I know a lot of people dealing with an immense amount of suffering these days, and I thought we could all learn something about how to suffer well from my good friend Brian Shott, who passed away a few months ago from pancreatic cancer after an extended battle with it. That being said, I’m posting my memorial message here in his honor as he had much to teach us.
A Little Bit About Brian Shott
While I may be the Shott’s pastor, I was first a friend of the family. Matt is one of my best friends, and as such, I spent a lot of daytime in their basement playing video games and a lot of nighttime in their freezer looking for foods that I could deep-fry. When I was present, I often felt like the loudest one in the house. There was a quiet meter of interaction from each Shott. Matt was maybe the loudest (which wasn’t really that loud unless he thought something really funny happened or he got angry from dying too much in a video game). Katie often hung out with us the whole time and laughed at our jokes at a slightly lesser volume than Matt. Abi was a little harder to impress with our antics, but would laugh with us here and there if we were actually funny. And Emily was very good at limiting her interactions to silent approval. (At least I think it was approval…) Marie was always quietly affirming me and inviting me to stay for dinner with that wonderful smile of hers.
Brian also had a gentle, quiet spirit about him. It was quiet enough that we hadn’t talked much when I was younger. I think one of my first real conversations with him was on the phone when I called and said, “Hi, is Shott home?” (Shott being what many of us called Matt.)
“Yes,” Brian answered. “What’s up?” The voice didn’t sound right, but I didn’t want to feel stupid so I went with it.
“Hey man, what you doing today? You want to hang out and play some video games or something?”
“I’ll get Matt,” said the voice.
“Oh, uh… Hey Mr. Shott… Thanks!” I stumbled.
That was one of our longer conversations at that time.
For reasons like this, I was a bit startled when one of our congregants shared a dream they had with me that they felt might have been inspired by the Holy Spirit. It was the first week of May and Matt was in town from Scotland to see his family as Brian’s health had been deteriorating. My congregant said that in the dream, Brian came up to him and embraced him and told him that it may be the last time he saw him. Brian told him that he’s felt louder than he’s ever been and that he knew that both the church and heaven heard him. The church then gathered around him in love and he told them to stop crowding as he felt loved enough already.
That last part about the crowding felt like Brian. He never asked for or desired attention in the years I knew him. But the first part about Brian feeling “loud,” well, that was an interesting word for God to declare over one of the quietest people I know.
But it’s true though. When it came to installing the Kingdom of Heaven here in Jackson, Brian’s life was loud. You could experience his loudness when he was at church and you could also experience his loudness when he was absent.
We run a dinner church here in this building which serves a lot of homeless and impoverished people throughout our community. We experienced the loudness of this quiet man in the cleaning room, where he often buried himself, cleaning hundreds of dishes for our community. He was on a rotation to do it every few weeks, but there were many times where he did it for many weeks in a row, filling in for anyone who was missing. He often had to miss our main church service for weeks on end because he was too busy practicing the modern equivalent of the feet-washing tactics of Jesus—taking care of the slop of others for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
Behind the scenes, Brian and his family were quietly living the loudest life of our entire church. When they heard a homeless man in our church needed somewhere to stay, they took him right in. He returned to church the following week a bit cleaned up and excited about all of the cooking he had been able to do for the Shott’s. And then, he returned to church a month or two later holding the keys to his first apartment—something he wouldn’t have been able to pull off without the incredibly loud impact of the Shott’s on his life.
We also experienced the loudness of the Shott’s when they were absent from church. There was a night a few years back where we did something kind of hipster and just served 20 different kinds of cereal for dinner. I hoped people might see it as a cool experience, but it fell flat in comparison to the good food we worked hard to cook on other days. I remember someone expressing their lack of interest in the idea, but at the time I was unable to tell them the real reason we were eating cereal. The real reason we were eating cereal was because the Shott family was suffering that night. They had planned on doing the cooking, but had just received the news that weekend about Brian’s pancreatic cancer—a sickness that usually takes you quick.
“The reason we’re eating cereal tonight,” I wanted to say, “is because those who had planned on cooking for you today are dealing with some deep, deep suffering right now and replacing their hard work last minute is not simple.” When people like the Shott’s are this involved in heavily impacting the lives of those around them, we too will experience the effects of their pain in some way.
Of course I didn’t say that as it was too early to say anything about the fresh news of Brian’s diagnosis. And knowing the Shott’s quietness, I thought they would keep it under wraps for awhile. For that reason, I was surprised when a week or two later they asked the church to gather around and pray for Brian. They knew their answer was in Jesus and they didn’t hide it.
