Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Teaching Kids about Death and Resurrection

I posted previously about my first reactions to the recent death of my friend, Stacy Ellison. This is the follow-up story about how I went to church the Sunday immediately following his passing.

Despite my grief over the loss of my friend, I had to prepare a Sunday School lesson for three kids, ranging in age from 10 to 12 years of age. I chose the text of John 11:1-44, the famous passage where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. That text is an easy choice, since it so clearly gives Christians comfort with the hope of being raised from the dead ourselves. I was also hoping that these tragic events might make the threat of death a present reality to these precious (and mostly unconverted) little children with so much living yet to do (God willing). I prayed that if any good might come from these sudden deaths, it would be that it might awake unconverted souls to their need for salvation in Jesus.

For the sake of my emotions, I decided not to mention Stacy or his family directly during the course of the lesson. After reading through the biblical text with the kids, I proposed a three point summation of the passage:

1. Lazarus was a friend of Jesus.
2. Lazarus died.
3. Jesus resurrected him from the dead to live again.

I tried to make the kids aware of two facts. First, that the second point ("this man died") is a fate that awaits all of us assuming that Jesus doesn't come back first. And secondly, that the third point ("Jesus resurrected him") is dependent upon the validity of the first point ("He was a friend of Jesus"). My goal was to communicate to these children that if they want to have a hope in life beyond death, then they must be a friend of Jesus, which I chose to define as "Trusting in Jesus alone for salvation."

It's a message I had presented to these kids many times over the past five years, but that Sunday I emphasized it with greater passion than ever before. On account of the death of my relatively young friend of 37-years-old, I was conscious that none of us has any guarantee on how long we will have to live before that dreaded day of earthly death falls upon us.

In my previous post, I stated that the nature of Stacy's kind of "accident" unnerved me. Just two days earlier, a Texas pastor and his wife (Jackson and Barbara Boyett) who had been friends of our church also lost their lives in a head-on collision in which an oncoming vehicle slid into their lane. At the time, I tried to justify their deaths with arguments like, "I sure do know how dangerous those country highways can be. When cars reach high speeds and drivers get lulled into distraction, bad things tend to happen." And then I heard about Stacy's crash. Apparently it wasn't the result of cars traveling at high speeds and apparently it wasn't the result of a distracted driver. From what I've read, a the driver of a pickup truck moving across a busy metro bridge in a 35 MPH zone suffered a seizure, pushed down hard on his gas pedal, and slid across into an oncoming Ford Taurus, which my friend was driving. There's just no logical explanation for why Stacy was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It just seems like it was destined to happen. I don't know if there is any significance as to why these dear folks died the same way in such a short amount of time, but it felt like cruel irony. I felt like God was just trying to get my attention by saying "When it's your day to die, there is no avoiding it or explaining it away."

As I read through John 11, I was struck by the emotional rebuke that Martha appears to give to Jesus in verse 21. She said, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." It's a subtle rebuke, but it's absolutely true. Jesus knew of Lazarus's ailments yet intentionally delayed a visit for two days promising that "it is for God's glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it" (verse 4). The human side of me wants to know what Jesus was doing that would have been so important. What human friend would sit around while his friend lay dying? What human father would intentionally delay going to help his suffering son? If only for an instant, Martha appeared to be angry at Jesus. Given the perplexing nature of the recent deaths of people connected with my church in Louisville, it was an anger with which I could sympathize... if only for a moment.

Yet, though Martha's faith may have been weakened with the death of her brother, it was still strong enough to confess that "I know even now that whatever you [Jesus] ask of God, God will give you." This was not a "health and wealth" mantra, but an expression in her confidence in the unbreakable union of Jesus and God the Father. Even though we may not always like how God's providential will unfolds in life, we have to trust that God works through all things for the glory of Christ and "for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose" (Romans 8:28). It was an immediate rebuke to my own disappointment with God's providence over the past week.

