I love the PCUSA. How often does your organizational headquarters send a regional flunkie a sympathy card with lots of handwritten love notes? Made me cry, you beautiful people (Karen Claassen, Facebook, January 23, 2017)
Many of you have heard by now of the sudden death of my nephew and sister-in-law. My brother Gary, his wife Polly, and their eight-year-old son Trent were vacationing in Kansas with my extended family during the first week of January. On Friday, January 6—the day before they were scheduled to fly home—Trent was exploring a frozen pond.
At least, the pond was supposed to be frozen. The mercury had not broken 20 degrees Fahrenheit for most of the winter, including that week. Teenagers had played broom hockey on the pond in past winters with no incidents.
But on January 6, the ice broke. Trent fell in. His parents reacted as you expect parents would, and soon all three were in the water. By the time rescue workers could arrive and race them to nearby hospitals, Polly had died. And despite the doctor’s efforts, Trent did not recover.
(I should not be surprised how hard this is to write).
I don’t know much more. My head swims with questions. But I realized quickly that pressing for clarity would be cruel. For all the accounts we will tell later, hoping to explain what happened, chaos and confusion ruled the moment. It will not help to conduct an FAA-like investigation into what went wrong and why no matter how powerful the urge. I know as much as I need to know. This is not a problem to solve. It is a grief to bear.
I have not borne the grief alone. My extended family provided extraordinary comfort. Resilience flows from their deep faith. We cried together, talked together, laughed together, played together, and then cried together again—sometimes all within the same hour. I am almost grateful that tragedy struck in Kansas rather than California.
You, too, have borne the grief with me. You have done so marvelously, beyond my expectations. Before Saturday had ended, many of you on Facebook had prayed. Several of you told me your entire congregations would pray on Sunday. By the time I stopped counting, the number of people praying for us was in the thousands, perhaps even the tens of thousands.
(Amazing love! Your congregations, who know me only a little, praying for my brother, whom they do not know at all.)
And now the cards and emails pour in. From you in the Presbytery, from friends as old as high school, from old church members in Alaska and Washington, the kind words have come. Pastors and elders I barely know, people whom I count as good friends—even church leaders who, by virtue of where we sit, might regard me as an opponent—all kinds have written words of grace.
And then one final marvel: a card from the Office of the General Assembly in Louisville, filled with notes from nearly half of the OGA staff.
(I may not like being called a “regional flunkie,” Karen, but your Facebook post nailed it.)
Such is the beauty of the Church. Sometimes, as I sit behind my desk before a computer monitor, I struggle to see how this work is anything other than just another job, how these people are more than merely colleagues, how this is not just another bureaucratic institution. Then something happens, and “the night is as bright as the day” (Psalm 139:12).
For I have long preached “Give, and it will be given to you…” (Luke 6:38), but rarely have I experienced its truth so viscerally as during the last month. What I have given the Body of Christ through the Presbyterian Church has returned to me, “good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over,” far more than I have given or deserve. It has come through you and others like you.
On January 22, I worshiped in San Juan Capistrano. There the pianist gave me, unknowingly, one more gift: a rendering of “Finlandia” by Jean Sibelius. Set to that tune is an older poem by Katharina von Schlegel, one which I learned as a hymn years ago and had nearly forgotten. It has been a great comfort to me, so I leave it here for you.
Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change, He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heav’nly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.
Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future, as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
His voice Who ruled them while He dwelt below.
Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart,
And all is darkened in the vale of tears,
Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart,
Who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears.
Be still, my soul: thy Jesus can repay
From His own fullness all He takes away.
Be still, my soul: the hour is hast’ning on
When we shall be forever with the Lord.
When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.
Be still, my soul: begin the song of praise
On earth, believing, to Thy Lord on high;
Acknowledge Him in all thy words and ways,
So shall He view thee with a well-pleased eye.
Be still, my soul: the Sun of life divine
Through passing clouds shall but more brightly shine.
Somewhere along the Way—