Thanksgiving Day, 1980, was family day at Grandmother’s house in East Tennessee. It was a feast of laughter, songs, play, food, and fellowship. It was uncles, aunts, cousins, and extended family members coming together in a joyful celebration of life. It was a perfect day of reunion.
For Carmelita, my wife, and me it was a special time because our twenty-four-year-old son, Paul Dana—pastor, athlete, musician, songwriter, and husband of only eighteen months—was at the center of the festivities. I can close my eyes and see him even now, leading the songs, playing the accompaniment on his guitar, giving his rendition of John Denver tunes, interrupted by impromptu impressions of Bill Cosby sketches.
It was even more meaningful as our younger son, Mark—also an athlete, musician, and now a pastor—was adding a second voice to the songs and a laugh track to Paul Dana’s routines. Our two boys made that day complete in every way.
Little did we know that just 36 hours later, a tragic phone call would come and stain all our memories of that glorious time.
Early on a Saturday morning in a motel room in Cleveland, Tennessee, I picked up the phone and heard an unknown voice from a faceless doctor say, “Your son and his wife have had an accident. Julie is seriously injured, but she will recover. Your son was killed instantly. Where do you want us to send his body?”
“Send his body?” Only those who have experienced the shock of these words can understand the dull ache and fearful dread that are expressed in such a tragedy. In a terrible moment, the afterglow of being together for Thanksgiving changed to the empty and dark separation of death. The joy of a firstborn son who fulfilled every expectation and brought nothing but pleasure and pride was shattered, and numbness took its place.
I thought to myself, This can’t possibly be true! Somebody tell us this is all a big mistake! How can this be happening to me—Paul Walker, PhD—senior pastor of the prestigious Mount Paran Church of God? In my mind, I agonized with the thought that I deserved better. Sometimes I would say to myself, God, look what I do for you every day. I am angry, hurt, and disillusioned that you would let this happen! Where were you when that drunken driver, traveling on Interstate 20, going the wrong direction, collided head-on with my son’s car?
“I won’t accept it,” was my initial response. Over and over again I had to say to myself, Paul Dana is dead. He won’t ever again show up at our house out of the blue and come crashing through the front door with that familiar call—“Hey, is anybody home? What are you all doing?”
Then, there was Carmelita—fragile, devastated, and, like me, searching for answers. As she later explained it in a publication interview, “I hurt like only a mother can hurt. There was a gaping hole in my heart the size of a cannonball—a cavity that hurt just like an exposed nerve in my whole spirit. Trying to pretend it was not there would be less than honest. God did not create us superhuman. The power of the gospel makes us whole, but it also makes us wholly human, not phony.”Wanda Griffith, “Grace for the Moment,” Church of God Evangel, April 1998: 36.
The power of the gospel? What does that mean in such times? For me, it meant, How do I make this work? After preaching positive power from the pulpit, urging positive action in counseling sessions, and sharing positive comfort to bereaved families at funerals, I thought, how do I practice what I preach when all my feelings are negative?
Obviously, we all handle grief differently. For me, it meant waking up at 4 o’clock in the morning after sleeping an hour or two and reliving the whole situation over and over. Seeing the sadness in Carmelita’s eyes, observing Mark’s questioning countenance, and reliving the sight of Julie’s broken body sitting in her wheelchair by the casket of our dead son was like a recurring nightmare.
Often, I would think, God, I don’t believe I can handle this. It felt like my insides would burst, and I was just going to explode into a thousand pieces. So I asked myself, What do you do when you hurt at this level? In a word, Carmelita and I found there truly is power in prayer. Suddenly, prayer was our only refuge.
At first, it was nothing more than inner groans of frustration and confusion. However, during the process, we came into an experiential understanding of Romans 8:26–27 (NIV):
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.
It was as though the old gospel song titled “The Comforter Has Come” became a living reality.
Also during this same time, we were working together on a book for Pathway Press entitled The Ministry of Worship—an Exposition of Selected Psalms. In our study, we encountered a new level of devotion in which the raw, honest, emotional expressions of the Psalms gave us the courage to be honest with God. In the language of the Psalter, we were able to vent our acute sadness, angry frustration, deep-seated dread, and irreparable sense of loss. We identified with Psalm 102:1–2 and called out to God, “Hear my prayer, O Lord; let my cry for help come to you. Do not hide your face from me when I am in distress. Turn your ear to me; when I call, answer me quickly” (NIV).
Through it all, somehow we took our stand on Psalm 46:7: “The Lord Almighty . . . the God of Jacob is our fortress” (NIV). It was in this place of prayerful refuge we faced up to the question, “Why do these crises occur in our lives?” To be honest, no answer was really quite adequate. However, in the presence of a loving God, we confronted the fact that this is a broken world and we all have to deal with what might be termed “the fallout of the Fall.” It is apparent in our everyday lives that the residual factors of the original sin in Eden still have dire repercussions—regardless.
