About seven or eight years ago I met Jim Steinfeld. If you know me, I like to keep people at a distance until I get a real feel for who they are and if they can be trusted. Jim was not like that. From the first moment that I met him he was “intrusive.” I do not mean “intrusive” in a bad way, really – he just always wanted to know your story. For example, even though we only knew each other peripherally he would ask me, “Robin, what is God doing in your life?” I know that seems like a fair question from one Christian to another, but not if you are familiar with male evangelical culture in America! You can talk about a lot of things together, but “What is God doing in your life?” Come on, that is private!
I do not think Jim thought of “public” versus “private” questions in adult community conversation. I came to think of Jim as a man on a mission. He had operated his family business for many years, Steinfeld’s Pickles, but when he sold the company and stepped out of the business world he dedicated his life to making a difference for Christ in the lives of others. He loved and was deeply passionate about many things – his wife, his family, the outdoors, his dogs (not all equal) – but he believed that God had placed him here to tell others about Christ and to help them develop in Christ one they had met him personally. He was consumed with telling the story of Jesus to others, and it was why he loved the organization of Young Life so much.
Jim and I met once a month for coffee for almost four years. I would not say that those meetings were always comforting. Jim was not really a pastor as much as a mentor – a guy who would challenge you to grow in Christ and professionally. As one of his friends said at his memorial, “We loved this dude, but he was exhausting!” He always suggested to me that our purpose on this earth was to honor “the author” of our story. We were created uniquely to fill a gap in the heart of the universe that only we could fill. So when you met with Jim he wanted to know how you were honoring the author. He was not the kind of guy that accepted platitudes for answers, either. If you would not give a direct answer, he would just keep digging and digging until you had to give up what you were holding back. I got to tell you, that is frustrating. One of his favorite passages came from Romans 12: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed through the renewal of your mind.” If you were not actively “renewing” your mind in Christ, Jim was going to challenge you to get there. Everyone needs a friend like Jim who won’t let you get away with just pretending to live a Christian life.
I am sure all of you are familiar with the traditional question in American culture: “How are you doing?” Most of us do not answer that question honestly because we really do not think the other person wants to know how we are doing. The correct answer is “fine” or “great.” Jim, unfortunately, twisted the question just slightly to ask, “How is your soul doing?” Now that type of question is just not fair! You can deceive your friend, but if you answer that question wrong, you may as well be telling a lie to God! Jim pushed, probed and prodded. He wanted you to live each day fully honoring the author of your story.
Almost two years ago now I was driving in Portland and I got a call on my phone from Jim. I do not answer directly every call that comes to my phone, but Jim’s I picked up. I could tell from his voice that something was wrong. He started by noting that he wanted to tell me something personally rather than have me hear it through e-mail or from someone else. I do not know if you have ever received that kind of phone call, but there is a silence that intrudes in the conversation that, although it only lasts seconds, it seems like a lifetime. Then, he calmly told me that he was in the hospital and had been diagnosed with Stage 4 brain cancer. Silence again. What do you say when a friend calls and tells you he may be dying? I think I muttered the words, “I am sorry” several times while holding back tears. I could not believe it. Jim is about as godly a man as I know and it just did not seem fair.
From the moment Jim received his diagnosis he had a laser focus on making a difference for Jesus with every breath of life he had left. The tumor was inoperable, but he almost immediately began radiation treatments. I was headed to England for two weeks that summer, and just before I left I went over to visit and pray with Jim. Patsy greeted me at the door to their home in the West Hills and quietly warned me that Jim was not doing well. She took me into a first-floor room where he was laying on a bed. He had lost a great deal of weight, his hair was gone, he looked gaunt, and he could barely speak. He was obviously suffering. I talked to him for about an hour and he responded at times with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down but few words. I didn’t tell him at the time, but I had come to the conclusion that my friend would not be there when I returned from England. I prayed for healing with Jim because that was my heart’s desire.
It is hard to lose real friends – the kind that pray with you and support you because they know who you are. Perhaps you’re not like me, but I do not always disclose too much to people. If they really discover that you are not as good as you look on the outside, will they still travel with you in life? If you do not know the answer to that question, why risk transparency? As you have already seen, with Jim there was no choice. You also found that in transparency your friendship was strengthened and the bonds of love grew. That kind of friend is hard to come by, and I thought for sure he was gone.
I kept up the best I could on Jim’s condition while I was gone and when I returned, to my surprise, he was doing much better. We did not know if God had healed him, but he had certainly given him more time. Jim used every minute of it. He used the word “green light” to describe the nature of his conversations after he was diagnosed with cancer. He said, “When you have cancer, you always have a “green light” to tell people about Jesus and your story. No one will turn you down.” He turned every day and every minute into “green light” occasions.
I will never forget the day he did our chapel in the fall of 2011. All of us can be critical of speakers in big venues; sometimes they communicate well and sometimes not. But the day Jim spoke, you could hear a pin drop almost the entire time. There is something about a transparent story that draws everyone into the speaker’s tale. Jim started his story that day by noting that he had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. At that moment everyone wants to know: Are you angry? How do you deal with your suffering? Why did God bring this on you? Although we all know that we will die some day, it always seems so distant and far away. When you have someone standing in front of you with a death sentence, you want to know: How are they dealing with that?
He answered that question with a Scripture from the Psalms: “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad.” Jim noted that God really only gives us one day at a time, and we are asked to live each day to the fullest for him. Most of us know that it is really not how long we live that counts but how well. Jim showed us how to live well. Each day he treated people well in spite of his suffering, he shared the love of Jesus, he talked about hope instead of death, and he met each day with optimism in the face of his death sentence. In my mind, it was the best chapel that I have heard in my 13 years at George Fox University.
Last month Jim left this earth to move on to live with Jesus and all the saints that have come before. Thousands gathered to honor Jim and the author of his story. I will never forget the picture at the back of the Sunset Presbyterian sanctuary. Jim was standing on a forest road, arms held high and open – inviting the world in to hear the story of Jesus.
The last time I saw Jim he could not see me. He was asleep on the first floor of his house. I miss Jim’s smile and his spirit. I miss his constant voice of hope in the midst of challenge. I miss his clear voice for Jesus. He once told me that when you think about your life, sit down and write your eulogy. Focus on what you want to be remembered for. Then live in that direction. It was his hope that we would all live to honor the author of our story.
In memory of Jim,