Just shy of a year ago, I experienced one of those days we all hear about but never expect to actually live through ourselves. What was to be a fun day on the lake with teens I had spent the previous fives years ministering to turned out to be a nightmarish tragedy. Through an unknowable set of circumstances, an electrical short at a boat dock electrocuted four of my precious teens while they were swimming. Two of them were able to climb out of the water with minimal help from the rest of us while the other two required rescue.
Christina and Sarah eventually lay side by side on the dock as we struggled with the impossible task of accepting that what we were experiencing was real. I and a mother from our church who is a nurse (and one of my newest HEROES), along with a growing number of fantastic rescuers from nearby, fought to save their lives through CPR and eventually an AED machine. I mention this because trying to breath for these two young women continues to be the single most horrible memory of my life. Thankfully, our efforts were not completely in vain. First responders stabilized Christina and flew her to a trauma center where she received excellent care and made a full recovery. Our other two friends in the water that day also recovered physically.
Sarah never really became stable again and we lost a dear sweet friend and a great family lost their 13 year old daughter that day. All of us were devastated and unwilling to accept the horrible truth. We suspect she received the worse shock and never had much of a chance.
The most troubling aspect of this whole ordeal comes from the violation of our sense of security and safety. To have my mortality so blatantly and violently paraded before me has caused the most distress. Anger and fear mixed with sadness has been an almost paralyzing blend of emotion. Perhaps the most egregious contributor to these feelings has been the realization that I have very little control over my mortality and had even less control over the events that threatened our youth. In a way, we lost what I think of as innocence but could also be described as ignorant bliss.
A year ago, we spent the afternoon around a pool with good food and great discussions about the year ahead. We were in the second half of identifying the most important aspects of being a part of our youth ministry. We shared the simple goal of intentionally saying and publishing our expectations for one another in the year to come. The mood seemed to be high as the craziness of summer vacation slowed and the routine of the school year began to set in once again. We had no reason to expect anything tragic in the near future.
I remember several of the tenets we agreed upon but I can only attribute one of them to the person who shared it with the group. Sarah told us we should: SHUT UP AND LISTEN. Like any gathering of teens, the tendency to get carried away in side conversations ran high and Sarah coined a simple but effective mantra for us to add to the list. Of course this was uncharacteristically blunt of Sarah, which made it even more memorable.
I find myself taking Sarah’s words to heart often. When the grief surges, I try to listen to the laughter of our time together or the Spirit as it reminds me of all the blessings that come from God. Mainly, I shut up and listen because in the laughter and noise of everyday there is life. The grief comes and goes when I least expect it.
For the most part, my teens are well. I no longer pastor at that church but have moved on to another. I remain friends with many as we share news when we see each other or through social media. I still pray for their healing as several of them carry scars not detectable by any instrument. The rhythm of our lives was interrupted by a stark reminder that we are not indestructible. We, in fact, have a season and a time for our being in this world. As I studied and preached on the gospel passage from John 6* this week, I could not help but think of the incarnation.
The Son of God becomes flesh and blood so during an appointed season for the redemption of all of creation. I am not sure incarnation has ever captured more of my thoughts than it does in the aftermath of this tragedy. Jesus came and suffered alongside of the people of Israel as He watched loved ones die, strangers suffer, and the weak suffer at the hands of others. I imagine He grieved in many of the same ways as I have grieved. In some way, that provides comfort.
I take no comfort in the pain of Christ but in His willingness to experience pain through flesh and blood. Incarnation never sounded very personal until I reflected on the events of that day at the lake. The significance of the journey from heaven to earth, from perfection to rejection, or from complete union to abandonment resonates in much richer tones than before.
The healing continues in my life as I know it does in the lives of those who grieve that day. Thanks be to God that I know the healing will be complete and I will again be whole one day. Thanks be to God for six years of fruitful ministry with those families. Thanks be to God for the beauty that Sarah shared with us all. Thanks be to God that today, Christina moves into her college apartment and begins her studies as a healer. Thanks be to God.
*Sunday, August 16, 2015 – Year B: John 6:51-58