“IS THAT your family?” Ted asked, pointing to a picture on my computer screen.
“Yes. Those are my parents,” I acknowledged, sifting through pictures on iPhoto.
“And who’s that?” Ted inquired about a picture of me sitting on the back of a younger guy.
“That’s Michael,” I chuckled. “He’s my brother … from another mother.”
“So you have the same father?” he replied, perplexed. “Because you guys look nothing alike, except for the nose and lips.”
I laughed and took a sip of my chai latte, nearly burning my tongue. “Dude, it’s an expression. We have the same Heavenly Father! But honestly, I see Michael as my brother.”
Looking down at my picture with Michael, I smiled. “It’s quite a story.”
MEMORIES OF LOSS
When I looked at family pictures from the past five years, I couldn’t help but think of how they were incomplete. My younger sister, Rode, wasn’t in any of them. In the summer of 2007, my family’s church had a gathering at a member’s home. While I was showering at the pool house, I heard frantic knocking and someone urging me to come out to help. I got to the pool and saw my sister’s lifeless body on the floor. One of the dads had just pulled her out, so I immediately rushed to her side and performed CPR. Apparently, she had saved a little kid’s life, but drowned in the process.
I remembered her purple lips, pale skin, and the sound of sirens growing louder as they approached. I remembered the cold hospital room and the sound of her heart beat fading away. Most of all, I remembered the silence. Every family portrait taken since then would never be the same. When you lose loved ones, you begin to think you didn’t take enough pictures of them or with them. You become grateful for the captured memories, evidence they existed. Maybe that’s why I now take so many pictures. Deep down, I’m afraid of losing people and forgetting them.
Ted stopped me, gently placing his hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”
“It’s okay. I’m broken but my God is a God of restoration,” I assured him. “I was so focused on family being blood-related, that I missed seeing the family of believers in front of me who supported and encouraged me. It took several people to open my eyes.”
“Yeah. My sister touched many people’s lives, and some came to faith as a result of her death. God gives and takes away. Although I lost a sister, I’ll see her again one day. But in the meantime, He’s blessed me with three brothers. Through them, He taught me to genuinely smile again.”
BROTHERS FOR ADVERSITY
“So how’d Michael come into the picture?”
I warmed my hands on my cup and continued.
“Michael Fances is my pastor’s middle son. My mom insisted that I bond with him, saying, ‘Michael looks up to you. His brother is away at college and your sister is gone. Maybe you need each other.’ But I resented Michael for being the same age as my sister. His entire high school experience — taking the SATs, applying to college, going to prom — was a reminder of things my sister never got to do and memories I could never share with her. But Michael was persistent, inviting me to share those experiences with him. He asked for my advice about college, sought my help with homework, and hung out with me on some weekends. I felt like a big brother again.
We grew closer at a youth group sleepover, talking quietly while the others were asleep.
“Hey, I’m sorry for pushing you away these past two years. I’ve been afraid of getting close to you,” I confessed. “Because I’m afraid of losing you too.”
“You can’t lose someone when they’re in Christ. You’ll meet them again. So you won’t lose me.” Michael reminded me. “But all I can do is be here for you in times of need. Nobody can replace your sister. But in a way, I’ve been a ‘substitute’ brother. God has brought you and me together, so I know God has a plan.”
God did have a plan. That night, Michael and I became “brothers for adversity”, as it says in Proverbs 17:17. I never understood that verse until Michael came along. As Christians, our friendships should be based upon commitment, rather than circumstances. We’re called to love unconditionally, but being a brother is a level much deeper than being a mere friend.
When we stick around when times are tough, we fulfill our purpose of being brothers. I admit I was rough on Michael because hurt people hurt people. Yet, Michael relentlessly showed me Christ’s love by being patient, forgiving, and understanding. God was healing my heart through my brotherhood with Michael, which allowed two more brothers to enter my family picture.
PEN PALS FOR CHRIST
“This guy?” Ted interrupted, pointing to a picture of me hugging Gabriel, Michael’s older brother.
“Yes. Gabriel interns for Epic Ministries at UCLA and USC. But at the time the picture was taken, he had just returned home from UC Davis for winter break.”
My fingers tapped nervously on the table as I reminisced. Gabriel must have thought it odd that I was spending so much time with his brother, Michael. But instead of judgment or jealously, Gabriel comforted me, reminding me of Romans 12:15, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” (NIV) That winter break, we bonded, and like Michael, he welcomed me as his brother.
“I hope you know I’m not trying to replace you,” I said. “Michael’s been helping me heal. And while you were away, I tried to be there for him.”
“No, I’m glad you guys got each other,” Gabriel affirmed. “You guys are a good influence on each other, so God has His reasons.”
“In hindsight, I’m seeing how God works, placing you both in my life at the right time, but let’s keep in touch when you return to Davis.”
“We could always write.”
And writing was just what we did. For the past two years, we became pen pals, faithfully exchanging weekly emails. We offered each other advice, accountability, and prayer. The honesty and vulnerability made us closer as brothers.
Ted socked my right shoulder and exclaimed, “The joys of technology!”
I rubbed my right shoulder and felt a bruise forming.
LIKE DAVID AND JONATHAN
“And the third guy?” Ted wondered.
On iPhoto, I clicked on a series of pictures of me with a blonde guy.
“Meet my best friend, Bronson Lobato. People think we’ve been friends since childhood, but really it’s been less than two years. When I first met Bronson, he had only been a Christian for a couple of months. But I think God drew us closer together because we were both broken when we met. God used us to help each other.”
People describe my relationship with Bronson like David and Jonathan. After reading Disciplines of a Godly Man by R. Kent Hughes, I think it’s fitting. Hughes says that David and Jonathan — men of God — had mutuality, which is shared deeper in their common love for God. Likewise, my common bond with Bronson is through the blood of Jesus that paid for our sins. So in essence, we are blood brothers! David and Jonathan also had a God-given love, commitment, and loyalty to each other. As accountability partners, Bronson and I have got this down! Lastly, Hughes says that godly men like David and Jonathan must encourage each other. It’s more than just a pat on the back; it’s encouragement to seek and look to God.
One day, when Bronson wanted to encourage me, he asked me to log on to my sister’s Facebook account and add him. Despite never having met my sister when she was alive, Bronson introduced himself and wrote on her wall:
“ … I just want to let you know how much good you have caused. So many people have come to Christ because of you! Thank you for taking care of Gio for me, and having an amazing impact on his life, and through that, my life. You have quite the ripple effect, and this is just the beginning.”
It was the perfect reminder. Even after we die, if we lived our lives reflecting Christ, the people we leave behind can’t help but feel the ripple effects. My brothers reflect Christ, and through them I experience God’s love. I’m reminded that I’m never alone; I am loved and wanted.
Ted hugged me. I never refuse hugs anymore. Somehow, God had turned me into a hugger — that’s how I express my love for others. After we hugged, the screensaver mode on my computer turned on. Images of my family faded in and out — my parents, Michael, Gabriel, and Bronson. Then a photo of my sister, Rode. I silently prayed, thanking God for completing my family picture.