I’m not sure how to describe the feelings that go beyond heartbroken and devastated.
Honest to God, I don’t.
Sometimes words are so agonizingly limiting and so painfully insufficient. And that’s where I am right now.
I haven’t talked much over the years about my house church, but this is a group of my closest friends who have gathered together in my home for over a decade. On any given Monday our house is packed with twelve adults and sixteen kids (one now in college) ranging in age from a newborn to eighteen. We are one big family that has been through the highest highs and the lowest lows and our love for one another has been strengthened through every single experience we have shared together. I love this group of people with all of my heart
I had this kind of powerful and emotional moment a few months ago when we met together one Monday evening. And it really came out of nowhere. It was completely unexpected.
We had just finished a thirteen-week study on the letter of 1st Corinthians. And as we talked through the last question, which asked which part of the study had challenged us the most, we realized that we had been doing the study significantly longer than 13-weeks. In fact, we had been doing the study for so long that we needed to flip through the study book to remember some of the content and highlights.
It was kind of funny, we actually became more curious as to when we started the study than what had actually challenged us the most in the study.
And it didn’t take long for someone to locate the date when we asked the first question in the first lesson.
We started the study in October 2015… and it was now February 2017.
We were blown away and had a really good laugh about it.
A few days later I wrote a blog post about our house church and our 70-week study and then subsequently shared it with everyone in the group, as well as the social media world that Friday.
The weird thing is that I very rarely publish a post on Fridays, because people are ready for the weekend and blog activity seems to slow down. I typically wait until the beginning of a new week. But for some reason I really wanted to get it out on this Friday.
I could never have imagined that what I had written would be both a terrible harbinger and a deep and profound testament to the depth we would need each other in the coming days.
Here is a portion of what I had written:
I have led and been a part of a dozen or so house churches/small groups over the last twenty years. I have even headed up Small Group Ministries in churches for close to a decade, writing curriculum, training group leaders, and helping people find groups in which to connect. I have done it all with small groups.
But if there is any mistake I have made in the past, and believe me there are way too many to count, it is that I treated the small, intimate gatherings of the church as a theoretical model to be implemented, or a mechanical process to control and make predictable and uniform, rather than seeing it as a vibrant, life-giving entity where lives and relationships ought to be nurtured and guided through life’s ups and downs together, while it grows together and gets stronger.
But even through my honest attempts and mistakes, I have always believed that the best place to grow in one’s faith and then live it out is in the context of the smaller, more intimate church gathering.
In fact, I still believe that today.
The truth is that it is all to easy to attend a church service week-in and week-out, while remaining undetected below the radar, without ever having to invest in deeper-than-the-surface relationships or the complexities of other people’s lives.
The truth is that it is all too easy to slip in and out of a church service, while only having to shake a few awkward hands during the greeting time, without ever having another pour out their heart and soul to you, without ever having to walk through life’s messiness together, without ever having to lean on others when life seems too overwhelming.
The truth is that it is all too easy to check church off your list of to-do items, while remaining a nameless, faceless body in attendance, without ever having to carry another person’s burdens, without ever having to pray over their utter brokenness, or without ever having to give someone words of encouragement, blessing, healing, and life.
In my experience, the only place where the superficial veneer is stripped away, where pretense is obliterated, where cosmetic application fails, and where vulnerability is unmasked and triumphantly exposed… is in the presence of a loving, non-judgmental, other-centered group of trusted friends.
That is the very essence, the very heartbeat of the church.
I have learned that there is something that happens between the study questions that is deep and profound and impossible to quantify.
And that’s the reason why our study took seventy weeks, rather than thirteen.
Because between the questions there were stories. There were tears. There were laughs and smiles. There were embraces. There were celebrations. There was real life happening- in all of it’s unrehearsed, unglamorous grit and raw emotion.
Between the questions were strained marriages. There were friends, relatives, and pets passing away. There were the challenges of parenting. There were jobs that had been lost or changed. And there were personal failures.
