As you might remember from this week's "Ten Things..." four of us made the decision not to travel with the rest of our com padres who went to Montgomery, Alabama for the Beeson Module at Frazier Memorial United Methodist Church. Apparently, given the weather, things have been touch and go.... power outages at the hotel, evacuations out of buildings, cold showers and a whole bunch of folks who are ready to come home. Considering the destructive power of a tornado, we're just all thankful they are OK, and as you would expect from these good folks, they've asked us to spend our prayer time lifting up all the families in that part of the world mourning the loss of a loved one.
Also, for those of you with no understanding of Ohio geography, the baseball team that was in the bus crash in Atlanta are students who attend a little Mennonite liberal arts school in our county. Bluffton University is about 25 minutes north of Lima, in the small town of Bluffton, Ohio. I can only imagine the grieving taking place in that campus, in that town, and in enclaves all over Ohio where those who lost their lives most likely hailed. Considering that there were players on that bus who graduated from Elida, Crestview, Wapak, my own dear alma mater, Lima Senior, and the bus driver was from Ottawa, all of Northwest Ohio will be grieving this terrible tragedy.
As a pastor, I really have two different formative experiences of working with young people en mass, dealing with grief. The first time I ever found myself doing major ministry of this kind was during an experience where I served on the crisis team at Fairfield High School, a small school just outside of Goshen Indiana, which had lost two teenagers in two separate car accidents, within a couple of days of each other.
As a matter of fact, the second child who died did so coming back from the mall with a suit he had just bought for the funeral of his friend who had lost her life only a day before. It was an awful, awful experience.
The guidance counselor at the school, the late Jane Garber, who was a beautiful woman with an amazing soul, asked me to come and work with kids with behavioral issues, as apparently there weren't too many pastors who were willing to take that task on. I understand why. It was not easy. But strangely enough, God worked in the midst of that insanity. Years later I saw a couple of those kids at Jane's viewing (she died a year or so ago from cancer... I know she is missed), and they talked about how much they appreciated me being there that day to listen. I just told them that if I helped them at all, that Jane was really the one to thank, and that God was the one who brought any modicum of healing. Both of them led me into a place that otherwise, no person would ever want to go.
But someone had to.... I thank the Lord it was me.
My experience in the midst of all that grieving served me later when Ty and Phil died a couple years later. The summer of my last year in Goshen (we're appointed from July to June) two boys who were seniors at Goshen High School and a young man who had recently graduated from the same school, died when they were hit by a logging truck on their way to work as mason tenders. They couldn't see the truck, as it was coming from the east, and they were looking into the sun. The accident had happened early that morning, and by the time I was called, about a hundred teens had gathered on the front lawn of Phil's family's house. When I showed up, I prayed with I don't know how many kids. Between the kids who knew me either through our youth ministry (which was rather large) and my years as the ski club adviser at the middle school, it just seemed that a lot of scared kids were happy to see a familiar face.
The other boy, Ty, who had been a regular at our youth group on Wednesday nights, was at the moment I arrived to do counseling and prayer, in surgery at a hospital in Ft. Wayne. By virtue of the fact that Ty and Phil went to the same church, the church at the time was being served by an interim pastor who lived in Grand Rapids, and he was on the road bound for Ft. Wayne, I ended up becoming the de facto pastor for the kids at that house.
I will never, ever forget the phone call I received from the chaplain at the hospital, who called to tell me that Ty was on the operating table, and that he wasn't going it to make it. I gathered the kids together, we gathered for prayer, and when we finished I got the phone call.... Ty was gone. It was despair upon despair. The kind of grieving that you read about in the Bible, where people tear their garments and heap ashes upon themselves. Such was that moment on the Hogenboom front lawn. Young people filled with life, facing for real, the reality of death.
I called the school, and told them we needed to open up a place where kids could go. I would have opened up the church, but I thought a "neutral" place where all kids could gather was more appropriate. The guidance counselor agreed, and they opened the auditorium. Later that night, we opened up our West Campus, where we hosted an impromptu memorial service for all three of the victims. I don't know how many people were there, but let's put it this way... as full as the place was, the grief and sadness was hundreds of times bigger. Somewhere there's a tape of the service, and for those who have seen it, they call it one of the most moving they've ever seen. The youth band led some singing, and in between songs, kids were invited to speak at an open mike about their friends.
Have you ever stood on Holy Ground, that you knew was at that moment, truly Holy Ground? It is humbling.
Anyhow, there are many young people this day grappling with death for the first time in their lives, and I'd just like you to please remember them and their families. And if you have a little time, remember all the counselors and pastors who are right now trying to help young people make sense of something that, particularly when you are young (or even old), makes no sense. I know they need your prayers, and for the Lord to whisper in their ears.