|The surprise had been underfoot for months. My brother and his best friend, Mark, were both turning 40. That was reason enough for all of us who grew up together to make our way back home to Philly to help them celebrate.
The plan was simple… meet my sisters and my Dad at the airport (and enjoy a fun and festive lunch at Max Brenner’s downtown!). Surprise my brother Dave when we showed up at his son’s little league game that afternoon and keep a low profile until Mark and his family arrived the following day.
Until… I was cruising through the airport, on my way to find my sister’s arrival gate and ran right into… Mark! There he was, right in front of me, handsome and larger than life in his pilot’s uniform, waiting for his final leg home to Pittsburgh.
“So what brings you to Philly?” he said with a smile. My words fumbled as my mind raced for anything “normal” to say that wouldn’t tip him off. “Uh… uh… just visiting friends,” I tried to say nonchalantly. Ha! I should have known he was having too much fun making me squirm! Somehow I kept up some happy pleasantries and made my escape. I was still breathless when I reached my sister, “you’ll NEVER believe who I just saw!!?! If I just blew months of careful planning I will be so bummed!!”
We were on our way down the escalator to baggage claim when we got the call that he already knew about the surprise! What a stinker!!! If he had only said something, we could have kept him company until his next flight. Nope. Instead, those few minutes of embarrassing, but hilarious scrambling became fodder for his dry wit impersonations of me for years to come!
No one could imitate me better than Mark or bring out the belly laughs in all of us until our sides hurt. He is the only one who could make me laugh at myself, help me not take myself so seriously, but somehow never hurt my feelings. He has been my brother’s best friend since they were toddlers, and he has always been like a brother to me too!
Mark was my rock for every ski trip – giving me courage to survive expert mogul slopes I should have never even attempted – and offering a shoulder to lean on when falling asleep in the van on the ride home. He was the one who would graciously come running to evict the latest trespassing cricket in our beach condo during summer vacations in the Outer Banks of NC. Following Dave and Mark also helped me push beyond my own hesitations and boogie board with the best of them in 60-something degree ocean waters! Mark was never sentimental or one to engage in deep conversation – but he would humor me when I wanted to chat or preserve the latest Kodak moment!
A little over a month ago, Mark was the first one of us to take a brave, confident step from this world into our eternal home with our Savior, the Lord Jesus. Dave said it best when he declared that cancer didn’t win that day – Grace did! In the long 8 year battle, Mark often testified to the grace of God that saw him and his dear family through each day, each hurdle, and rejoiced in each blessing. Amazing grace had brought him to that day, and Amazing Grace had carried him home!
As loved ones gathered to rejoice in a life well-lived for the Lord Jesus, we all found ourselves going back to one singular, defining moment in Mark’s life. He was a teenager, struggling to understand the truth about God, about sin, and about the redemption Jesus freely offers that reconciles us to God. Mark has always been a man of few words, so none of us knew what he was really thinking – we just carried a deep burden to pray that he would find peace in trusting Christ as his Savior.
Two well-known preachers had pitched a tent to hold a month of gospel meetings in the middle of the summer – to open God’s Word and proclaim the truth and good news of God’s salvation. Most of the members of our little church attended every night. On one of those nights, Mark stayed behind after the meeting to talk to the speakers. The rest of us crammed into a little trailer beside the tent to pray for Him. We poured out our hearts to the Lord, asking that He would reach Mark and make His truth clear to him in a way that he could receive it and rest in it.
The night stretched long and many wondered if we should not all be standing out there, making Mark feel uncomfortable and on-the-spot when he left the tent that night. So we drifted to our cars and sat quietly in the dark… and prayed some more. My brother Dave sat on the hood of our car and said emphatically, “I’m not leaving.”
To this day, the thrill that still dissolves most of us to tears is the memory of the sound of clapping. Mark’s silhouette appeared in the light of the tent opening with raised hands, confidently proclaiming “I got it!” He knew his sins were forgiven and his eternity was secure. He had found peace. Needless to say it was a night we will never forget!
Mark’s faith in Christ set the path for the rest of his life. Especially in recent years, he devoted himself to reading God’s Word and getting to know the Savior who redeemed him. He longed for others to know Him – to really know Him in an ever-deepening way!
Not long after Mark trusted Christ, I distinctly remember him joining the other men to kneel on small carpet squares on the basement floor in our church. It was Sunday evening and they were burdened to pray for the gospel meeting that was about to take place. That night was the first time I heard Mark call the Lord Jesus “precious.” His words touched me deeply for several reasons.
As a teenager, Mark was a bit rough around the edges. He wasn’t known to express his thoughts and definitely not his emotions. Words like “tenderness” or “precious” would not have been used by or about Mark. That just wasn’t him. But now that his heart belonged to the Lord Jesus, we were beginning to see amazing changes taking place. When it came to Christ, Mark wasn’t shy about showing his soft side!
Those words stopped me, too, because I wondered if I could say the same? I had trusted Christ several years before, but could I say that my love for Him had deepened to the point that I would call Him “precious?” Mark’s few words, spoken in prayer that night, reminded me that our salvation isn’t a business transaction. Yes, the debt is paid, we are forgiven, sin is covered and we are redeemed. But that is just the beginning of the story. Our Savior desires a close, deeply personal relationship with us that is truly “precious!” His tenderness toward us will always touch and soften our hearts and give us joy in expressing our appreciation for Him!
Mark’s life proved beyond any doubt that the Lord Jesus was precious to him. He was a powerful example of what it looks like to bravely walk a path he would never choose for himself. He simply trusted God. He was thankful for each day, let the Lord use him however He chose to do so and left the end of the story up to Him! Mark never lost his sense of humor and kept us chuckling with many of his updates. But he never failed to give thanks to God and would say often that they were in the Lord’s hands – and that there was no better place to be!
“Help [us], O Lord my God, according to Your mercy… that [we] may know that this is Your hand, that You, O Lord, have done it.” Psalm 109:26-27
Now Mark is in the Lord’s presence, face to face with Christ, our Savior – and there is absolutely no better place to be!
Mark may have referred to me as his sleepy, weepy, freaked out by creepies “sister” (said in love, of course!). We may not have had many serious conversations in all those years, but I will always be thankful for the chance to tell him how much I love him and I will always be proud to call him my brother! I really can’t wait until we all get Home and can rejoice with our Savior together!
together (Outer Banks road trip, 1990-ish)…
… again (40th birthdays, 2011)
…. and again (McKeesport, 2017)
I Thessalonians 4:17 ~ Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord.
… and again (one day in heaven’s glory!)
Thank you so much for the beautiful tribute to the man that we came to think of as our own son – and love with all our hearts. You captured the essence of Mark perfectly. He was a true friend and brother to all of you. He was the perfect husband to Jennie and the most wonderful father to Logan, Jack, and Max. Thank you again! 💕
It is so sweet to hear your heart, Mom Swauger! I am so thankful I was able to meet you and spend a few days in McKeesport together. Sending our love and prayers to all of you XOXO