Between the questions was doubt, hopelessness, and shattered hearts.
But even more, between the questions, there was the goodness and grace of God embodied. There was an undying love and care for one another. There were tearful embraces. There were uplifting words of encouragement. There were prayers of healing and blessing. There were so, so, so many moments of celebration. And all of this, always, with an open door and open arms.
We were so much more than a “church group” trying to complete a thirteen-week study or trying to find the right answers to Bible study questions.
It was more incarnational than mental.
It was more shared experience than class work .
It was more living out the answer than finding it.
That’s what I shared in our moment of laughing together that night.
That’s what brought me to tears.
That’s what made me so thankful for my friends with whom I get to share my life.
It was truly the church.
After posting those words, I had been trying to think of a creative way to record this as my next podcast episode. My wife and I were discussing a variety of ideas and we had landed on a funny way to record it- all of the adults in our house church were going to pile into our minivan and I was going to record live with all of us crammed together. It was going to be hilarious, and would capture how much fun we have together and how close we are to one another.
I sent a text out to our group on Saturday night pitching the idea of recording live when we would be together on Monday. Monday was going to be BIG because we were going to have this huge celebration for finishing our monstrous 70-week study.
But within minutes of my initial text to everyone, our message thread would be turned completely upside-down as we received a text from Jackie that Abbott, their fifteen-year old son, was being life-lined to a hospital in Indianapolis due to a tragic accident.
I can’t even begin to explain how everything changed for each one of us in that split moment.
Abbott and two of his good friends had just finished playing basketball and pulled over just a couple of miles from the courts to dry off and change clothes. The details of what happened next are not essential for this story, but in the few minutes after the boy’s pulled over to change clothes, two of the boys got back in the vehicle and accidentally ran over Abbott. We were with Adam, Jackie, and their daughter Ella at the trauma center when the trauma team told us the news that they could not save him.
It was the worst day of our lives.
There are no words.
Simply no words.
We stayed at the hospital for what seemed like years and then ended up at Adam and Jackie’s home early on Sunday morning. Family and friends began to arrive with food and heavy hearts. And it wasn’t just Adam and Jackie’s friends who came, it was all of Abbott’s friends as well. They came by the carload.
And while it was amazing to see all of these students arriving at the house that February morning, there was something else happening that was even more amazing. As the kids came into the house, Adam and Jackie told them to let Abbott’s two best friends, who he was with on that fateful Saturday night, know that they, too, are welcome to come their home.
And it wasn’t long before each boy showed up.
It was both the most heart-wrenching and the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life. The boys cried as the came into house and said, “I am sorry. I am sorry. I am so sorry,” to which Adam and Jackie just embraced each boy and held them in grace and mercy and forgiveness and said, “It was an accident. Abbott loved you… and we love you.”
In my 42 years of living, I have never seen the love of Christ more self-sacrificially demonstrated than in those moments. I stood there with tears streaming down my face. They were tears of grief and pain. They were tears of profound sadness for Adam, Jackie and Ella. They were tears of empathy for Abbott’s friends. But they were also tears of God’s overwhelming and fully enveloping love expressed through Adam and Jackie as they held each boy in that moment.
A person could hear a thousand sermons, spend a lifetime studying the Scriptures, and yet never see the way of Christ demonstrated so clearly, so perfectly as it was in my dear friends in that moment. It’s a message of, not just God’s love, but God’s love embodied and lived out through this extraordinary family. And I am so honored to have such beautiful, Christ-like examples in my life.
And to the extent that I can bear witness to the Light of Christ embodied in my friends through the words that I write and the words I speak then I will.
Adam and Jackie asked if I would perform Abbott’s funeral. While I was beyond honored and humbled that they would ask me, I knew that I could not emotionally do it. While Abbott’s life should be the focus of the funeral service, I knew that a guy crying through through the entire service would be distracting. I did, however, tell Adam and Jackie that I would like to have a part in the service.
