Dear Heavenly, gracious Father, our hearts are heavy, but I want to thank you for the opportunity and responsibility to honor my friend today. Please, make my words your words and give me the strength to do right by my friend Justin.
My name is Kevin Black and I’ve had a special connection with Justin since I was a little kid. Most recently, as the head wrestling coach in River Falls, I worked closely with him as our club president. I spoke to Justin almost every day over the last 6 years. He became one of my very best friends. He was thoughtful, kind, considerate, respectful and extraordinarily supportive. He always put out his hand to receive a greeting and he always asked if I had a minute to talk.
Often times, we hear people describe a friend as someone who wears his heart on his sleeve. Well, if you’ll allow me a few minutes to talk about Justin, I think that you’ll agree with me that he wore his heart in his eyes.
He lived his life by what he could see. By what was right there in front of him. He lived in the moment. He was always present. And there’s something profound in the way he followed his heart through his eyes.
You see, the way the eye works is it takes light in through the cornea to the pupil and it’s focused by the lens onto the back wall of the retina, which is covered by millions and millions of photo receptors. It’s the lens, however, that is important in this story. Because the lens brings things into focus.
Justin gave everyone a chance and he believed in others because he lived in the moment. He believed in his kids and was present for all of their important adventures – sports, hunting, marching band, broken bones, surgeries, graduations. He was there to see all of them. One of his last posts on Facebook was a quote by Brooke Hampton that said, “speak to your children as if they are the wisest, kindest, most beautiful and magical humans on earth, for what they believe is what they will become.” He was always very generous with his use of adjectives.
It was always about being in the moment, never about the past or the future; it was about right now. He focused on what he could see because his heart was in his eyes.
Growing up in Beldenville, he spent a lot of time by his dad’s side helping with chores, hunting or riding on the airboat and fishing with friends like George Quist. He absolutely adored his mom. He was fascinated by her ability to communicate with a paint brush and she’d be fascinated by how he could communicate with his camera. He loved his parents and would speak fondly of them often. He missed them everyday.
His first paying job was picking sweet corn and selling it at the end of his driveway. He paid for college with all of that money he made through the honor system. The honor system: trusting others to leave their money as they counted out their own ears of corn. It worked because he believed in the good in others. He chose to see the world this way. His heart was in his eyes.
In fourth grade, his eyes noticed something very special and he became friends with Stacy Rohl. In 8th grade, he asked her out. He also asked her out in 9th grade and 10th grade and 11th grade and 12th grade. I remember he used to call our house when Stacy was babysitting. Once in a while my brother would chat with him and we told her we didn’t understand why she wouldn’t just marry him. Maybe we saw what Justin saw. Well, it wasn’t until after they graduated that she agreed to go out with him and it started a life of 26 years together. He was committed, dedicated and loyal.
Yesterday I talked to Ron Nelson about Justin. Mr. Nelson lived up the hill from him in Beldenville and said that he was, by far, his best neighbor. When Mr. Nelson moved to Prairie du Chien, Justin and Lowein went for a drive just to see where Mr. Nelson lived. No other agenda. Maybe he stopped for some cheese curds along the way, but he just wanted to see where Mr. Nelson lived. And that makes sense to us. Because his heart was in his eyes.
He stepped into the wrestling community in the mid-80’s and we became his extended family. Many of his coaches developed a unique bond with the Bystrom Machine. My dad was one of them. And his best friends shared a passion for the sport. My dad often tells the story of when his mother told him that Justin’s life was so much better by being involved with wrestling because he got to "Soar With Eagles." And what a great view that gave him.
When Justin was in college, he took a photography class and became intrigued. It grew into passion. There’s no doubt in my mind that Justin fell in love with photography because it was a way for him to share with us what he could see. From his point-of-view, whether it was while soaring with eagles or sitting matside, he was able to capture the joy of living in the moment. The lens on his camera intensely focused on the details of life, real life, and captured moments and we’re all better people for it. His love for others became so clear to us all through the use of that camera because he was able share with us what those eyes saw. His heart was in his eyes.
His camera opened his eyes to many new things and brought him all over the country – Carver-Hawkeye Arena, the Olympic Trials, World Team Trials, Junior Nationals, State Tournaments, youth tournaments, youth practices, softball games, graduations – and he impacted thousands of people simply by being present and sharing his heart. He lived his dreams wide awake. He saw, with his eyes, that the good stuff in life came from focusing on the moment and being present.
Stacy was the love of his life. His children, Lowein, Tyson, Winston and Serena were the joy of his life.
He was always there. But he’s not here anymore. On Saturday, March 4th, his heart stopped working and suddenly, we were without our friend who was always there. Stacy told me that, true to character, Justin wanted to be a donor when it was time. “But not my eyes,” he told her. They can take everything else, but he wanted to keep his eyes.
Isaiah 40:31 says, “but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” Justin soared with the eagles and those eyes had a tremendous view of life.
In the end, Justin shared his heart with everyone, but he’s taking his eyes with him because he’s living in the moment and he’s focused on something new. Phillippians 3:14 says, “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
Our eyes might be filled with tears today, but when they dry, we’d do well to use them to focus on what’s right there in front us. And live in the moment. To be present. This is the greatest lesson I learned from Justin. To be in the moment is to focus on what is right here, right now. Disappointment and regret? That’s in the past. Fear and anxiety? That’s in the future. Those things don’t exist in the present. It’s things like love, hope, joy, peace, passion, those are the things that thrive in the present tense by living in the moment. And these are the words I’ve heard many of you use when describing Justin.
Pouring yourself into the moment is the best way to live our lives. And it’s how Justin wore his heart in his eyes.
In a letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul wrote, “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people.”
Justin, thank you for sharing your heart with us. We’re all better for having seen what you see.