We knew God was there from day one. While Matt was on the other side of the planet and trying to process what to do with the fresh news of his Dad’s cancer, someone at his church walked up to him and said, “Do you know someone named Brian? I feel like I’m supposed to pray for you about that.”
And so all of our prayers continued as Brian endured an intense physical and spiritual journey, full of ups and downs that seemed to never stop. On the down side, we watched as Brian lost weight. On the up side, we had an extended night of prayer for Brian and things really seemed to improve for him. On the down side, we eventually saw more suffering come. On the upside, God miraculously told the Shott’s about a kind of medical treatment they hadn’t heard of that would help them, and it did. On the down side, the treatments were rough on Brian’s body. On the upside, Brian was so touched by the way God had worked in his life throughout his cancer that he once or twice had the audacity to proclaim that he wouldn’t have it any other way. On the downside, the cancer was very intense on his body. On the upside, a pandemic gave Brian and Marie extra time to be together. On the downside, it seemed like Brian lived in a half-miracle.
It’s hard to live in a half-miracle—like King Hezekiah who was told his death was coming, but then God extended his life after Hezekiah prayed. Like Brian who was told he had a disease that would take him soon, but then God extended his life after we prayed. That’s hard. We want the one button solution—the complete miracle. It’s hard to live in a half-miracle. Why? Why the half?
Brian, Job, and Suffering Well
I’ve been thinking about Job a lot lately, which is a powerful book on the topic of suffering. At the core of its writing is the question, “Why do good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people? Is God not a God of justice? Does he not care about our suffering? If He does, then why doesn’t the world operate in a way that paints God in a better light?”
Job was in pain. He was a righteous man who had committed no sin worthy of the deep suffering inflicted upon him. His friends thought he must have done something wrong to deserve the suffering, but Job was so certain that he hadn’t sinned that he spoke boldly to God, saying things that most of us would never say to God. Something wasn’t right. Life shouldn’t have ended up like this. There was injustice present in the world.
Job was angry. And so he brought that anger before God as his friends told him to stop saying such things.
And then, surprising both Job and his friends, God manifested in a whirlwind and spoke directly to Job. For two chapters, God essentially said one thing in a hundred different ways, “Job, do you know who you’re talking to?”
You get nervous as you read God’s words, because the things God said actually sound a lot like the things Job’s friends said. You think God has chosen sides and that Job was wrong for being angry and questioning the way the world works. It seemed like Job had lost the debate. But then God declares his verdict between Job and his friends: “My anger burns against your friends, for they have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”
Weird. God comes down on Job’s friends for trying to justify the injustice done against Job. Job knew that God’s character was better than his experience and he wanted God to explain. And God agreed that Job was right in that. Ultimately God never told Job why he went through such suffering, but the book of Job tells the readers what’s really going on: Job suffered in order to make a point to the heavenly host that all of humanity isn’t bad, because God knew that Job would be faithful to God whether life was good or falling apart. Amazingly, Job’s suffering was a lesson taught to spiritual beings, themselves.
Over the last few years, Brian, too has become a Job of sorts to the spiritual beings of Heaven. They have looked at Brian’s life in the good and the bad and have seen proof in Brian that humanity is worth it—that we’re not all bad. That some of us will be faithful to God whether we have it together or life is completely falling apart. And so Brian is not only an example to the angels, but to us too.
And so as I close, I extend one of my final conversations with Brian to all of you. As I sat in his living room with Matt and Marie, I went around the room and asked each one of them, “What is something you would wish for one another in these final days?” What was Brian’s wish? That they wouldn’t be mad at God for what had happened to him.
Like Job, Brian knew his cancer was an experience of injustice. He knew how hard it was to live in a half-miracle. He knew how many unanswered questions were left on the table. He knew that for some, his story would paint God in a bad light. But while his physical frame grew weaker, as his pastor I saw his spirit grow stronger in the last few years. And so perhaps we should extend his wish to all of us as well: “Don’t be mad at God.” At least not forever.
Brian, you’re the loudest quietest man I’ve ever met. And your loudness lives on in your family, your church, and your community. The impact you’ve made on the world and on us will continue to flow out of us to impact others. We take great joy in the fact that we will see you again in one of two ways: Either (1) we too will pass and come and meet you in the Heavens while we wait together to come back to earth in the resurrection or (2) Jesus will come back before we die and we’ll see you coming down to earth with him. Whichever case it may be, that shall be a merry meeting indeed.