Getting the focus back on the Sunday School lesson, I simply exhorted those precious little children to ensure their eternal destiny by putting their complete trust in Jesus to save them from their sins. In order to be raised from the dead, they needed to become friends of Jesus. As I thought of the grace Jesus had shown to Stacy, I thought also of the grace Jesus has shown to me in forgiving my sins and giving me a new heart. It was at this point that the emotions I had suppressed all weekend finally got the best of me. I had to hand over the remainder of the lesson to Matt Miller, my co-teacher, because I could only weep like small child who had just stubbed his toe on a door. Matt challenged the kids again not to delay matters of eternal salvation.

I genuinely hope and pray that the sudden deaths of the Boyetts and Stacy Ellison might give the rest of us cause to think more seriously about the salvation of ourselves and others. Ultimately, the most important question we have to answer is whether or not we're a true friend of Jesus Christ.

Friday, December 09, 2011

What I Did When I Learned My Friend Died

Today marks the one week anniversary of the tragic, all-too-soon death of one of my good friends of the past seven years. Stacy Ellison died at the age of 37 after injuries sustained in a car crash on the Louisville Second Street Bridge. Stacy leaves behind his wife, Kim, who he loved and cherished, his little girl, Ali, and his infant son, Titus. He also leaves behind so many friends and family members who loved him dearly.

The Ellison family showed me great love, care, and joy during my time in Louisville. When an ice storm knocked out power across most of the city a few years ago, they housed me and my then-roommate for nearly half a week. I considered Stacy and Kim to be like my really cool, slightly more mature cousins. Stacy was my buddy; we watched NASCAR together, played in the same fantasy football league, and we once played a little Microsoft Kinnect (the last time I was over at his house). Stacy was a good Christian man, a deacon in our church, a faithful husband and father, and, of course, he was my friend.

A little over a month ago, he made me laugh so hard when he pretended to use his son as a Yoda puppet. I got so excited I had to leave the church fellowship hall because I was distracting the kids from their lesson. That was classic Stacy Ellison.

The details of his death have been a source of grief, mostly because it doesn't appear that there is anything he could have done to avoid it. Stacy was driving north from Louisville into Indiana in a Ford Taurus on a beautiful, somewhat comfortable December afternoon. A Silverado truck was coming south in the opposite lane. Because of extensive maintenance projects on the bridge, the speed limit was posted at around 30 mph. An eyewitness who was following the truck claims he was following the speed limit and the truck seemed to be doing about the same speed. Suddenly, everything went crazy...

The truck began to swerve out of control, accelerated wildly, hopped the dividing curb, and careened into the lane of oncoming traffic. Stacy's Taurus was the lone car that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The vehicles collided head-on. The two passengers in the truck were badly hurt, but Stacy suffered unsustainable injuries and died within the next hour. Medical examiners believe the driver of the truck suffered from a "medical emergency" that caused him to lose control of his vehicle. The witness said the driver appeared to be suffering from a seizure that likely resulted in his foot smashing down onto the gas pedal, causing the terrible chain of events that claimed the life of my friend.

When I heard about Stacy's death after a call from another dear friend, I felt like I should do something to make the situation better... but that was just desperate longing to try and regain a sense of control in my life. After an hour of scrambling across the internet and across town to inform some friends of the terrible news I had learned, I returned to my apartment, unaware of what to do next.

It is my personal belief that Stacy and Kim knew how much I valued their friendship, yet I cannot recall any occasion when I bothered to verbalize that sentiment. It's the kind of thing I sometimes have trouble saying with a straight-face, maybe because of how overly-sentimental it sounds or perhaps because I don't want to find myself tearing-up unexpectedly. But one thing that left a pit in my soul was the fact that people I care about could go to their grave (and to meet God) never knowing the depth of appreciation that I had for them.

That night, I did the only thing I could do. I called up numerous people (some family, some friends) who have been important in my life over the past few years. I didn't call everybody who I probably should have called, and sometimes I only got their voicemail services, but I did manage to tell the people who answered the phone three simple words, "I appreciate you." I tried to express the nature of that appreciation, but I'm sure my attempts to do so only scratched the surface.

I am so thankful for the people that God has placed in my life, at different times and in different places, that have made my life better for knowing them. Often, we don't have as much time together as we expect, but that doesn't make the time spent together any less sweet. One thing I learned after the death of my friend, Stacy, is that I have to value the important people in mind. Hopefully, I can let them know how much I truly appreciate them.