But now, thus says the LORD, who created you… And He who formed you…: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name; You are Mine (Isaiah 43:1–NKJV).

Two men–one black, one white–who never met on this earth are sharing the joys of heaven today and for eternity, face to face with Jesus.

And I wonder:

As both are breathing heaven’s breath, are they bouncing superballs?

Both men loved Jesus. Both strived, imperfect though they were, to introduce others to His love, as well. One did so in his ministry to middle school youth at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville. The other in his ministry in Houston’s Third Ward where he worked for decades as “a mentor to a generation of young men [as] a ‘person of peace'”(taken from Kate Shellnutt’s article in Christianity Today entitled “George Floyd Left a Gospel Legacy in Houston”–May 28, 2020).

One, we called friend. The other, whom we never met, was a fellow brother in Christ just the same.

Both were bondservants, working for Jesus–

Slaves in Christ’s service.

Rich Baker became a friend of Bill’s and mine when we were in a couple’s Sunday School at our church in Lexington, KY. We shared rotating dinners and other sorts of gatherings, as well as studied God’s Word together with Rich and his sweet wife Teresa for several years.

When Bill and I moved away in 1996 to begin residency in Greenville, SC, we lost touch with the Bakers, but in 2001 when we attended a hospital-sponsored gathering near Waynesville, NC, we were surprised to hear Rich’s boisterous voice across the room when he called us by name. “Bill! Mo!” Unbeknownst to us, the Bakers had moved to the Waynesville area several years earlier, and our families picked up right where we’d left off.

Now you must understand. Rich Baker was a gladiator of a man. Tall and broad-shouldered, one might imagine him having played the role of a Roman soldier in Ben Hur, but he was anything but violent. He was more a gentle giant–a loving husband to Teresa and devoted father to their son Jared, an avid racketball player, as well as a passionate lover of people. And he was veracious when it came to his faith–especially when he faced his own mortality when diagnosed with esophageal cancer several years ago.

He battled bravely, undergoing several surgeries, and–for awhile–it seemed he’d won, much like he’d won so many battles on the racketball court. Sadly, the cancer metastasized to his brain and eventually ushered Rich home.

But not before he did the work that God called him to do. When the Bakers moved to Louisville some years ago, Rich delighted in ministry with at risk, on-the-fringe middle school kids at his church, and served as a small group leader for more than a dozen years. He was known for unique and sometimes wild ways of reaching youth for Christ, like his superball shenanigans. Participants will never forget how he’d purchased, then strategically placed, 500 bouncy superballs in the glassed-in, 3-story stairwell of Southeast Christian Church. Kids mingled on the stairs when the balls were released, creating what might have appeared to onlookers outside like chaos but which forever etched Rich (and his message) in their memories–many of whom had been bounced around from class to class, school to school, and even family to family as part of the foster care system. The literal “object lesson” was followed up with a Bible study pointing kids to the plans and purposes that God has for each of them. Undoubtedly, Rich’s message of Christ’s unfailing, always reliable, steadfast love will never leave these young people’s hearts and minds.

And there was more, as Rich’s ministry didn’t stop with his volunteer work with youth. As a patient at MD Anderson in Houston, he underwent painful treatments and surgeries that reminded him often of his humanity–that things simply aren’t as God intended. But it wasn’t Rich’s character to wallow in self-pity but, rather, turn a trial–his personal trial–into a testimony of God’s goodness, faithfulness, and love.

We had the wonderful privilege of spending time with Rich, Teresa and Jared, as well as dear friend Marion Lane, last September at our home when they’d made a visit to western NC. Though he bore scars upon his head–the lasting result of his cranial surgeries–he reminded us that each scar held a story, and that his story began–and would end–with Jesus. As Rich shared–

There’s always someone who has it worse than you. As we’ve been in and out of MD Anderson’s Cancer Center over the course of these difficult months, we’ve met those who are certainly worse off than me. Being sick has given me an absolute ‘no holds barred’ mentality about sharing the One thing I have that too many don’t: Hope in Jesus and an eternal home. I make it a point to never waste an opportunity to share the Hope that I have with others. After all, having brain cancer is my ticket to openly and honestly share the only message I know that will help others in their trials and tribulations. My message has a name–JESUS.

Yes, our friend Rich held on to that name until the very end, when he passed from Teresa’s and Jared’s arms into the arms of his Savior on May 19, 2020 having fought the good fight. We have no doubt that the first words he heard upon opening his eyes to the splendor of heaven were “Rich Baker, I’ve been waiting. Welcome!” (Matthew 25:23).

And now he’s breathing heaven’s breath.

More than that, he now has a new friend, and I’m absolutely certain that, after having spent so much time in Houston for treatments, Rich felt immediately kindred to the Houston-native when he, too, breathed heaven’s breath for the first time on May 25.

“Big Floyd,” Rich probably said upon seeing the 6-foot-6 man–free from all his earthy constraints, radiating the joy of heaven, finally in the presence of his best Friend.

Because George Floyd loved Jesus, and he longed for others to know and love Him too.

As Shellnutt wrote in her article in Christianity Today–

[George] helped push the baptism tub over, understanding that people were going to make a decision of faith and get baptized right there in the middle of the projects … The things he would say to young men always referenced that God trumps street culture … he wanted to see young men [in Houston’s Third Ward gangs] put guns down and have Jesus instead … His faith was a heart for the Third Ward that was radically changed by the gospel, and his mission was empowering other believers to be able to come in and push forth the gospel ….

What happened to George Floyd is an atrocity. The manner in which his life was taken should be appalling to each of us. Those who participated in his death should be punished–brought to justice. Of this, there is no doubt.

George’s death should be a wakeup call to everyone to, at the very least, try and understand better what many experience, something that most of us can’t begin to comprehend.

Racism is real.

If we open our eyes and ears–mostly, our hearts–to this truth and ask our compassionate, all-loving, ever-faithful Father to give us His character so that we might be advocates for kindness and love, He will show us how. He will speak truth to our hearts that enables us to be the change we desire to see in the world around us.

I believe, difficult as it may seem, that George Floyd would call us to forgive. As a “person of peace,” he’d ask us to promote positive protesting–the sort that doesn’t justify another wrong because of wrongs already done. He’d remind us that hate breeds hate and fear breeds fear. Above all, he’d encourage us with the words of Jesus from John’s gospel–

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another (13:34-35–NKJV).

In George Floyd’s own words (from Shellnutt’s article),

… if ya’ll about God’s business, then that’s my business ….

He was about God’s business, as was our friend Rich. And both, right now, are breathing the breath of heaven. And I can’t help but wonder again…

Are these brothers sharing in shenanigans and bouncing superballs?

Without doubt, when each stepped into Jesus’ presence, they heard their names, much like Rich called out ours years ago–“Bill! Mo!” Indeed, Jesus saw his faithful bondservants and called out,

“Rich! George! Well done, My good and faithful servants.”

Then He took them in His wide embrace and proclaimed again–

I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are Mine.

Dearest Jesus, please tell Rich and George thank you for all they did in their 61 and 46 years. Tell them that we will try to carry the batons they’ve passed on to us as we run the race they so beautifully began in their time in this broken, battered, too often polluted world where one is sometimes afraid to breathe–a wounded world where some are even forced not to breathe. May we faithfully strive to do that which Micah 6:8 exhorts–

[God] has shown you … what is good;

And what does the Lord require of you but to…

Do justly.

To love mercy.

And to walk humbly with God?