By Mike Cope
In my last column I wrote about my daughter, a frail child with mental handicaps, and the profound impact her life and death (at the age of 10) has had on my life.
About the time that issue of Christian Standard was published, we came perilously close to the gates of grief again.
It was a sunny, chilly Sunday afternoon in January. I was worn out from a long day of ministry, and I was back at the church’s building to pick up my sixth-grade son, Chris, who had been to a Christian event in the Dallas area. He was one of about 100 middle school and high school students from our church on the trip.
I watched as nine of the 10 vehicles hauling our weary, sleep-deprived children pulled into the parking lot. But the 10th one, the one with my son and several of his friends, didn’t come.
Shortly after that I received the horrible news: the Yukon carrying five sixth-grade boys, two eighth-grade girls, and one adult (the driver) had rolled over several times on Interstate 20. All we knew was that it was very serious. My heart sank as I thought, Please, Lord, not again.
Word came back to the frightened huddle of parents that one child was dead, two were being flown to Fort Worth, and the others were arriving in ambulances.
After what seemed like an eternity, my son came in on a stretcher. He was beaten beyond recognition. We wondered, If that’s what the outside of his head looks like, what might be happening inside? But our worst fears were abated for the moment when CT-scans gave a fairly good report. So physicians intubated him and rushed him in a plane to Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth.
Five Sundays later was a day our church will always remember. I was preaching from Ecclesiastes 4—the passage about how two are better than one, about how you need someone to keep you warm when you’re cold and pick you up when you’ve fallen.
Then I invited all the “wreck families” to come up. The six surviving children led them up—walking, limping, and rolling (my son and one other boy were still in wheelchairs). The parents of the precious 11-year-old who died accompanied them, as did the family of the driver. Then one of the eighth-grade girls, one of the sixth-grade boys, a father, and a mother all spoke about how the prayers and help of others had ministered to them.
Here are the powerful words the mother (my wife) spoke:
When I first heard the news that my child was in a serious car accident, I could hardly bear the fact that he was somewhere alone, hurt, and afraid and I wasn’t there. Then a couple of days later I heard news about those who helped our children. I can’t begin to tell you how comforting that was for me.
In this world where people are afraid to get involved, our children were surrounded by warm, caring adults. As a mother, I am especially thankful for the women who were whispering into our children’s ears with their calm, soothing voices. I’m thankful they took our place in the dirt, since we couldn’t be there. And I’m grateful they held our children’s hands and provided their mothering touch. On that cold Sunday afternoon in January, they became community in a way I’ll never forget.
After those words, I invited to the front all the people who had stopped to help our children on that cold Sunday afternoon: the emergency response teams and all the “Good Samaritans” who offered prayers, coats, and comfort to our injured children when we didn’t even know yet about the wreck. We had invited them to Abilene for that special service—and they came from as far away as New Mexico.
That day my wife and I met a wonderful Christian woman from Monahans, Texas, who had cared for our child right after the rollover. She kept him warm and awake, she prayed for him, and she reassured him.
She became a mother to our son when his own mother wasn’t there.
As I’ve reflected on this, I’ve wondered how much this may be a model for what our churches can be doing to live out the mission of Christ in our communities. There are people all around us who haven’t been mothered and fathered and grandparented, and who desperately need that. They need people who will teach, encourage, correct, and support in ways that no one ever has in their lives.
OPENED TO LOVE
Not long ago there was a double homicide across the street from our church building early on a Sunday morning. Between our morning assemblies, I visited with some of our neighbors, asking about the two teenage children of the woman who’d been murdered. Finding out that they were left to live on their own, I asked a woman next door to the shootings if she could let them know we’d like to help any way we could.
Soon an 18-year-old (herself a mother of a 3-year-old) and her 17-year-old brother came to see me. They were trying hard to be grown-ups. They wore serious—rather than sad—faces. It was clear that life had robbed them of a childhood.
They reluctantly told me they had no way to pay the $2,500 in funeral expenses. I said, “Well, she’s our neighbor, and we’ll be glad to pay for the funeral. But what I’m really more concerned about is you. You just lost your mother. I’m wondering, do you have anyone to pray with you?”
They shook their heads.
I said, “Please understand: this isn’t part of the deal. If you don’t want to do this, it’s fine. But we have some people here who’d be glad to pray with you if you’d like.” The steely-eyed older sister said impassively, “We could use all the prayer we could get.”
I went barging into our “39ers” class, explained what had happened, and asked if I could bring these two in for a time of prayer. These older members of our church eagerly agreed.
I led the teens in and introduced them to the class.
What happened next wasn’t in my script. I couldn’t have predicted it. I watched in amazement as older men and women—grandparents and great-grandparents—began gathering around them, laying their hands on them. I choked back tears as I led the prayer.
At the final “amen,” I watched my older brothers and sisters do what they do best: offer love and encouragement. They hugged those two teens, held them tight, stroked their hair, whispered in their ears, and offered more prayer.
The two grown-up teenagers melted. They became kids, crying their eyes out as their hearts were opened to their grief and to this unfamiliar love.
I thought what we could offer them was prayer. But it was so much more. This group of people offered grandparenting. These two had probably never been grandfathered and grandmothered before.
WELCOME THE CHILDREN
Since that moment, and now since the wreck, I’m obsessed with this thought: how can we get the unparented, ungrandparented children of our community in contact with such godly nurturers?
It makes me think differently about the children in my wife’s public school second-grade class and the boys I coach. There are so many kids all around us who haven’t been “welcomed” (to use Jesus’ word) and nurtured.
We’re surrounded by people who have been in “wrecks” and who have witnessed enough tragedy for a lifetime.
We, as people who follow the way of Jesus Christ, are compelled to find them, to hold them, and to draw them into community.
Mike Cope is preaching minister with the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas, and adjunct professor at Abilene Christian University.