Thursday, April 15, 2010

Friends and Tears

Our community has been hammered by the death of four young boys, all sophomores in high school, in a tragic automobile accident a few days ago. Two of the boys were twins, the only children of their parents. They were all skateboard fans and were on the way home from a skate park when the accident happened. Two died at the scene and the other two were dead just a few hours later.

I remember the death of a guy named Johnny when I was in high school. He was about sixteen when he died from suffocation. He was experimenting with an inhalant to get high. The inhalant coated his lungs like lacquer, a doctor later said. He died in the back seat of a car driven by friends who didn’t even know he was in trouble until it was too late. One of those guys has never fully recovered even though that was forty years ago.

I still remember the sick feeling inside when I heard the news of Johnny’s useless death, the hollowness, the fear, the slug-in-your-face reminder that life is so fragile, even when it’s just beginning, that some mistakes are fatal. I remember the church being packed the day of his funeral, the open wailing of his girlfriend that could be heard by everyone throughout the sanctuary. This week’s car wreck takes me back. I didn’t know the boys. My heart aches for those who did know them and can’t hold back the tears. Tears that express a pain too deep and too confusing to express in words.

Last night, as we were preparing for a youth play rehearsal at church, I expressed my condolences to a young man who knew the boys well. As I put my hand gently on his shoulder, he broke into tears, a quiet sobbing. There were several other young people sitting at the same table with us. When the young man started crying, something incredible happened. The table grew absolutely silent. No one said a word.

I’ve never seen such unspoken compassion. It was an eerie kind of beautiful. It wasn’t anything anyone said. There was nothing to be said. Death hurts. It hurts every time, but especially so when it’s a senseless death, a useless loss of precious life, times four. It was just the silence. Silence that went on for at least three or four minutes, uninterrupted. The only sound in the room was the quiet sobbing of the young man whose heart was so broken.

Several others had tears in their eyes. I could tell they were hurting, too, but, it seemed, as much for the young man at the table as for the four who died. It’s hard for a man to cry, especially in front of others. Unless those others are friends to whom you can entrust your tears.

Death is a sad darkness. It is so final. In some cases, like when four friends were just going home from skateboarding, it seems so useless and meaningless. Death always transfers a terrible pain to the shoulders of those left behind. Death always leaves unanswered questions. When there are no answers, the only thing we can do is what those kids did last night, respect and safeguard the tears of those whose shoulders now bear the unbearable pain of permanent loss.

When that pain is mine to bear again, I hope I have friends like I saw last night. Friends who just sit and listen as I cry. There is no better friend than one to whom you can entrust your tears.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Just For One

The day before Easter, while their California family was vacationing in New York City, two-year old Bridgette Sheridan slipped away from her dad’s hand and fell twenty feet into the ice-cold East River. Another man saw the little girl in the water, thinking at first it was a doll, not a person. When it occurred to him what had actually happened, he pulled off his coat and jumped into the water without even thinking.

The stranger reached Bridgette even before her father, David Anderson, who had followed him into the water. While her dad held Bridgette above the water, the mystery man held onto both of them so that they wouldn’t be carried away by the current. Rescuers soon arrived and all three were pulled to safety.

Once out of the water, the unknown rescuer, dripping wet, hailed a cab and disappeared into New York City traffic, not even waiting long enough for anyone to get his name much less thank him. This past Tuesday the mystery man was identified as Juilen Duret, a tourist from France, where he was finally tracked down. When asked about his bravery and his willingness to risk his life for one little girl whose name he didn’t even know, his response was, “I’m just happy the family has been reunited.”

Jesus once said something about a shepherd leaving ninety-nine sheep in order to go after one sheep that was lost (Matthew 18, Luke 15). It’s not that the ninety-nine didn’t matter. It was simply Jesus’ way of saying that the only way ninety-nine can matter is if one matters. Even the number one billion is nothing more than a billion ones.

The 60’s/70’s rock group, Three Dog Night, made fame and fortune with their lyrics, “One is the loneliest number.” Jesus might sing, “One is the onliest number.” Virtually all of Jesus’ miraculous and redeeming encounters were not with the masses but with individuals, one-on-one, one at a time.

In so very many churches today, empty pews mock the church’s worn-out methodologies for reaching the masses. Maybe one good result of that will be that we will once again discover the importance of one. One life. One soul. One heart. One name. Just one. One God saving all of humanity, one soul at a time.

When large crowds have failed to show up to hear me preach, one of the worst responses of which I’ve been guilty is to let my preoccupation with those who didn’t show up cause me to overlook the ones who did. The easiest and, in some ways, the most evil of my responses to the numbers is to let their smallness define me to myself as insignificant.

Just this week, I got a call. One friend from another time and place was calling for advice about how to take the next step in the Journey. I’m pretty sure it was the Holy Spirit who tapped me on the shoulder, reminding me to pay attention to that one phone call. To let it remind me that, just like the stranger who jumped into the river and risked his own life for one little girl, God always measures the work of God’s eternal kingdom in terms of one.

Miracle of miracles, God let me share in the count, that one day, in the life of that one. As I shake myself dry from having jumped into the very same river from which I was once rescued, to help someone who felt they were drowning, my heart is full and bursting with joy.

I’m one whom God once took the time to save. Then, God let me jump into the river, too. Just for one. Is there any bigger number than just one?