This week a tragic fire took the lives of three small children in a Del City RV fire. Little Christopher, Crystal and Kailey were the grandchildren of Crystal Chappell, one of my Whiz Kid’s tutors at Destiny Church. I wasn’t sure what the emotional climate would be like when I arrived at my site today, but Barb Garrett, the coordinator for the Destiny Whiz Kid’s program informed the tutors in her reassuring graceful manner.
“Christopher was an escape artist,” Barb recalled with a smile. “Whenever he was at church, he was always disappearing. Because of him, our children’s ministry implemented a new policy. An adult was required to sit by the door after class began to make sure none of the kids got away. Unfortunately, Christopher wasn’t able to escape this time…”
Or did he?
Christopher’s father worked for a towing company and all of his children were enthralled with the wreckers their father drove. During a prayer vigil held the day after the children died, which was ironically on Christopher’s fifth birthday, a convoy of tow trucks paraded down the street in the their honor. I can only imagine Christopher and his sisters rejoicing in heaven at the greatest birthday party a five-year old ever could have.
It’s tiny glimpses of heaven like this that can bring fresh perspective to our sorrow. The fingerprints of God give evidence of his presence.
I’ve discovered a few fingerprints of God myself. The one I’m going to tell you about was faded. That’s why I didn’t notice it for several months. Some evidence is like that. It’s there all the time, but we don’t see it until we look at it from a different angle.
My son Jake was 33 months old when he died in a car accident, just shy of his third birthday. On his second birthday I had planned a proper party for a two-year old—a Saturday celebration at Chucky Cheese. But since his actual birthday was on a Tuesday, I thought a trip to the playground at McDonalds was in order. So after I picked up my kids from daycare, we headed out for hamburgers. That’s the only reason Jake was wearing a shaggy hand-me-down shirt on his birthday.
Several months after the accident, I was looking through some photo albums. That’s when I noticed this picture of Jake shooting out of the ball crawl.
The plaid baseball shirt used to belong to his older brother, Garrett. The appliqué had fallen off but the evidence was clear. The three was gone. Even on his second birthday, God knew he wouldn’t make it to his third.
To me, this “fingerprint” was comforting. I know it sounds strange, but it was confirmation that God was involved. He already knew the number of Jake’s days. And if God knew, he stood ready to pass the grace onto me.
Since Jake’s death, I have chosen to focus on the evidence. What’s the alternative? A depression session? Another trip down the trail of tears?
People tell me all the time you never get over the death of a child. For the longest time I struggled with that statement. Did the word of God agree? Would I ever get over Jake’s death or was I doomed to a life of regret?
I’m not sure I’ve completely resolved this question. It may be merely man’s opinion that we can never over such a tragedy. But one truth I do know…
Death changes life forever.
Jake’s death changed my life. Shortly after he died, I knew my purpose had shifted. I quit my job in commercial lending to write. I had to. It was the only way I could survive the loss. Today, his death continues to propel my destiny. Through writing and speaking, I know his story has brought hope to many, but I’m the one who benefits most.
You’ve turned my mourning into dancing again. You’ve lifted my sorrows and I can’t stay silent. Ron Kenoly
I see the fingerprints of God on other lives too. Fingerprints are unique and not visible without close inspection. The finger prints of God aren’t always obvious either. Like an investigator studies a crime scene to prove who was at the scene, you have to examine the evidence. If you look closely, God’s fingerprints give proof to his presence.
Thomas Glenn, a Putnam City high school student, was tragically killed by a dump truck in Oklahoma City while he walked home from football practice in August of 2007. My son Garrett was his classmate. We were mortified when we saw the newscast. Immediately, we picked up a couple of his teammates who lived in the neighborhood and rushed over to his family’s home.
His mother, Fay, greeted us as if she was a Stepford wife, programmed to respond in robotic perfection. She was there, but it wasn’t really her. The football players sat silently on the couch. All of us were in shock. Not knowing what to say, one of the boys picked up a photo album on the coffee table and started leafing through it.
Photos of Thomas’ life starred back at them.
Pointing at a school picture of Thomas, Garrett was the first to break the awkward silence. “Thomas always wore this white suit on picture days,” Garrett announced pointing at a picture of Thomas. “Every year since 4th grade.”
“You’re right!” agreed Caleb. “He always made a big deal about picture day and got all dressed up.”
“That’s interesting, Fay,” I said. “Not many boys willingly wear suits, especially to school. Was that your idea?
