Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Saying goodbye to a good friend, Steve Cunningham

As many of you know, last Saturday Becki and I traveled to Liberty, MO--home of the previous church where I served as a minister--to attend the funeral of a dear friend, Steve Cunningham.

When I first moved to Liberty, we really needed a youth deacon who could love and help mentor our youth. At the time there seemed to be no suitable candidates, and I can remember us saying, "God may just have to send someone to us." And that he did!

Steve, his wife Anna-Marie, and their two boys, Jeff and Danny, arrived to us via Chicago and the Cardinal Dr. congregation. With his loving and willing heart, he soon became our youth deacon, and he and Anna-Marie did an outstanding job. They took the kids on youth retreats, hung out with them, taught Bible classes, and helped them reached out to their non-Christian friends through their "Fun in the Son" gatherings. Later, he would help start a young adults ministry at Liberty to try to help this group find a place. He became a voice for them too, and he regularly came to our Starbucks outreaches--a popular hangout place for young adults.

Two or so years later, we were looking to install new elders. I can remember my long time elder friend John Miller and I going out to lunch with Steve. There we told him that we thought that he would make an excellent elder (he was already shepherding the youth), and that we needed him in the group to help us confirm our direction. Steve smiled, leaning forward, and said that he was onboard. He was soon recognized publicly for the outstanding shepherd that he already was.
In our meetings, Steve helped bring out the perspective of younger people, which helped the church go forward in our direction of reaching out. Some leaders bring about change by their ability to persuade or force of personality. Steve, however, was a calming influence, and you got the sense that if he was behind something, it must be pretty reasonable.

Steve was an incredible guitar player, and he, Roger Dingus (guitar; now also an elder), and John Hess (drums) started having a few jam sessions together. They were all a bit older (late 40s), so they started calling themselves the "Assisted Living." I came in for two rehearsals right before our first "Fourth of July" party at the Hess' house and played the whole set that they had worked up, adding keyboard and some youth to this bunch of over the hill Baby Boomers! :) Later, Robert Ritter would be added, playing bass and allowing Steve to concentrate almost totally upon guitar (he sometimes covered bass, and he was excellent with it as well).

Our band played mostly classic rock. It was the genre we played best. I grew up on Billy Joel and 80s music, all very keyboard centered. In this band I learned Boomer classics like "Simple Man," "Smoke on the Water," and "China Grove." I have to say that playing classic rock is a lot of fun. I helped stretch the band by introducing them to some younger sets with U2 and Coldplay. I also love Christmas and Christmas music, and so each year we had a huge Christmas party in our basement, inviting the whole church and our neighborhood. When trying to decide whether or not to leave Liberty for High Pointe--among many other things!--the band kept coming to mind. I didn't want to lose all of those great times we played together. I still miss it. The band represented good times.

Steve, John Miller, and I were also in a "BELLS" discipleship group together for a couple of years. We came together each week, meeting in Starbucks, and talked about who we tried to bless each week, who we ate with, what we studied, what we heard God saying to us, and who we tried to spend time with. These "missional lifestyles" sought to imitate the lifestyle of Jesus. We need these kind of intimate groups for encouragement and accountability. I am a minister, and yet, I found that when we did not meet, I often would fail in these practices. Again, it was difficult leaving behind this group.

I got a call from Judy Dingus, another great friend and co-worker from Liberty about 7 weeks ago. She told me the shocking news that Steve had lung cancer and that he had been given 1-4 years to live. We were stunned. I immediately thought about going up to Liberty right then to see him. But I had meetings . . . and I thought that I would see him for the 4th of July. I thought I had more time. But I did not. I wish now that I had gone.

Last week, Steve's lungs began to fill up. They tried to get the fluid out, but they could not. He had a blockage in one of his lungs, and his heart just gave out. They were able to revive him briefly, allowing him the opportunity to say goodbye to Anna-Marie and his oldest son, Jeff. Danny was at camp. Judy called me on this day, telling me the sad news and that she was going to pick Danny up from camp. I prayed for her and the whole family.

The funeral was on Sunday, and it was packed. Between the viewing and the funeral, there were probably 500 people represented who came out to remember and honor Steve. He had church members from not only Liberty, but Cardinal Dr. in Chicago. There were neighbors there, as well as the friends and parents of his son and their sports teams. His co-workers came--he even had business associates from China attend. Wow! What an impact.

John Miller, who had been with Steve through his ordeal, officiated the funeral. I said a prayer, and there was an "open mic" section in which people shared their thoughts and memories of Steve. Many people took the opportunity to share during the open mic section. There were many great stories about Steve here that made us laugh and cry.

John is also 52, the age that Steve was when he died. We talked, as did others, and we all thought about how short life is. We need to live for today, and make sure that we concentrate on what is most important, as Steve did. What is most important? Loving God and people. Nothing else really matters. It has made me impatient for seeing the things God calls us to do to happen. Both individually and as a church, we need to make sure that we live everyday--starting today--for God.

Thank you, Steve, for teaching us how to love God and people. Thank you laughing with me, praying with me, encouraging me--for showing up at Starbucks, for playing those great guitar leads, for patiently listening, for speaking up for those who had no voice, for being willing to try new things, for truly caring for my life and the life of so many others. We will miss you Steve. I still can hardly believe that you are gone. But thank you for showing us how to live--love God, love people. Nothing else really matters. I hope to be able to impact as many people for Christ as you did with your life. May your love and the love of the Father shine down upon us. We will see you in heaven!

Your friend, co-worker, band member, and brother in Christ.


Steve with his boys, Jeff and Danny

Steve with his wife, Anna-Marie

Steve with our Band, Assisted Living

Steve playing the guitar
What thoughts and memories do you have of Steve? What did you learn from him? How did he bless your life?


Sascha said...

Thank you for sharing about your loss of Steve. I am blessed having read about his impact on so many lives. God bless his family and his friends who grieve his loss with peace and joy in knowing that he has gone home.

James Nored said...

Thanks, Sascha. He was a great guy, and I'm glad that others have been blessed learning about his life.