Most of the time, phone calls are great. I enjoy connecting with people. When I see my daughter’s name in my phone, I anticipate a pleasant conversation. But recently, the call was not so pleasant. She called to inform me of a horrific accident that claimed the life of the daughter of some of our dearest friends.
In our very first pastorate this family became our soul-mates in quick order. Their three children matched the ages of our oldest three, while our toddler twins tagged along behind. Through their friendship, we felt welcomed in a strange new place. We spent meals and evenings together learning and loving the culture of western Oklahoma. We worked for the health of the church and our souls and it wasn’t unusual to randomly break into prayer with them to seek God’s wisdom. Their children provided a safe haven for ours and our oldest daughters became close friends at the age of nine.
That was twenty-four years ago.
God and time and circumstances moved us far apart physically and relationally. We are now separated by a thousand miles and twenty-four years of unshared experiences.
But in the split second of a phone call, I am back. I am back in the memories of this dear family and our time spent together. I am trying to wrap my head around the news that has rocked my friends’ world. How do you receive word that your thirty-four year old daughter, wife and mother of three small children has died in a fiery car crash only a couple of miles from your home? How do you begin to put the pieces of life back together?
As we traveled to the funeral, I imagined their grief. I pictured the various faces of those I have watched grieve in all these years of ministry. The faces vary.
- One face is the blank look of shell shock, still unable to process the event. These folks undoubtedly deal with their grief eventually, but for the rituals of funeral, they walk around in disbelief with dry eyes.
- One face is that of anger. This person is consumed with the inevitable and valid injustice of it all. Their pain manifests in blame and focuses on the unfairness of a tragic loss.
- One face is absolute devastation. These people can barely function as they struggle to put one foot in front of the other. Friends and family lead them through the days and week of funeral while they operate in a haze, lost in their own grief.
- One face is stoic. They see it. They know it. They face it. And they are determined to press on to a point of dealing with it at some later private moment. But in public, they hold it together.
- But another face I have witnessed only in very tragic losses. This face is hard to explain but the eyes give it away. There is a darkness in the back of their eyes that defies description. The pain is deep and haunting. The eyes express a lack of understanding, desperation, and an utter sense of abandonment by their God. They may do and say all the things expected of them in the public performance of burial rites, but their eyes reveal their utter desolation.
This is the face, I was expecting. This, I am afraid, might be my face, if I were to witness a burning car with my adult daughter trapped inside. Mile after mile, I prepared myself to see this dark pain in my friends’ eyes.
But I was surprised to see something completely different.
I saw the face of grace.
I saw the face of trust.
I saw the face of calm bewilderment and peace.
And I will never forget.
I will not judge anyone’s grief – it hits us all differently; but I was moved as I greeted our old friends. I was immediately taken back to the love and closeness we shared several decades ago. We embraced without words, because there simply aren’t any in that moment. There is nothing I could say that they needed to hear.
Their eyes said it all.
There was a light behind the pain.
Our friends were not in some place of denial, or anger, or stoicism. They simply expressed their pain openly and freely – a gift we did not deserve and they did not have to give. They attested to God’s unswerving faithfulness in the midst of the greatest trial of their life. They admitted their lack of understanding of how God would carry them all through, but at the same time, knew that he would. They spoke of the grace they received from the family of the young neighbor boy also lost in the accident. That is a story unto itself.
When you receive grace – you know how to give grace.
My friends’ journey is far from over. It will not be quick nor easy. But I know it will be faithful. I know God will use them and their story for good. A good that does not seem worth it on this side of tragedy, but a good that will surely bring eternal benefit and may only seem valuable in hindsight.
We will remember.
Not just their daughter and her life. We will remember the parents who grieve as those who hope. We will remember those who receive God’s subtraction as they receive his addition. We will remember those who can lean on God in the darkest of times.
I will remember and learn.
I will be drawn closer to the Father to gain that kind of faith.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (NIV)
13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.