Reflections on a Tragedy

I am normally a pretty optimistic person.  I believe in hard work, creative ideas and collaboration.  All of those things, beginning with a perceived direction from God, can produce endless possibilities.  I live 90% of my life in this mindset.

When tragedy strikes in the form of terminal illness or accident, sometimes resulting in death, my whole paradigm of living ceases to be relevant.  No amount of hard work, creative ideas or collaboration can turn the tide of unexpected tragedy.  In fact, it feels like everything comes to a grinding, heart wrenching stop.

Three weeks ago, a young man of 23, who grew up in my youth group, overdosed and died.  I don’t want to minimize his choice.  But, addiction is a condition, a disease, that often robs our society of people with a great deal of potential.  You see, I saw John as a world changer.  There was no one with greater charisma.  He would often walk up to people he didn’t know and begin a conversation.  Within minutes everyone would be at ease with him.  He remembered people and their circumstances in follow up conversations.  People felt connected to John as evidenced by the standing-room-only status of his funeral.  He genuinely cared about others.  I believed once he began to focus on the important things in life, his status as a recovering addict would motivate others to be in recovery.  I even went so far as to believe the faith instilled in him as a teenager would begin to dominate his life as he matured.  The potential John offered the world was staggering in my optimistic mind.

Then, it ended.  John’s addiction won.

As his youth minister and friend, I am beyond sad.  Loss.  We have obviously lost John.  He is not to be replaced.  His parents, fiancee, daughter, sisters, brother, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends in recovery, friends not in recovery, people of all sorts have lost John.  The future has lost John.

So, when tragedy happens and I am stuck in park, I cry, reflect and, eventually, want an action plan to move forward.  I desperately want my optimism to kick in.  I want something that will communicate that his life matters to the world in the present and future tense.  I’m not fully through this, yet.

But, here are some glimmers of hope.  John’s dad wants to kick start a foundation that reaches out to addicts and their families, offering hope to those who are on the journey their family has been on.  The family allowed many of John’s friends, who are in recovery, to visit him in the hospital before he died.  Many more attended the funeral.  These acts may serve as wake up calls to people who struggle daily with this disease.

A friend of mine shared with me her transformation through this experience.  She said that it is important for us to see people as God sees people.  That sounds a bit obvious and a bit like an elementary Sunday School answer.  However, she struggled to do that when John was living.

And, if we are honest, many of us struggle with this.  We don’t want people like John in our youth groups.  He was trouble.  His behaviors weren’t always good examples.  He tended to stir things up.  Because of his great charisma, he had many going in the wrong direction.  Adults spent a lot of time in discussion on how to handle him.  There were a number of parent meetings to try to solve behavioral issues.  We found ourselves focusing on “discipline” and not “discipleship”.  People like John can mess up our ministries.

So, what is the point, then?  Unfortunately, so many youth ministries focus on developing disciples, using only people who seemingly have their act together (at least on the outside).  We celebrate the “good kids” and brag about what “awesome kids” we have.

The point of the Gospel is just the opposite.  Jesus criticized the “good kids” for ignoring those on the margins.  Could our modern day leprosy be alcohol and narcotic addiction?  How do we show love to those who need love the most?

Twenty years ago I was called to the carpet by a group of parents who felt I didn’t pay enough attention to their kids.  One parent said I needed to invite his daughter to the movies because that’s what the church across the street was doing.  These were all parents of the “good kids”.  The parents were doing a pretty admirable job of teaching Christianity to their children.  I wanted to tell them about the other families who were struggling, those that needed more attention, more love.

Being the church Jesus intended is difficult.  Yet, it is simplistic.  See people as God sees us.  I’m not saying I saw John as God saw John all the time.  There were definitely moments.  But, I do now and intend, as my friend intends, to look at others in the same light as God does.  How might you live the Gospel more completely?

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