Choose love first

Lives ending too soon remind us what's important

Jan 30, 2017 by

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The difference between a death that comes at the end of a long and full life, and one that interrupts things too soon, is subjective. But you know it when you see it.

Lately, there has been too much of the latter.

A young life was extinguished in an instant when 26-year-old Hannah Hochstetler died in a car accident Jan. 19 in Virginia. In the Newton, Kan., area, 30-year-old Amber Schroeder died the same day in a vehicle accident. She was a member of Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church in Wichita, served on its support committee for a Hispanic church plant and worked at Schowalter Villa in Hesston.

Naomi Engle was only 51 when cancer’s steady advance brought an end Jan. 1 to her role as a pastor at West Clinton Mennonite Church in Wauseon, Ohio. In Newton, Russ Neu­feld’s year-and-a-half run with cancer culminated Jan. 21 after celebrating his 40th birthday and his daughter’s 10th birthday earlier that week.

I did not know Hochstetler, Schroeder or Engle, but I am one of the many people who are better for knowing Russ’ friendship.

To strangers, his lumberjack physique had to be intimidating — his beard alone was probably stronger than me. But those of us across Canada and his adopted United States were blessed to experience his capacity for compassion and tenderness. I grudgingly admit there were times my crying infant daughters found peaceful sleep quicker in his arms than my own.

Neufeld challenged gracefully those around him with his appreciation for so many things: laughter, music, particle physics, hockey, craftsmanship, rugged nature, practical theology, peaty single-malt Scotch. (It is a very incomplete list.)

Cancer is an ugly thing that targets too many good people. But if it has a saving grace, there is at least a chance to say goodbye. Three days before he died, Neufeld wrote an email to a friend saying he was overwhelmed by a flood of generosity and love. We just wanted to give him what he gave us.

“I had no idea just how much we impact each other in the smallest interactions, and it has reinforced for me the importance of simply choosing love first,” he wrote. “I can be at peace with my lot and trust my community to continue to support and care for my family, and know that I left the world just a little better than I found it.”

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