I’ve experienced the death of others before — older folks, even younger. But the passing of my friend Jeremy is the first time I’ve experienced the loss of someone so close to me (both in age and, simply, in life). I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say this will transform my life and my family’s. And I think the processing will continue to unfold for weeks…months…years?…to come. Yet when I process the rawness of today, I’m left feeling hopeful and overjoyed at what this brother has meant to me:
Roughly 15 years ago I attended a national youth conference in Estes Park, Colorado where I met this guy who was part of the worship team. Admittedly, this event was the biggest thing I had ever been to and meeting someone who was on the big stage can have the tendency to leave one a little starstruck. We exchanged pleasant small talk and in hindsight I realize this guy was incredibly gracious to entertain random conversation from some fresh high school grad who was looking for some sort of connection to (perceived) fame. Nonetheless, he was a good musician and I was genuinely interested in the opportunity to bring him to my hometown to do a concert for our church. Little did I know then how that random conversation would change my life.
In due time, he would be in our area for a series of other concerts and he stopped by. Thus began a relationship that was stronger than business – though I helped launch his first Web site (man, it was awful), took care of a few bookings, and lined him up for several gigs over the past decade; it was stronger than friendship – we were there for each others’ weddings, spent plenty of nights on each others’ sofas when passing through town, and he constantly sharpened my thinking of life and ministry; and oddly stronger than family – no gathering was obligatory or forced; we didn’t have to spend time together, it was a privilege and a joy.
He’d come to town, unroll his sleeping bag on my bedroom floor and call it “home” for days at a time. Never a suitcase, always a duffel bag, his black Chevy Beretta would naturally find its way into our driveway when rolling through Northern Illinois. We’d make several trips to Monmouth, Illinois together where my bride-to-be was attending college, hosting more shows and, here again, not just doing shows but being one of the friends.
We’d develop a budding friendship that would extend into my entire family. We’d write, print, and mail early support letters for “Dock Crew Music Ministries”, play backyard football at Thanksgiving (being careful not to break the fingers of one whose livelihood depended on them) and enjoy summer night grilled food.
Eventually, we’d each move on to new seasons and new stages. Jer would take Jen as his bride and I would take Robyn as mine. We’d both find ourselves in tuxes for the occasions and I’ll still remember him asking me to “ush” his wedding as he wanted all his guys to be involved and decked out. (What an honor to me, as I knew his friendships closer to home were likely deeper and certainly greater in number than this one guy from northern Illinois.) He’d experience health struggles and cancer and, a few hundred miles away and inexperienced in such significant life issues, I would feel mute and helpless. Yet he was gracious and, seemingly, understanding. We would each have kids and our opportunities to work together would be … different. Our families would try to connect as much as possible, which would simply never be often enough. Nonetheless, we’d continue to look for every chance to continue to be involved in the stuff that was not only worthwhile but just plain fun.
From those first early concerts, which were more like gatherings than shows, grew bunches of opportunities that would shape my experiences and my life to this day. When launching into the venture of concert promotion, I could think of no one more gracious to help me learn the ropes. He opened for our first “real” show, Nichole Nordeman (an equally gracious individual, for whom the word “artist” is an understatement) and was there for future gigs at the church I worked at. He was eager to move beyond shows and spend weekends in uncomfortable places – cabins, hotels, and hostels – being not only a worship leader, but a strong spiritual underpinning in my early youth ministry days (when I really didn’t have a clue what I was doing). On my last youth retreat with a church, he was there every step of the way until sickness nailed his body and landed him an ambulance ride to the nearest ER – not really what he signed up for when he agreed to join us on this trip. Weeks later I’d get a thank-you card in the mail, thanking me for the way we handled all that. (Thanking me? What?)
As my working life would emerge and mature, we’d still find new opportunities to work together…
When faced with a unique challenge of bringing a worship leader in to transform the stale nature of a conference I was newly responsible for, I could think of no one better than Jeremy Erickson to balance the sensitivities of history and future. In later years he would come back to speak at the same conference, delivering equal sharpness in mind – this time with proclamation in word rather than song.
When looking for someone to contribute to a panel discussion for a youth ministry training video, Jeremy’s experience and perspective was the perfect fit to round out the team.
When needing to record and produce audio for a men’s conference inside a prison, we needed someone with experience and sensitivity to a unique environment. Jeremy was our guy, and though legal constraints have kept us from releasing this project, the handful who have listened have expressed that it’s one of the powerful products they’ve have the honor of listening to.
When heading to Minnesota for anything work-related, we’d always try to grab some conversation and a cup of coffee together. (Why on earth did he let me settle for Starbucks when we were in Caribou country?!) Despite the fact that Robyn and I have extended family in Minnesota, it’s the network of friends we’ve built over the years – with the Ericksons as a hub, that make us feel like the Twin Cities are a second hometown for us.
It’s hard for me to believe it’s been 15 years since first meeting Jeremy on a trail in Estes Park, Colorado. And it’s hard to realize so much time has passed since I popped backstage to strike up a conversation. Was it presumptuous of me to be so bold? Perhaps. But is my life different because of that interchange? Absolutely. And it’s not because I had the boldness to strike up a conversation. It’s because Jer had the grace to listen.
These days I find myself working full time in a ministry that focuses on addressing the national, and international, epidemic of fatherlessness. We focus all our energy on helping men become godly fathers despite their circumstances. We challenge men and families to build a legacy. Not passed-down heritage. But well-lived legacy. Indeed, the passing of my friend leaves on this earth a beautiful bride and three adorable boys. They now leave the Church with an opportunity to do what it was designed to do. [James 1:27]
Literally tens (perhaps hundreds) of thousands of lives have been touched by Jeremy’s music and message over the past couple decades. Yet the irony for a guy like Jer is that what leaves a legacy aren’t the CDs or the mp3s of his messages. It’s not the pictures or the autographs. The legacy is in the man who he was – and, in glory, I believe, still is. While it was that perceived “fame” that drew me to this guy a decade and a half ago, it’s a life well-lived that has really left a mark. Yes, there are more stories and they are good ones. Yet they all weave together to make up what is really left behind – legacy. Legacy is not built by fame. It’s in life and experience. It’s in purpose and joy. It’s in loving and living – fully living! – in the Author’s story.
Fame is for the Maker
Not for mortal man
Who stumble over praises bigger than
The kingdoms they’ve created
The kingdoms given them
By we who long for those who comprehend
What it is we have discovered
What it is we’re looking for
A larger life than the little life we’ve lived
We fill a barren grove with starlight
And the grove is empty still
We need more than what these halls of fame can give
But in You I find the writer
And in You I find the song
And I’ve a feeling life was meant to be this way
I’ve a feeling love was meant to be this way*
Here’s the kicker — Jer is still living the story – today. Yes, today! The story is not over, it’s still being written. Only now, he’s not in a bed, not taking meds, not struggling to strum. He’s running around, enjoying a feast, and playing an axe much nicer than anything Taylor could ever even hope to manufacture.
In all of this, there is hope. There is joy. There is more life. And there is more love.
*Jeremy Erickson, Track: Far Away and Famous, Album: To Entertain. 2003. http://jeremyerickson.bandcamp.com/track/far-away-and-famous
If you do not know this man or his music, check out http://www.jeremyerickson.com
If you don’t know his most recent journey, check out their CaringBridge site: http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/jeremyerickson