One of the first times I met Cliff Anderson he was sitting in a chair in the corner of my college dorm room eating a pineapple. I remember both of us laughing when our hands stuck together, a result of the pineapple juice. That must have been in the winter of 1978. How could I have known at that moment that my life would be stuck to his for the next 34 years?
Cliff’s death at age 72, which came last Wednesday, was agonizingly painful and slow, but he accepted it with great courage. As his wife Mary put it in the days immediately preceding his death, he was not angry, surprised or afraid.
The last line of George Eliot’s Middlemarch says: “The growing good of the world is partly dependent on un-historic acts and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.”
She might have been speaking about Cliff. So might Jesus, when he said what he did about the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the meek and those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. Cliff was a good man, a gentle soul, a dear follower of Christ and his death leaves the world a poorer place.
He was deeply loved by those whose lives he touched. There were about 200 people making up a “Great Cloud of Witnesses,” filling the choir loft of the First Presbyterian Church of Colorado Springs at his memorial service on Saturday. The Great Cloud of Witnesses represented various ministries he’d been involved with. The church sanctuary, which seats several hundred people, was packed.
The son of Swedish immigrants, Cliff was a high school math teacher for several years before joining the staff of Young Life in 1970 in Palatine, Illinois. He later pioneered Young Life in Michigan, taught Young Life staff on several continents as the Vice President of Training, built a deep relationship between Young Life and the Lutheran Church of Wuerttemburg, Germany, was instrumental in starting Young Life ministry to teen moms, advocated strongly for widening Young Life’s ministry to include minority, disabled, disenfranchised and disadvantaged kids long before those views were fashionable, and helped steer hundreds of Young Life staff toward theological education. He also helped start the Colorado Springs extension campus of Fuller Theological Seminary and mentored several pastors of the First Presbyterian Church of Colorado Springs. Especially in his later years he was simply known as “Uncle Cliff” (or even “Uncle Cliffy”) to hundreds of Young Life staff.
He was my supervisor for most of the decade of the 1980’s. He was the most encouraging person I have ever encountered. I often felt he believed in me more than I believed in me and was inspired never to let him down.
In 1985 he really did become my Uncle Cliff, when I married his niece Gretchen. The event was complicated by the fact my fiancé/wife suffered a massive stroke one month before our wedding day. Through it all (and there was a lot to go through) Cliff was a constant source of compassion, empathy and wisdom. He performed our wedding, saying phrases my wife has quoted to me often over the past 27 years.
Cliff and I were both baseball fans. We laughed a lot about the memorable time we sat in the bleachers at the old Tiger Stadium for a twi-night doubleheader. It was Shrine Night, so there was a parade of middle-aged men wearing fezzes driving tiny cars between games, followed by a rain delay, followed by an extra-inning game that never came to a conclusion because of a league rule about starting innings after 1 AM. We spent eight hours in the bleachers, breathing in that unique smell of cigar smoke, spilt beer and stale peanuts that permeated the place, sitting amid drunks and gamblers and just plain fans and who knows what other denizens of the Detroit night. Cliff kept moaning because he had a breakfast meeting in Ann Arbor the next day, but we stayed for the duration. There was no place else I wanted to be and no one else I wanted to be with.
When Fred Hutchinson was manager of the Cincinnati Reds and had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, one of the Reds’ players said to his teammates, “He showed us how to live. Now he’s going to show us how to die.” The same was true of Cliff. An email announcing his death said, “He lived his life and embraced his death in solid faith and relational community up to the very end.” He suffered over the past six years from multiple myeloma cancer, and endured seemingly endless rounds of chemotherapy and stem cell treatments. He bore much pain and valiantly walked a long path towards death. That journey has now ended. I’m sad he suffered so much, and glad that he is now in a place beyond pain where God wipes every tear away. Goodbye, Cliff.