We faced up to the realization that both Christians and nonChristians make up the statistical probabilities of life. Christians die of heart attacks, cancer, accidents, war, and all of the other hazards that make up the broken world. Yet, through prayer and the supportive strength of the Mount Paran congregation, we were able to feel God’s hand on ours as we stared into the harsh reality of what had happened. Through it all, we confronted the reality that we are trapped in the human condition, where uncontrollable things can happen to the best of people. We also learned that regardless of the circumstances or situational frame, “The Spirit himself endorses the inner conviction that we really are the children of God. Think what that means. If we are his children, we share his treasures, and all that Christ claims is His, will belong to all of us as well!” We have learned to say with the apostle Paul,
The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. . . . Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:16–17, 23, NIV).
Thus, here is what prayer meant to our family in the loss of Paul Dana. We were strengthened with the following spiritual insights:
- We can expect God to work out all things for good. This is the universal promise of Romans 8:28: “All things work together for good.” While everything that happens to us is not necessarily good—and often hurts beyond what words can describe, we know that every situation is under the direction of a loving Father who can blend outcomes together for a symphony of ultimate, eternal good. (And, yes, I confess that this truth was often more of a comfort to my head than my heart.)
- We can expect God to finish that which He has begun in our lives. This is the promise of Philippians 1:6: “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (NIV). One translator says, “He will put His finishing touches on you.” In this same manner, it does not matter how small or how large our faith may be, God will nourish it until it grows to the size which He desires. In God’s mind, the plan formulated is just as good as the plan accomplished. We will someday be in a glorified-body existence, because God completes every good work that He begins. For us it meant that Paul Dana’s life, although brief, still left a finished product of God’s work. It also means that now we can look forward to that blessed hope (Titus 2:13), which is eternal life in heaven. It is a fact—there will come a day when we will know as we are known (1 Corinthians 13:12) in a personal context.
The point is, if we take the resurrection of Christ seriously, then we can truly anticipate an eternal, transcendent Thanksgiving celebration as described in 1 Corinthians 15:53–55 (NIV):
For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
- We can expect the Spirit to make intercession when we hurt the most. Paul exclaimed in Romans 8:31, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” This means that God not only affirms, but he also acts in our behalf. He actually promises to give us victory in the midst of the crisis. Again, the apostle tells us in Romans 8:37, “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (NIV). This means that inside ourselves, we have the capacity to overcome, even though we have to be resigned to the fallout of a frustrated creation and the limitations of human finitude in the fashion of a faulty world system. In this regard, Peg Rankin states:
We know that to take a job after unemployment is to conquer, even if the job lasts only temporarily. To become resigned to the death of a loved one is to conquer, even though we may have to overcome moments of overwhelming depression. To receive physical healing is to conquer, even though we know that we will get sick again and even die. What does it mean to be more than a conqueror? Perhaps, it means to go on with Christ in glory where conditions are permanent, not temporary. Perhaps, that is why “the others” in Hebrews 11 did not accept deliverance. They were looking for a better resurrection. Peg Rankin, Yet Will I Trust Him (Glendale, PA: Regal Books, 1980), 54.
In this regard, the Holy Spirit truly becomes our intercessor (Romans 8:27) and brings us into a new understanding of a God who is the God of all comfort and compassion, “who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:4, NIV).
- We can expect God to keep us in His love. The Scriptures say,
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? . . . For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8 :35, 38–39, NIV).
Perhaps this is what Paul Billheimer is talking about when he makes the case that we do not waste our sorrows when we learn the true meaning of agape love through adjustment to circumstances of life in a way that molds us into a pliability which allows love to operate. In this regard, the law of love is the supreme law of eternity. In this context, Billheimer makes the point that natural affection does not have to be learned. However, true agape is learned only by being utterly broken, by suffering without resentment. He amplifies this theme with the following observations:
When one realizes, even faintly, who he is, and knows that all that comes to him whether of weal or woe is merely God’s way of preparing him for royalty as the “elite of the elite” and the future social leaders; and that the more severe the discipline the higher his eternal rank–then he can, with the apostle Paul, thank God always for all things; and glory in the tribulation creating for him a “more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” Only this phase can save one from wasting his sorrows. Paul E. Billheimer, Don’t Waste Your Sorrows (Fort Washington, PA: Christian Literature Crusade, 1977).
Once again, we ask the question, “What do we do when life turns upside down?”
In answer, we pray when it hurts! It is almost as though Paul Dana said it best on that Thanksgiving Day. In the midst of all the singing, laughter, and festivities, he took time to steal away and write down some inspirational thoughts for a song yet to be composed. Now these words have become a deep sense of assurance from the Father to us. We did not know why, then, but now we understand that he left us a legacy on the back of an old used envelope with the following words:
It is time for me to be quiet.
It is time for me to be still;
For Jesus Christ, the love of my life,
Is about to speak and heal.
This was Paul Dana’s ministry to us. Jesus Christ, the love of our lives, did speak, and we have healed. And yet on occasion, we still feel the deep scars of our loss. “What do we do when it hurts?” We pray.