King David once said, “There is but one step between me and death.”
Just one step. Tell me about it. On a stormy night, in the first hours of December 21, my son, my only son, John David, took that one step. On streets made slick by driving drain, he lost control of his car and crashed into a tree. In an instant, the candle of life that had burned for twenty-two years was snuffed out. “There is but one step between me and death,” King David said. Just one step.
The telephone ringing jolted us out of a deep sleep. The voice on the other end said, “There are Orlando policemen at your door, please let them in.” Foreboding began to rise like floodwaters about us. Out of the rain and into our kitchen stepped a police officer and a police chaplain. The chaplain’s name is Barry Henson. He also serves as a pastor at the Life Center Church in Eatonville, FL. He is a man I had known and respected in recent years, but that night I came to love him. He came delivering the worst news any parent could ever hear, and yet he did it with such care and sensitivity. I shall never forget what he said and what he did. Very gently, he said, “There has been a terrible automobile accident, and your son did not survive.” He then told us what they knew of the circumstances. Then he embraced us in his great, strong, loving arms and prayed a deeply moving prayer. With his message, our hearts were shattered, but with his prayer, our broken hearts began the long, slow still-continuing process of mending.
I would like to share with you some things I’ve learned all over again through the death of my son. Yes, I’ve learned all over again that life is uncertain, that we are just one step away from death. But I’ve also learned all over again that in the midst of life’s uncertainty there are some things that last: faith, hope, and love.
I’ve learned all over again that, while life is uncertain, faith lasts.
It was the toughest thing I have ever had to do. I had to go down to the medical examiner’s office to provide positive identification of my son. Thankfully, my friends, Dr. John Tolson and Dr. Buck Brown, went with me. As I looked at the lifeless face of my son, his eyelids now closed in death, I said, “It’s over, but it’s not over.” Yes, his life on this earth was over. There was denying that, and there was denying the pain of that.
Upon seeing her brother, his life now over, our daughter Meg Edington Sefton’s life for her brother and love for language coalesced into some lines that poured out of her hear and rubbed up against my feelings. She wrote,
No life. I can’t believe it. No blood pumping through all those tiny veins in your hand. I am in shock. No life. How can that be? When I looked at your there, it was as if all time had stopped, all time had come to a halt. All those molecules, all those atoms, all those neutrons and electrons and protons that are supposedly in constant motion, were not moving, for there was literally no minute, no second, no split second, no nanosecond. You did not breathe. You did not sit up. I expected you to look at us with your blue eyes and sly smile and shyly say something cute, or softly ask us, “What’s wrong?” or flippantly say, “I don’t know what the big deal is; I’m just up here with God.” But there you lay, in the fine mahogany box. You’re wearing a powder blue necktie and a plaid jacket. Your hair is parted over too far and swept to the side just a bid too neatly. Your face is waxy and your long, fine nose seems more prominent than usual. Your hands are crossed just a bit too politely over your waist. I realize that the only time I would have seen you like this would have been in slumber. I realize that the only time I have seen you sleep was when you were a baby. It is only in dreams and in memories that I meet you now. I cry, but there is only the sound of my own echo.
I read your poetry and remember how I knew you. The thought that crossed my mind when I first found out was that I would never speaking with you again. I thought of this, and the breath was taken out of me. I could not find that breath, and the silence crackled cold and hard, a sheet ice across what is now an ocean of space. My mouth stand open, gaping, speechless, a silent red gash.
Meg’s words capture the terrible pain all of us felt. John David’s life was over. But my faith would not leave it there. My faith added the phrase, “but it’s not over.” And there is no deny that, either. I shall see my son again.
It’s over, but it’s not over. I reflected on what I would have done in that circumstance if I had no faith. If all I had been able to say was, “It’s over,” then I think I might have gone mad or tried to take my own life. And I wondered how anyone could ever face that kind of tragedy without faith. Being able to say, “It’s over, but it’s not over” turned unbearable grief into bearable sorrow.
Some years ago, the great Scottish preacher Arthur John Gossip lost his wife to tragic and untimely death. When he returned to the pulpit, he preached an incredible powerful sermon that ended with these words:
I don’t think we need to be afraid of life. Our hearts are very frail, and there are places where the road is very steep and very lonely. But we have a wonderful God. And as Paul puts it, what can separate us from his love? Not death, he says immediately, pushing that aside at once as the most obvious of impossibilities. No, not death. For I, standing here in the roaring of the Jordan, cold to the heart with its dreadful chill and very conscious of the terror of its rushing, I can call back to you who, one day in your time, will have to cross it: Be of good cheer, my friend, for I feel the bottom and it is sound.
That’s the way I feel now. I don’t preach from this pulpit a rose-colored glasses, health-and-wealth, pie-in-the-sky kind of faith. What I do here on Sunday morning is not some well-rehearsed, carefully scripted performance akin to the theatrical stage. I’m not up here to pander to my ego or to play word games with you. And don’t dare try to tell me that I don’t know what life in the real world is all about. Don’t dare suggest that because I am a preacher I am somehow insulted and isolated from the real workings of the world. Dear friends, I have been to the bottom! I have been to where few o f your ever have been or will be. I have been to where life hurts the most and cuts the deepest and hits the hardest. Therefore, listen to me when I tell you that faith in Jesus Christ is not some sideline pursuit, some pleasant diversion, some enjoyable hobby in your life. It’s not something you give yourself to when it’s convenient or when I helps you along your career track or when you want to appear respectable. It’s not just a part of your life. You’ve got to see it as the center of your life, the foundation of your whole existence. Nothing else in your life really matters, nothing else in your life will last. When the police chaplain says, “Your son did not survive,” I can tell you that you find out right then that the only thing you have left is faith. But because of my faith, I can say to you, “I feel the bottom, and it is sound.” Faith lasts.
Welcome May 30, 2011
If you are a parent who has lost a child, someone who is in the depths of grief or someone learning how to live the "new normal," I hope that the following will be of some help.
When the Waters are Deep May 30, 2011
Howard Edington, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Orlando, FL preached this sermon after his twenty-two year old son John David died after accidentally driving his car into a tree during a rainstorm.
A Random Act of Violence May 9, 2011
This article is about how a church in Illinois is healing following the murder of their pastor during a Sunday service. There are interviews with the murdered pastor's wife, the worship pastor and the minister of pastoral care.
Where the Children Can Dance May 2, 2011
Philip Turner, a former dean of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale wrote the following meditation and read it at his son, Brendan's funeral. Brendan, was delivered after his death, with spina bifida, a cleft palate, and club feet.
Anne Elizabeth Kuzee March 18, 2011
Anne Kuzee died of cancer when she was thirteen. Jack Roeda, her pastor, responded first by acknowledging the abyss of despair and unbelief that could surround the moment. Like biblical lament, he does not soften despair with sentimentality, but also does not let despair be the final word.
Alex's Death March 9, 2011
William Sloane Coffin preached this sermon less than two weeks after his son drove his car into Boston Harbour.
When I Endure Grief February 14, 2011
This is an excerpt from Lloyd John Ogilve's book "Praying Through the Tough Times."
Casey William Alley January 20, 2011
The following is Craig Barnes's funeral sermon for Casey William Alley, a three-week old baby boy.
Giving Birth to Grief January 18, 2011
"Like a mother's pangs, the death of a child brings painful contractions and release." Jack Rehill is a pastor in Pennsylvania and this is his story of the last days of his son's life.
When the Waters are Deep
May 30, 2011