Leaning into hope when tragedy strikes

This summer has been one of the most difficult and trying summers I have ever had in ministry and in life.  At the front end of summer I got word that Alex Robbins, one of my dear students, who just recently graduated from college, died in a freak boating accident, and then a little over a month later, two more students who had been deeply rooted in our church and ministry died in a freak car accident.  

Needless to say, it has been a summer of grief, pain, and sorrow.  It has proven to be more difficult than I realized to be be both pastor and friend to these young men and to their friends who I am still in close contact with.  I am gratefull for our church community and for the love and grace of our Savior.  And as I close up this awful summer and lean head long into another year of student ministry, please pray for me, for our church, and for these families.  

Below is the homily I preached at the memorial this last weekend:

INTRO:

As you can tell, these are some incredible young men.  They are brilliant, passionate, driven, and unique.  And on paper, you probably wouldn’t even put them together.  But these two boys have been knit together from an early age based not on personality or on passion, but because they were brought up in the family of faith.  

Both of these guys were baptized in our church, went on retreats with their families, terrorized Sunday school teachers, developed faith and perfected pranks in our youth group, all the while developing strong friendships and deepening their faith. Even as they left for school, and even as they have been wrestling with how their faith worked with their expanding worldview, our church family has always been home.

As one of the pastors on staff here and as their youth pastor, I have had the distinct privilege to have walked through each of these seasons with these boys.  From they time they were squishy cheeked and not quite as harry, through adolescence, and into adulthood, I have had the opportunity to share experiences, adventures, and conversations that I will cherish my entire life.  I love these boys with my whole heart, and this tragic loss has almost been too much to bear.  

Over the last few weeks I  have enjoyed reflecting back on my time with these boys.  

JJ

I remember my first meeting with JJ.  He was a 7th grader and wanted to meet to talk about some things he had learned and wasn’t quite sure how it fit with his faith.  So there we were at Taco Bell, and JJ is running down the highlights of a book he was reading about “Neuro Linguistic Programming.”  And it turns out that JJ was already into using psychological warfare to influence his peers, his parents, and maybe even God.

I loved his brain.  JJ was so creative and brilliant.  As he settled into graphic art as a direction, he threw himself wholly into this pursuit.  And being someone who does not have artistic taste, I could feel myself falling behind.  But because I loved JJ so much and because he was so pickin’ passionate about it, I was compelled to lean in.  I loved visiting him at Oxbow, and taking the ferry into the CIty as he unloaded his portfolio on me and even took me to Blue Bottle Coffee.  (Because that is what people in the city do.)

Whatever he was passionate about, he would run after with all of his heart.  And one of the things I admired about JJ was that he brought people along for the ride.  He made such an impact on people and people wanted to be into what JJ was into, and JJ always made space for them to get on board.  How many of us have taken our “Tea” game to a whole new level because of him.  Even my daughter was fascinated by JJ.  His kindness towards her and his unique passions made his presence a must for any event with the “big kids.”  MacKenzie would always ask, “Will JJ be there?”  

JJ’s partner in crime every Sunday, and every Wednesday, and as they grew up every weekend, and this summer every day was Tristan.  

TRISTAN

Everyone’s first impression of Tristan seems to be his hair.  But long before his cool hair, what most people understand about Tristan, even from an early age was how kindhearted he was.  Everyone always felt like Tristan liked them, and I even think for the most part that was true.  Behind his kind heart was someone who was deep and reflective.  While many people felt like Tristan liked them, he reserved his heart for those he trusted and would put the work in.  He wouldn’t simply spill the beans.  If you wanted to know what was going on behind those eyes, you had to put in some effort, be patient, ask the good questions, and then be blown away at the unique way in which Tristan engaged the world, music, life and faith.  

When Tristan was in middle school I had the opportunity to take him on his first backpacking trip.  He, along with my son went out to Coast Camp.  From the second Tristan stepped on the trail, Tristan fell in love with the outdoors.  Every step, every meal, every smell, the vast sky and the sounds of the ocean captured him.  And his kindness, even as a middle schooler won my son’s heart to the point that he thought they were peers.  And Tristan never let Noah think any differently.  From that trip, to snow camping, to summiting peaks in Desolation, to even this last spring, being left behind and used for my gear, I will treasure those experiences.

