So why was Kyle’s death such big news?
Death does weird things to the people around it. It makes you forget the bad in a person. It makes you wish you’d made better use of your time with that person. It often makes that person more popular than they ever were in life.
When Kyle Lake died on Oct. 30, 2005, he seemingly became the most popular pastor in the nation. In life, he wasn’t one of the Christian celeb-pastors. He was never as well-known as some of his friends like David Crowder and Brian McLaren. His two books, Understanding God’s Will and (re)Understanding prayer , were well received but hardly best sellers. Kyle’s church, University Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, was big, but it was hardly one of the nations best-known megachurches.
So why was Kyle’s death such big news? Was it simply the James Dean Effect, in which one is immortalized by dying young? Were people just jumping on the Kyle Lake bandwagon?
I began looking into it. Scott Gornto, who was Kyle’s best friend, college roommate and brother-in-law, and I began talking about writing a tribute to Kyle in the RELEVANT Leader . I told him that I didn’t want to create a Saint Kyle by writing a gushy false piece of romanticized fluff. “He would have hated a piece that deified him,” Gornoto replied. “I can see him getting embarrassed by such a thing.” It’s obvious when reading either of his two books that Kyle wasn’t one to stroke his own ego.
Over the next few days, however, things started to change. People who knew Kyle- his friends, his family and church members- began telling me about Kyle. It’s easy to identify insincere compliments. They’re either vague or inconsistent. What people said about Kyle was neither.
Jeffery Kyle Lake was born in Tyler Texas in 1972. He graduated from Baylor University in 1994 and Truett Seminary in 1997. He married his best friend’s sister, Jennifer, in 1998, and they had three children. On Oct. 30, 2005, Kyle was electrocuted as he prepared to baptize a woman in his church. He was 33.
That’s the CliffsNotes. Here’s more of the story and what you can take from it:
He Was Approachable
At Kyle’s funeral, Craig Nash, one of Kyle’s best friends, said that Kyle was a “9-year-old boy stuck in a 33-year old man’s body. His childlike silliness made him the funniest person I know.” This sentiment has been echoed time and time again. Perhaps this is the first step to understanding the power that his life had.
When Kyle and I would sneak away for an afternoon movie in the middle of the week, he had a ritual Nash said. “Without fail, the second we sat down, Kyle would nudge my elbow, and slowly start pulling out a package of candy he brought with him … and giggle as if he were the first and only person ever to think of smuggling candy into a movie theatre. Kyle loved candy, and I’ll never forget that giggle.”
Stories of Kyle’s playful spirit weren’t limited to pleasantries at his funeral. It seems that everyone who knew Kyle wanted to talk about his sense of fun.
“Kyle had an infectious sense of humor and playfulness,” Jona Lake, Kyle’s brother, said. “When I say that, I mean it got into your system, rubbed off on you and made you the same way.”
It is that playful spirit that many people have remembered. It drew people to him. He also had a tendency to literally draw people to him, as he loved to hug and tickle people. Yes, a grown man would tickle his friends. He was comfortable with himself and with others, and he was never “too adult” or “too pastoral” to just have fun. Oftentimes, it was what people needed the most.
“I don’t like to be hugged, and Kyle was a guy who hugged everybody,” says David Crowder, who is one of he founders of UBC. “We were sitting in Papacita’s in Austin. He tried to embrace me, and I tried to deflect he embrace. He looked at me and said, “Seriously, why don’t you like to be hugged’ I said, “Well, Kyle, I’m skinny. People hug me and say, ‘Dude, you need to get something to eat.’ And it makes me feel bad.’ Before I knew it, he was chasing me around Papacita’s until he cornered me and full-on hugged me. And that’s Kyle. He just throws his arms around you, and it doesn’t matter how you feel about yourself or what’s messed up about you. The guy just exuded love.”
Matt Singleton, who is on leadership staff at UBC, says that Kyle would tickle him at church. Kyle thought it was the funniest thing in the world, and he didn’t care who was around.
“Kyle was not a pastor,” Singleton says “That is not a title that fit him. From my first experience with Kyle, he refused to fit nicely into my box labeled ‘pastors.’ He Became the catalyst for a barrage of paradigm shifts for me; he forced me to open up all of my boxes and empty their contents out into an illogical pile.”
It’s easy to look at this and say, “But I’m not very funny” or “I don’t have the charm that Kyle had.” But that’s not the point. Yes, people loved Kyle’s smile, but that’s not why people loved him. He was approachable because he took himself off his serious pastoral pedestal. He never took himself too seriously. When more of us are fighting to earn respect, Kyle just wanted to have fun. His playfulness softened people’s heart, and that allowed the real ministry to begin.
He Loved The Church
During a time in which it’s cool to criticize the Church (and the church), Kyle always had hope and wanted to make it better.
“At one moment he would be jabbing me in the side; the next he would be discussing pre-millenial dispensationalism and its effects on the postmodern culture,” says Jane Seaman, a friend of Kyle’s. “Kyle would discuss the Church today and his vision of how it should change. I loved to hear that stuff from him. It was so refreshing to hear that there just might be another way to do church. Kyle lived that vision.”
Brian McLaren had a big influence on Kyle. In the end, Kyle influenced McLaren as well. “ I will always remember Kyle’s zest for learning,” he says. “Whenever we would see one another, he would tell me about books he’d been reading, and he’d have some theological questions he wanted to discuss. We’d spend a bare minimum of time in small talk, and then we’d jump in the deep end to talk about matters of significance.”
