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.