Tristan’s extended family has always lived far away, and I have been blessed to have been invited in to be part of the family.  Even to the point where I got to attend MA’s grandparents day.  Even though I felt a little out of place, I loved the opportunity to be part of Tristan’s academic world, meet his teachers, and watch him perform.  

POST HIGH SCHOOL

This room, this church is so full today because JJ and Tristan have deeply impacted so many people.  Their unique passions and their authenticity were contagious.  

Both of these boys are so smart and incredible.  Even those words are an understatement.  From early on, I have been fascinated with them, who they are and who they were becoming.  Both of them were running after their passions and exploring all that life had to offer.   And even in their exploring, they were even wrestling with what place the faith they had experienced as children would play in their lives.  

Tristan and JJ were becoming their own men, developing an identity and faith distinct from their parents and the other adults in their world.  The way they would understand who God is and how to live for him was in process.  They were figuring it out, and am so honored to have been invited in to be part of the ride.  I have loved them since childhood, through adolescence, and into adulthood.  I love that our budding friendship wasn’t full of BS.  I anxiously waited for Christmas Breaks and for summer to catch up and talk about life, faith, doubt, and hope.  

We all are here, celebrating their lives, and grieving the loss because all of us are fascinated by these young men, and couldn’t wait to watch the trajectory of their lives unfold.  And the fact that their lives have been cut short is a tragedy in the truest sense of the word.

THEIR LIFE IS A BOOK

This is so devastating because, like Art said, we were just getting to the good stuff in their stories.  Their lives are like a favorite book that has captivated your attention.  And just as the main characters who you have fallen in love with and are about to launch, the next page has been ripped out.  Not just the next page, not just a few chapters go missing, the entire ending of the book is gone.  And I feel robbed.  

This brutal reality is heartbreaking and offensive.

It is unfair and not right.  

Every fiber of our being has been crushed because this story ended far too soon.

THERE IS ANOTHER STORY BEING WRITTEN

JJ and Tristan’s story was cut short, and we are grieving the loss of precious sons, brothers, nephews, grandsons and dear friends.  We are grieving the loss of what could have been, what should have been.  While we grieve, we have hope because their story is not an isolated book alone on a shelf, partially written.  Rather, their story is wrapped up in a much larger story, their partially written book gets to be fully written within the context an eternal book that helps us put this moment into a larger context.  

In the story of scripture we see a picture of a world that beautiful and perfect.  A world where humans were uniquely designed to be in intimate relationship with God and with one another.  A world where we are invited to explore, create, and partner with God with the care of his Creation.  When God uniquely created JJ and Tristan and was knitting them together in their mother’s womb, I can only imagine the joy God felt as gave them their unique passions and personalities as he dreamed up the story of their lives and how they would bless Him and everyone they encountered.  

But this dream was cut short.  

In this larger story we are told of how sin, rebellion and death have entered in and ripped apart the dream God had for his creation and for his people, for JJ and Tristan.  All of us are so hurt, crushed, and offended by death because death was never supposed to be part of our story.  We know, in the depths of our being that we were made for life!  For adventure!  For purpose!  And when those are cut short or cut down, it is a violation of the created order.

But God is not detached from His creation, rather, he is intimately enmeshed with his creation, with is people.  For as much you and I are crushed and offended by death, I can only imagine how much more of an offence death is to God, who is the author of all life!  And by God’s grace, being that his creation was helpless to confront death alone, He took it upon himself to confront death head on.  

In the person of Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human, Jesus modeled for us what true humanity was all about.  He showed us how to live in a way that is humble, kind, selfless, full of mercy and compassion.  Even more than showing us how to live, he made a way to restore intimacy with God, to cover the consequences of sin and rebellion through his death on the cross.  As people of the book, we lean into these truths.  We long for Jesus to continue to mold and shape us into the image of Christ.  As people of the book we recognize our own sin and rebellion and ask Jesus to forgive us, we attempt to freely forgive others in the same way that Jesus had done for us, and seek the forgiveness of others when our sin and rebellion crushes them.  

