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During the month of June, I want to take the opportunity in the Pulse to remember some of our brothers and sisters in the faith who have gone before us into the presence of Jesus. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:58, “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” In that spirit, I want to remember and honor the work of the Lord that was done by some truly special men and women and testify to how it was not in vain.
My first exposure to Ray Labbe happened unknowingly as a student at UConn back in the mid-90’s. I had begun to attend a church in Hebron called The Worship Center, and I kept seeing cars with bumper stickers that said “Pray for Ray.” I assumed that “Ray” referred to Ray Allen, the All-American UConn basketball player, but I wasn’t sure why he needed prayer. It was only a few years later that I learned that the prayers were for Ray Labbe, a member of The Worship Center who was fighting cancer.
After graduating from UConn, I ended up at NewLife as the youth pastor. During my four years in that role, I regularly took the teens to serve in New Britain with a ministry called Isaiah 58, which had been started by Ray in 1990 in response to God’s words in Isaiah 58:6-7:
"Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter-- when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:6-7)
With no fanfare, no marketing plan, and no desire for glory, Ray his wife Linda, and a team of volunteers prepared hot soup, hot dogs, bags of apples and canned goods, and lots of other food out of their home in Glastonbury, packed up the big blue van, and drove it all across the river to New Britain almost every Saturday afternoon to feed the hungry and homeless in the name of Jesus. And every so often the Labbes would come to NewLife, sometimes to worship with us, and sometimes so that Ray could preach and tell us with a twinkle in his eye what God was doing “on the street.” Every time he spoke, I came away encouraged to love and serve Jesus more.
Nine years ago, Ray fell asleep on his couch and never woke up, leaving behind his wife Linda and his two daughters, Robin and Jillian. One of the greatest privileges I have had as a pastor was leading Ray’s Celebration of Life service in March of 2009. Many incredible testimonies were shared that day by his family and friends. My favorite moment came when Ray’s daughter Robin shared about the legacy her father had left on her life. She talked about how well he understood grace, that all was a gift to be grateful for, undeserved blessings from a God who owed us nothing. Robin said that she learned from him that “Gratitude isn’t a glass half full/half empty thing. It’s ‘oh my God, there’s a glass! And I’m dying of thirst! And I just cursed out the glass company!!!’” That’s true gratitude, recognizing what we deserve before a Holy God and truly coming to appreciate His undeserved grace towards us.
My most treasured memory of Ray was how every time I called him and asked how he was doing, he always answered, “Is Jesus on the throne? Well, then, I must be okay.” Ray had gone through two bouts with cancer that almost took his life, and had come away knowing that no matter how bad things got, as long as Jesus was still Lord, he was going to be all right. Just like the Apostle Paul, Ray had learned the secret of being content in all situations: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:12-13). He would never be guaranteed health or wealth, but he would always be guaranteed that His Lord was in charge of his life, and that was enough for Ray.
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