The other day a picture flashed up on my computer that showed me and 29 of some of the greatest people on God’s green earth kneeling and smiling in front of a beautiful Ecuadorian river. When I saw the picture, I just froze and stared at it, struck by all the drastic and tragic changes that have happened to those 29 people, their families and friends, and me since that beautiful Ecuadorian afternoon.
I clearly remember the day the picture was taken. The picture captured my last mission trip to Ecuador with First Covenant Church. Going into the trip I was excited to end my twelve years of ministry with a mission trip, but I knew it wasn’t the smartest idea. You see it was already going to be hard enough to leave all these people that I had loved and had grown so close to. I knew that having the shared experience of a trip to Ecuador so close to when my family was moving to Chicago was only going to exacerbate the problem. However, this trip had been planned long before I got the hair-brained idea to move to Chicago so I had decided to maximize my enjoyment of this last experience. The day we took that picture was definitely a bittersweet day as I knew that in two weeks my moving van would be loaded and we would be moving from the only town my family had known. I wasn’t looking forward to that.
What I thankfully did not know was that grieving the nine-hour separation between Willmar and Chicago would only be the beginning of our grief. It was a normal November morning when I received a terrible phone call that informed me that Morgan Cline, (the red-haired young lady in the picture kneeling in front of me in a black sweat shirt) who was a loved & cherished young woman in our youth group for the last six years, had been tragically killed in a car accident. I was shocked and stunned and I immediately made plans to fly back to Minnesota. A day or so later I landed in Minneapolis for Morgan’s funeral and as soon as I landed, I got a call from two of my best friends in the world Matt and Janell Williams. I was expecting to visit them that day to see their one-week-old baby Ethan. I was hoping to celebrate with them as they waited for Ethan to undergo surgery before they could take him home for good. Instead the day turned into a day from hell. On the phone Matt managed to tell me that during the night Ethan had experienced massive bleeding on his brain and was in serious trouble. I immediately went to the hospital. That horrible Saturday ended with Ethan leaving this world to be with Jesus. The people of First Covenant Church then experienced four days straight attending either a wake or a funeral as we mourned together. After the four emotionally draining days we reluctantly went back to Chicago.
Unbelievably the phone rang again, a short nine months later, on a random August afternoon. Again it was terrible news, Jenna (the tall blonde girl in the yellow sweatshirt) another beloved youth group member had died in another car accident. I literally fell to my knees and wept. I view the students in my youth group as if they are members of my own family. I have always felt so blessed to have such a large family, and I couldn’t believe that Jenna and Morgan had died. In twelve years I had now buried four of my students, four members of our family. Unbelievably two of those 29 people were gone in less than a year. In August 2009, we again gathered with our First Covenant family and mourned together before returning home to Chicago.
I recently heard a pastor say in a sermon that loss is a part of life but that we were never meant to experience loss alone. I think that there is a lot of wisdom in those words. I am very thankful to say that we have not had to grieve alone in our new home. We have been supported by many of our new Chicago friends who are literally from all around the world. Grief as it turns out is a world-wide phenomenon. We have also been supported by our amazing family, some of which now live very close to us and others who have visited us and spent a lot of time with us during this year. Finally, we have been supported by what I am certain is a seminary record number of visitors. From the day we moved into the Seminary last August until now we have had (not counting our families), visitors in our apartment for at least 72 days! That is 2 and ½ months worth of visitors! On average that is almost one day a week for the entire time we have been in Chicago! What a humbling, life-giving, and needed support this has been to my family. I believe that the people you need in your life the most during a time of grief are those people who are grieving with you. We are so thankful for all of you who have taken the time, money, and energy to come and spend some great days with this crazy family in Chicago. Your pictures flash up on our computer often and for you we give thanks.