When I heard the news, I sobbed. I’m not ashamed. When someone adds deeply to your life, you cry when they die. My cousin, James Skipper, passed away last week at the age of 59. Fifty-nine is a lot younger than it used to be.
How did James add to my life? He rolled me around in a barrel. When we were kids, the Durrance boys (Kelly and Steve), James and I would play with the 55-gallon barrels they used for barrel racing at rodeos. You haven’t known fun until you’ve crawled into a barrel and your cousins roll you 50 feet or so. Rolling around in a barrel shakes loose thoughts you didn’t know you had. It sure beat any video game I’ve ever seen.
Some people chuckle; James exploded in laughter. His laugh was a high-pitched squeeze of the gut that made you laugh just because he was laughing. It was his gift to the world, because when James laughed, you could hear it all the way to the next county.
Never have I known a man who enjoyed life so much. At his own wedding, he was thrown into the pool, and he came up laughing. He was a connoisseur of steaks, good breakfasts and Cuban sandwiches. Some men who claim to be tough don’t have much use for little girls in ponytails. Not James. He taught a brood of nieces to be racoon hunters. He’d take 11 little girls out at night to shine light into the trees of the swamp to find the raccoons. I’ll spare you the details, but every one of those little girls grew up to be beautiful women who loved their Uncle James. James found joy in the joy of those little girls.
James was comfortable in his own skin. Other men in town tried to be a cowboy by dressing the part: jeans, big belt buckle, cowboy hat. I’ve seen James go out to work cows wearing baggy sweat pants and Crocs. If you laughed at him, he’d have a fast retort. You undertook verbal jousting with James at your own risk.
For years, James was a volunteer coach at the high school. He took fatherless young men under his wing and tried to teach them about life, about work, about self-respect and about faith. Seventeen-year-old boys are not very aware or very appreciative. But James altered the trajectory of some lives. He never bragged about it or sought recognition. He just showed up in their lives. Sometimes showing up is the most important thing.
My brother Steve and James were best friends. Every Saturday, James would call Steve and say, “I’ll be by to pick you up in a minute.” They might catch breakfast at the Pioneer Café (where the elite of Zolfo Springs meet to eat), or they might drive to Tampa. They might pick up a part for a diesel pump engine or go to a gun show in Fort Myers.
Occasionally, I got to go along for the Saturday adventures. James would give me the rarest of gifts: He related to me as a person, not a pastor. Most people can’t get past the “Reverend” in front of my name. It never mattered to James. “Pastor” was what I did, not who I was.
It was during one of those Saturday morning breakfast runs, Steve and James were talking about heaven. I’m in the back seat, listening. My brother Steve (who after all, does have a lot to repent of) said he was willing to sweep the streets of heaven, just as long he got in. I was about to open my mouth to correct my brother’s theology, when James spoke up: “Steve, it’s not about having to work to get into heaven. It’s about grace. Jesus came to give us grace.” Great theology from a man wearing shorts with a hole in them and a pair of Crocs.
It seems so unreal that James is gone. I know he’s in heaven. I know he knew the grace of Jesus. But, I will miss his laugh. I will miss his joy. I will miss him.
Somewhere in heaven, a new arrival in sweat pants and Crocs is laughing with Jesus, laughing in grace.
Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter.
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