But this day we look not just to the life of Jesus, and not just to the death of Jesus, but to his resurrection.  For on Easter morning, Jesus conquers the power of death!  It is in his resurrection where Jesus brings life and redemption into a dark and hopeless situation.  

As people of the book, Jesus is not simply a philosophy, but is alive, present, and in the business of bringing hope and healing to a broken world and to our broken hearts.  

JESUS REDEEMS ALL THINGS

Personally, in this moment, I am conflicted.  My emotions don’t match my theology.  I have anger, questions, doubt and pain.  And in this moment, God isn’t offended.  In fact our anger, questions, doubt and pain are his as well.  He longs for intimacy with his creation, and today, this season, intimacy looks rather raw and bleak.  But in our weakness, in this moment, whether it feels like it or not, I do know this to be true about God:

God extends to us his presence and comfort.   He empathizes with us and weeps along with us.  We lift our eyes up to the hills wondering where our help comes from.  Our help comes from the Lord.  Jesus is gentle and humble in heart, and in him we will find rest for our souls.  We can cast all of our cares on Him, because he cares for us.  And in him we can and do experience the peace that transcends understand.   

God actively works for the good.  Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”  God did not plan this, did not cause this, is not testing us beyond what we can handle.  This is an awful tragedy, the fruit of a broken world, broken systems, and broken humans.  But God does not passively sit back, rather he works hard to bring life, healing and redemption out of death and destruction.  

And finally, God will make all things right.  It is an injustice to have these boys taken from us so soon.  There seems to be too much grief, pain and sorrow.  And this is just in this moment in our little world.  Our grief joins the grief of countless heartbroken fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers in our community, and throughout the world.  While at this moment it may seem like death wins, we know that in the story of scripture, there will be a final chapter where all these wrongs will be made right.  

There will be a time when God himself will be with us the way he intended at the beginning of time.  Where God will wipe every tear from our eyes, where death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.  Jesus says, “See, I am making all things new!.”  

CONCLUSION:

JJ and Tristan’s books had much of their formation and beginnings surrounded by people of this larger story.  We are the church, the body of Christ, the flesh and bones of the heart of God for each other and for this world.  And together we will continue to walk with one another, to practice humility and empathy with one another and to lean into the redemption and healing that comes from being connected to Jesus.  

This morning we are heartbroken and grieve the loss of these incredible boys; the tragedy of a life cut short, the unsettled questions of what if’s and why’s.  But we don’t do this as people with no hope.  Rather we are connected to true HOPE!  To Jesus Christ, the author, perfecter of our faith, the redeemer of death and destruction, and the giver of life everlasting.  

Would you pray with me:

Dear God, we come before you brokenhearted, in sadness and grief.  We long to be people who bring our real selves into the real truth of who you are.  So we lean into what we know to be true about you.  

We recognize your eyes are always upon us, nurturing us through all the days of our lives, sheltering us by your grace and preparing a special place for us in eternity.  We give you thanks and praise this day, O God, for the lives of JJ and Tristan.  They have brought laughter, joy, compassion, creativity, and passion to an often dark and lonely world.  We ask God that you would welcome your boys home, into the house you have prepared for them.  

We ask you, O God, to be with JJ and Tristan’s family and friends as we walk through a valley of deep shadows, where it feels as if the sun will never shine  Jesus, let the bright light of your love and compassion reflect into all the dark crevices of their continuing journey.  Lift us from the depths of sorrow and pain.

Allow our feelings of loss to be surmounted by comforting memories of the these incredible young men and the dramatic ways they have impacted so many people.  Lead us by the still waters of peace, and anoint us the oil of an ever deepening and intimate faith.  

Jesus, you came into the world to end the devastating power of sin and death, and usher in a new kingdom where there is no more pain, no more sorrow, and no more death.  Lord, wipe our tears.

We ask these things in the name of your precious son, who taught his disciples to pray saying. . .