“I spent a couple of hours with Steve and Sharol Hayner today in Atlanta,” the senior pastor of a church I attended 15 years ago wrote me several weeks ago. “I thought about taking off my shoes since I was clearly on holy ground.”

Then, last Friday, I received a note from another friend, this one I first met in high school and with whom I attended college. “[My husband] and I just returned from being with the Hayners,” she wrote. “The whole time I felt as if I was standing on holy ground.”

So just what kind of couple would elicit this kind of response from others–spontaneous references from two people who have never met, who visited the Hayners at different times, both testifying that they had found themselves on holy ground?

If you knew Steve and Sharol Hayner, you’d understand.

Steve died on Saturday afternoon, at the age of 66, after having been stricken with pancreatic cancer last April. I first met Steve when he was associate pastor for University Ministries at University Presbyterian Church in Seattle, which is where I worshipped while attending the University of Washington. Thus began one of the most significant and treasured relationships of my life.

To give you a sense of the effect Steve had on people, when he took over the ministry it consisted of 30 students; within five years, 900 students were attending the Tuesday night services. From there Steve, who received his Ph.D. from the University of St. Andrews in Hebrew and Semitic Studies, would eventually make his way to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, where he served as president for 13 years, and president of Columbia Theological Seminary, where he served until shortly before his passing.

I can’t possibly do justice to his personal qualities in this post, though I will say two things. First, he was the greatest dispenser of grace of any person I have ever come across–and among the greatest blessings of my life is to have been the recipient of that grace. And second, Steve created a sense of loyalty and affection among his friends that has been ummatched in my life. His friends came from many different countries, ethnic backgrounds, races, ages, professions, political parties, and faiths and religious traditions. He had an amazing ability to listen well and to provide wise counsel when necessary, to connect to people and to make them feel valued. He placed enormous worth on relational integrity, which explains why his illness created such an outpouring of love for him. People wanted to give back to him just a measure of what they had received from him, and longed to give voice to their feelings for him. (His CaringBridge.org site includes reflections and updates by Steve and Sharol that has some 150,000 visits and literally thousands of comments from people sharing the ways Steve and Sharol have touched their lives over the decades. You would do yourself quite a favor by reading some of those posts.)

Which brings me to the final chapter in Steve’s life.

A man completely free of affectation, he spoke honestly and transparently about the effects of the disease–the “break through” pain and nausea, the times of discouragement, and the feelings of grief and loss surrounding his impending death. He kept us updated on the medical twists and turns and the efforts to manage the symptoms. But above all, he showed us how to walk through the valley of the shadow of death with remarkable dignity, courage, and faithfulness. I took to sharing some of Steve’s posts with people I thought might be touched by them, including one I sent to a friend who is an atheist. He wrote back saying, “It’s letters like this — the wisdom, the grace — that make me wish I weren’t an atheist.”

In a post written roughly seven weeks before he was to pass away, in speaking about the mixed signals about his health and going through times that are both encouraging and discouraging, Steve wrote this:

When our children were teenagers, and going through a stage where it seemed like every little thing took on immense proportions, I used to say to them, “So what do you think this is like in light of eternity?”  In other words, is this really worth the fuss? But I have realized that it’s not just kids who have a tough time with perspective. It’s all of us. We blow so many things out of proportion. Little things become huge issues. And even big things become issues that seem much bigger than they probably are. Whether it is a stressful circumstance, a difficult relationship, a confusing problem, or a shameful failure, there is so much in our lives that feels like it will overwhelm us.

But the fact of the matter is that “in light of eternity” most of what we face takes on a different proportion. Circumstances pass. Relationships can be healed. Even horrid failures are cut down to size by time and by God’s grace at work in our lives.

And then he added this:

Living with a life-threatening, terminal disease has a way of providing a different perspective. At least it can. Eternity is a little closer–a little more tangible. But I still feel confused from day to day about my situation. Am I really dying? How much longer can I expect to live? How do I stay encouraged when the evidence about my condition is mixed? What will the next stage of my disease be like? How do I live with consistency from day to day when my circumstances continue to vary?

What seems to be important now, as it has been throughout my illness, is that I keep my eyes on those things which remind me of eternity. There are loving relationships, for example, which call me back. And there is the centrality of joy, gratitude and service to be considered every day. All of these qualities keep my heart facing eternity rather than wallowing in inward confusion. It is the eternal focus that keeps me steady. Love embraces me. Joy uplifts me. Gratitude settles me. Service focuses me away from myself and back on the lives of others. When I lean into love, joy, gratitude and service, I worry less, because eternity surrounds me and God’s grace upholds me.

To live a life of integrity, faithfulness, and joy is one thing, and a very great thing; but to also walk to the finish line of this life demonstrating those qualities, even as your body is being ravaged by cancer, is even rarer and even greater. He and his amazing wife Sharol leaned into life and love right to the end of his earthly pilgrimage.

My visit to see Steve and Sharol for the last time was one of the more indelible moments of my life. We spoke about Steve’s life and our relationship, about things past and things present. Steve spoke about the “pre-eminence of love and grace.” The central character of God, he told me and the friend I was with, is love and grace, and the central mission of Christians is to extend His hand of grace to others.

Steve Hayner did that as well as anyone I have ever known, with as much joy as anyone I have ever known. He has now gone home to be with his Savior, where sickness and sorrow, pain and death are felt and feared no more.

But I will miss him so much.