Twenty-two years ago this past Thanksgiving, my favorite uncle walked out the front door of his Minnesota home to shovel snow off his neighbor’s sidewalk. Uncle Bill never saw my Aunt Evelyn again.
Days before, I’d moved all the way from Minnesota to south Texas and was unable to attend his funeral. However, I experienced the same feeling then as I did when my father passed away and I was not able to be with him in the hour of his death: my memories of Uncle Bill in life were what flooded my mind and warmed my heart.
One of the earliest and most precious memories of my father is how as a little boy I would rest my hand in his while we drove 20 miles to watch his alma mater play a football game. When I think of Uncle Bill I remember as a little boy loving our fishing trips, the small waves splashing up into our old wooden boat on Minnesota’s Lake Lida. “Young boys,” he’d chuckle, “just aren’t as sneaky with a fishing pole as grown-ups.”
Golly I loved my Uncle Bill, especially when he’d glance over toward my dad and flash that warm smile I would someday miss so much. Next thing I knew I was laughing my heart out, hoping the day would never end. My father and his second youngest brother were the best of friends. They had as much of my admiration as they had for each other.
I loved to laugh and they loved to fish – both on water and on land. They were fishermen as a hobby and as a career as both men were pastors. Preaching from the pulpit is a lot like fishing, my uncle would say. “Both take tireless patience and dedication.”
Those words were greatly consoling to my younger brother and me when my dad died on the Sunday before Christmas of 1977. One of my dad’s dreams had been to see his boys confirmed. Uncle Bill was there on that spring Sunday seven months earlier when I was confirmed some 500 miles from their home. Gestures like that meant a lot to my dad.
My freshman year of college in the fall of 1980 would bring my uncle and me back together. The small town of Moorhead, Minnesota was now home for both of us as it became, in some ways, a second childhood for me. It was a chance to learn the trade from a true fisherman.
Every meeting with Uncle Bill brought with it another amusing story about the times he had shared with my father growing up. Boy, he could tell a story. Some would make you smile, some would make you laugh out loud, and others would leave your eyes welled up for a while. My uncle never skipped a beat. Good fishermen are like that.
Oh, college life got hectic and we drifted too far apart. From time to time, I’d remember a funny moment of a fish sliding off my hook or my brother falling into the water while we fished just outside a small town in west central Minnesota. Every so often, my Aunt Evelyn would invite me over for dinner. If I wasn’t too busy, I’d pop by with a friend.
Snowed in on campus at the start of Christmas break my sophomore year at Concordia College, it was my Uncle Bill who strolled through the early evening snow one Saturday night to deliver a grocery bag full of gifts. The bitter cold caused tears to nearly freeze on my face as I stood and watched him walk back across campus.
Those same tears came flooding back four years later when I picked up an answering machine message from my mother. “Your Uncle Bill died yesterday,” her voice said through the silence. “He went outside to shovel snow but the cold was just too much.”
This fisherman had died clearing a sidewalk for somebody else. My mom’s heart-breaking message brought back memories of just two days. The first was that July day in 1971 when the mid-day sun glistened off the lake and warmed my uncle’s smile. The second was the day of that weekend snowstorm when my Uncle Bill left two lasting impressions: his footprints marching in both directions through the snow and an indelible postcard of love I will treasure forever.
My uncle truly was a fisherman for all seasons and reminds me of that great chapter 11 in the book of Hebrews that chronicles many of the faithful saints that went before us. Just like my dad, my Uncle Bill stands in that same stream of faithful men and women who point us to the faithfulness of God. And this Christmas season there is no greater thing to remember.