witness of the church … of all the saints who have sought to live out the message of hope that is greater than our despair and the wholeness that is greater than our brokenness.
So as I have encountered suffering and brokenness at various times in my life, I remember Mattie and his warm, gentle reminder of hope, trust, and love. While living in the dash, may we be living reminders for people that God’s grace will always be more than sufficient for any brokenness or even death we may experience.
God of gentle, reviving grace: Thank you for the messengers you send into our lives to remind us of a living hope that is greater than anything we have ever known. Amen.