“No!” Fay protested. “It was always Thomas’ idea. Ever since he was young, he was enamored with his Father’s white suit. He insisted on wearing it, especially on picture day.”
“It was always way too big for him,” Garrett joked. “He had to roll up the sleeves and the pants just piled over his shoes.”
“He even wore it to the school dance this year,” said Caleb.
“You’re right,” agreed Garrett. “Hmmm. The funny thing is…this year—it actually fit him!”
…this year it actually fit him.
Those words seared our ears like fingernails on a chalkboard. He wore the white suit every year, but the year it finally fit him, God called him home.
“Fay…this is really none of my business, but you should dress Thomas in his father’s suit for the funeral.”
Faye didn’t say a word, but she disappeared for a moment and returned with the suit.
“Do you think Thomas would like it if everyone wore white to his memorial?” I probed.
The next day, the news spread through MySpace: Don’t wear black to the funeral. Wear white. Fay even wanted me to see if the tuxedo store next to the high school could fit the pallbearers in white tuxedos. When I called, they wanted to help. Tom’s Formal Wear donated all the rentals.
A sea of white engulfed the church the day of the funeral. I think Thomas could see.
You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing to you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever. Psalm 30:11
Thomas was clothed in joy. He’d been wearing his father’s suit for years, and now he wore his father’s suit to meet his Father.
The fingerprints of God. Not easy to see with the untrained eye, but visible just the same.
Since Thomas’s death, Fay has spent much time with her new project, Family to Family in Tragedy. “I give t-shirts to families who have lost children,” says Fay. “It’s a small way I can acknowledge their loss and bring hope out of my own tragedy.”
There is great danger in lingering in the darkness of grief. If someone is kept in total darkness for too long, they can lose their hope and vision. This is even true physically. On a tour of Aillwee Cave in Ireland, a tour guide stops his visitors at the deepest point of the cave. Smothered in complete darkness, he then advises the guests. “If one were to stay in total darkness for extended period of time, the brain would start to react by exaggerating sounds. For example, dripping water would begin to sound like conversation. Eventually, the silence would create full blown hallucinations.”
During a vacation to California my family and I visited Alcatraz, the prison off the shore of San Francisco Bay, where we viewed “the hole.” The hole was a completely dark and soundproof dungeon of solitary confinement used for extreme torture. Many inmates experienced hallucinations, became depressed and suicidal and were driven to the edge of psychosis. Even the law prohibited inmates from being isolated for longer than 19 days. If someone is kept in total darkness for too long, they can lose their eyesight.
Likewise, there is great danger is lingering in the darkness of despair. We can lose our spiritual vision and sanity. When darkness threatens our hope and ability to see God, we have to choose to focus on any ray of light and truth we can find.
Who are we to say that someone died too early? Even if we live a century, our lives are but a flash. The reality is that all of our days are numbered. The truth is that death is as much a part of life as birth. Why not celebrate the lives of those we love instead of mourning our own lives away? As agonizing as tragedy and disease are, God’s mercy prevails. His grace is sufficient. He brings beauty from ashes.
Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. John 12:24
Great purpose can be birthed out of death. In her article, Tragedy Turned into Triumph, Jeanie Hamblen notes the following examples of people helping others after suffering great loss.
John Walsh turned his tragedy into America’s Most Wanted after the horrific kidnapping and murder of his six-year-old son. As of January 5, 2011, the program has assisted in the capture of 1,136 criminals. John Walsh frequently ends the program with his trademark slogan, “…and remember, you can make a difference.”
Mothers Against Drunk Driving began after 13-year-old Cari Lightner, was killed by a drunken hit-and-run driver. Candy Lightner redirected her sorrow to create awareness to protect others.
Amber Hagerman’s abduction and murder inspired the formation of the nationally known Amber Alert. According to ABC News’ Emily Friedman, the program is credited with safely locating nearly 500 children.
Death changes us. Will we become bitter or better? The choice is ours.
Jesus’ death on the cross offered hope and eternal life for the entire world. But some still opt out. Each of us choose whether or not we accept his sacrifice. We can either live a life filled with hope, or we can reject his gift and receive eternal punishment.
Any life without hope is eternal punishment. I’ve seen too many women die when they buried their children. They opted out.
Not me.Sure, Jake’s death left many scars. But I see them differently. Like the scars on Jesus’ hands, my scars are not painful reminders of my past, they are evidence I’ve survived…proof I’ve prevailed.