Kyle wanted the Church to explore Christ with the same passion that he did. “Kyle broke down barriers between what some consider ‘spiritual’ things and ‘nonspiritual things.’” McLaren says. “His favorite sermons were the ‘God in the Movies’ and ‘God in the music’ series he did in the fall and spring, respectively. It have him the opportunity to explore and see that God is at work everywhere, even in the lives and minds of those who don’t even acknowledge Him.”
In an interview with “The Leadership Blog,” Kyle said that his biggest pet peeve was when people critique without providing an alternative. Kyle didn’t just want to complain about the Church. He wanted to improve it.
He Was Kyle
If you speak with people who really knew Kyle, They’ll tell you of his authenticity.
“Kyle inspired me to live life more honestly and authentically,” Gornoto says. “In 1996 we developed a weekly ritual to get dinner together. I remember countless conversations about how God was teaching us to live more honestly and authentically, rather than posturing or acting spiritual. What we realized over time was that living authentically is, in fact, more spiritual- more Christlike- than acting like we have it all together.”
In that authenticity, he was OK letting people know that he wasn’t OK. “Kyle once talked about how his daughter can only do things “full tilt,”’ UBC member Harris Bechtol says “She does not know how to fake it. When she is happy, she embraces her happiness, and you know when she is happy. When she is angry, unfortunately, she embraces this too, and you really know when she is angry. I think Avery was passed this gene from Kyle. He too was not a good faker He was Kyle Lake through and through. He embraced this Kyle-ness and lived as best he could. Authenticity flowed from his every action.”
Kyle was confident in who he was. Unlike many of us, he wasn’t trying to be who other people wanted to be. We want to show people that everything is under control. After all, will people follow us if we show weakness? In the Upside-down Kingdom, showing weakness is strength, and Kyle helped to show his friends how.
He Loved Life
When looking at Kyle’s life through the eyes of those who loved him, one heme dominates the conversation: Kyle loved life and living it for Christ. His benediction was “Love God, Embrace beauty, Live life to the fullest.”
“[That benediction] is something he practiced daily,” Nash says. “When most people read those three things, they immediately want to rate and define each component. Kyle would have none of that. To him it wasn’t the formulatic “Love God and the rest will follow’ He saw life as a dance between loving God, embracing beauty and living life to the fullest. To embrace beauty was to love God, and to love God was to live life to the fullest, and to live life to the fullest was to love God.”
“The kingdom of God was really present for him,” Crowder says. “The line between here and there was really blurry anytime you were around him.”
Of course, Kyle had hard times. He was just usually able to let God shine through him.
“I tend to be a bit intense and anxious- something that Kyle lived free of,” Gornoto says. “Not to say that he did not have anxious moments. In fact, the month before he died, he had a couple of difficult situations about his frustration and anxiety. But he was able to work through each situation with honesty, integrity and grace. I admired him in life and after his death for how he had an uncanny ability to enjoy every moment, to embrace life and live life to the fullest … to wake up every moment with a smile on his face.”
It was that perpetually positive attitude that kept those around Kyle at ease.
“I’ll tell you what I miss the most about Kyle: He had a certain way about him that brought a sense of peace to my often-chaotic soul,” says Jason Mitchell, a longtime friend of Kyle. “Scott [Gornoto] and I used to marvel at his personality. We would often say how to our anxious personality he was so chill, to our explosiveness he was so restrained and to our melancholy he was so happy-go-lucky. From our vantage point he had a more simple approach to our constantly over-complicating every aspect of life. We were in awe of him really.”
He Lives On
“I joked with him in his kitchen about how he was 33, the same age Jesus was when He died,” Gornoto says of one of the last conversations he had ith Kyle. “Who knew that 24 hours later, my friend would be gone?”
The Lake family and the people of UBC are still working through a lot of pain. Most of us can only imagine what the loss of a spouse, brother, child or close friend must feel like. Fortunately, Kyle left them with hope.
In his final sermon, the one that that he never had a chance to deliver, he wrote the following:
Live. And Live Well.
BREATHE. Breath in and Breathe deeply. Be PRESENT. Do not be past. Do not be future. Be now.
On a crystal-clear, breezy, 70-degree day, roll down the windows and FEEL the wind against your skin. Feel the warmth of the sun.
If you run, then allow those first few breaths on a cool autumn day to FREEZE your lungs and do not just be alarmed, be ALIVE.
Get knee-deep in a novel and LOSE track of time.
If you bike, pedal HARD … and if you crash, then crash well.
Feel the SATISFACTION of a job well-done- a paper well-written, a project thoroughly completed, a play well-performed.
If you must wipe the snot from your three-year-old’s nose, don’t be disgusted if the Kleenex doesn’t catch it all … because soon he’ll be wiping his own.
If you’ve recently experienced loss, then GRIEVE. And Grieve well.
A the table with friends and family, LAUGH. If you’re eating and laughing at the same time, then might as well laugh until you puke. And if you eat, then SMELL. The aromas are not impediments to your day. Steak on the grill, coffee beans freshly ground, cookies in the oven. And TASTE. Taste every ounce of flavor. Taste every ounce of friendship. Taste every ounce of Life. Because it is mostly definitely a gift.
At the end of it all, I realized that this was not the James Dean Effect. No trend-misers were joining the Kyle Lake Fan Club. The reason for the outcry over Kyle’s death was simpler than I’d expected: Kyle changed people for the better and people wanted to pass it on.
The challenge he has left us is beautiful but difficult. The world can be changed and God can be glorified. All we need to do is love God, embrace beauty and live life to the fullest.