Remembering Robin Johnston: ‘Mission accomplished’

Sometimes events stir up memories. Disparate strands become tangled. Thoughts converge. Then sweet reflection, followed by a blessed “Aha!” moment.

I recently finished the book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” by Harold Kushner. It’s not a new book (published in 1981), but I had never picked it up before. And I probably wouldn’t have read it if it weren’t for the fact that my church selected it as our Lenten study. That’s Strand 1

In the garden

The garden is good place for reflection and discovery. This is from my parents' old house. Lots of work went into this backyard oasis.

As I read Kushner’s book and thought about some bad things that have happened to good people in my life, I couldn’t help but think of my friend and colleague Robin Johnston who died from breast cancer three years ago. Strand 2.

Robin was a devout Christian and nudged me in that direction. She died on Palm Sunday. This year the anniversary of her death was Maundy Thursday, which commemorates the Last Supper and Jesus’ commandment to his disciples to love one another and to remember his sacrifice. Strand 3.

Piecing those strands together, I knew it was time to revisit Robin’s death—armed with new ideas from Kushner and my journey as a “revert” Christian. (I learned from a USA Today article last week that when you return to the religion of your childhood, you are a “revert.”)

I thought about Robin’s funeral and being asked at the last minute by her family to speak. Feeling unprepared, inadequate. If I only had the wisdom of Kushner’s book, I could have made so much more sense of Robin’s untimely death. Well, perhaps not, since Kushner plainly says there are no easy answers to why bad things happen to good people.

Shortly after she died, I wrote a tribute about her in NAFCU’s magazine. I thought that was my good-bye. But I felt her presence tug at me from time to time, and I wondered if she somehow was aware of the changes in my life. Even before her death, the transformation was occurring. A mission trip to Alaska, then Brazil. My Emmaus walk. Serving on AUMC’s Missions Committee. Helping the homeless. I think she would have been proud.

I can now see that she was a model for how to live your life with God front-and-center. Lucky for me, others came along to pick up where she left off, representatives of a life that was there for me all along if I would just believe and accept. Easier said than done for a “stiff-necked” guy like me.

In his book, Rabbi Kushner cautions against making the dead the “devil’s martyrs.” By that he means not letting our hurt over someone’s death turn us away from God. Drawing on the work of German theologian Dorothee Soelle, he suggests that the “one crucial thing we can do for them after their death is to let them be witnesses for God and life, rather than, by our despair and loss of faith, making them ‘the devil’s martyrs.’ The dead depend on us for their redemption and their immortality.”

As I read those words, a light bulb went on inside my head. Robin’s death had been a great loss, but it made me all the more determined to continue on my spiritual journey. I like to think that little shove she gave me was heaven-sent. Thinking about all of this on Easter Sunday made me realize, “Wow, that’s powerful stuff. Only God could do that. Mission accomplished, Robin.”

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12 Responses to Remembering Robin Johnston: ‘Mission accomplished’

  1. Great post…I enjoyed the book too!

    • Jay Morris says:

      Dave, thanks. The book has that timeless quality about it, so you don’t even realize it was written 30 years ago. I highly recommend it to anyone who is in a position of counseling others or just trying to make sense out of a personal setback or tragedy.

  2. Maurine says:

    Wow, Jay, nice article….you sound like you are doing great….glad to hear it! – M

  3. GLScoop says:

    Well done Jay! It’s hard to believe Robin has been gone 3 years. I think of all of the wonderful times we had, and what she meant (and means) to my life often.

  4. Lauren says:

    Jay–you are so eloquent and very thoughtful as always! I read that book when it first came out. I still re-read it from time to time as I often question “why bad things happen to good people” and as the Rabbi said–no easy answers but look to God and others for insight and guidance. Robin was an amazing woman and you could see all she did in her lifetime when it was truly a celebration of life at her service at St. Anne’s–generations of NAFCU and NAFNEs came–far and wide to be there to support the family and each other.

    You have always been so kind and this just touched my heart.

  5. Marcella says:

    Very nicely said, Jay. Your blog brought tears to my eyes. I think about Robin also. Missing her is one of the easiest things one can do. Following her ways, maybe not so easy, but we could do far worse for a guide, right? I agree strongly with the idea that bad things should not turn one away from God. I’m always amazed and confused when that happens to people. I once read an odd little story about this subject, but it stuck with me. A man was talking with a spiritual guide (angel?) somewhere above the earth who showed him miserable masses of people far down below hurting each other and being hurt again and again. The man cried out and asked why didn’t God stop all the pain? Why did he let the people do these things? How could he let this happen? The guide answered, “Because they are learning.”

    • Jay Morris says:

      Marcella, a very touching story! Unfortunately, we humans need a lot of practice. I know I’m still learning. Thanks for sharing about Robin. It’s hard to believe it’s been three years. – Jay

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