Being that Jackie would always tell me how much Abbott loved to listen to me speak and how he enjoyed listening to this podcast when he was in the car with her, I knew that I wanted to give my best to this young man who I loved so much.
I knew generally what I wanted to say, but I didn’t have any of the specifics. How does a person even start writing something like this? With a story? With a quote? Everything felt so forced, so unemotional. That is, until I had this amazing and surreal moment while sitting at Abbott’s high school. It was the perfect imagery and I believe it perfectly honored him.
This is what I shared at Abbott’s funeral service…
I was at Columbus East High School on Wednesday evening. I was in the cafeteria, sitting at a table by myself, trying to process the last few days and I just sat there, staring out the window and not really looking at anything in particular.
And the more I stared, the more apparent this kind of mesmerizing image became in front of me. There were these really dark clouds that were moving slowly across the sky, across the large window panes in the cafeteria. And piercing directly through the middle of these dark clouds was this strikingly beautiful ray of light that cut through, and even began to illuminate, the center of the clouds.
It was a surreal moment.
These dark, heavy clouds with this magnificent radiance breaking through them was perfectly centered in the windows, almost suspended or in slow motion, and I was completely hypnotized by the imagery, and even more by the meaning. I was completely enveloped in what it was telling me.
A dark cloud cover often seems impermeable, impenetrable and that’s all we see. And sometimes it’s hard to believe that there’s anything but darkness that surrounds us. The clouds block the beauty and the brilliance of the light. But the light is still there, still blazing, still glowing, still illuminating.
The truth is that no matter the darkness or the seemingly endless dark clouds that surround us, the light will always break through.
The light will always break through.
And I want you to know that this is the perfect imagery from our perspective right now. There is so much darkness, a dark cloud cover is hanging over us, and there doesn’t seem to be any light in the midst of this darkness. It may seem as if it will last forever. We may very well begin to believe that this is the way life will always be.
Our hearts are crushed and broken. The pain we feel is excruciating and immeasurable. And the words we have to describe this ache in our souls are completely inadequate.
But even in the darkness and when we feel as if all hope is lost, the radiant Light of Christ begins to break through and illuminate…
Giving us hope that death is not the final victor.
Surprising us with beautiful acts of forgiveness, mercy, and love in the present.
And giving us a glimpse of the new life, the resurrected life, that’s yet to come, but that we can take part in presently.
What darkness seeks to swallow whole, the Light of Christ victoriously overcomes it.
For what death wishes to bring is brokenness, animosity, unforgiveness, division, and hatred. But the beautiful, extravagant Light of Christ always births mercy, grace, forgiveness, healing, restoration, unity, and love.
The Light of Christ is here and it’s breaking in beautifully and victoriously.
In every story told about the other-centered love of Abbott, the Light of Christ is breaking in.
In every memory shared about the kind, giving, and graceful heart of Abbott, the Light of Christ is breaking in.
In every moment you gather in Abbott’s bedroom and talk about how he always stood up for those hurting, or how he made everyone feel special, important, and accepted, the Light of Christ is breaking in.
In every way you pass along memories of Abbott changing the lives of others, putting others before himself, and serving others, the Light of Christ is breaking in.
And in every way that each of you here today have prayed with each other, embraced one another, given so sacrificially, and poured yourselves out in love to Adam, Jackie, and Ella, the Light of Christ is breaking in.
I was standing in the kitchen with Adam and Jackie on Monday morning when Jackie said, “As a parent, you always want your kid to be a good kid- one that makes a difference. We just didn’t know until now just how much he impacted those around him.” And I believe that is an overwhelming testament to Abbott’s life.
The Light of Christ is Breaking In
For the ten years I knew Abbott, I watched the way he served others, how he put others above himself, and how he cared for those who were hurting. He was a loved and essential part of our house church family. In fact, when our house church got together this past Monday we brought all eleven kids into the kitchen and asked them what their favorite memory of Abbott was, to which ten-year old Max Coomes said, “He didn’t always do what he wanted to do, but what everyone else wanted to do.”
The Light of Christ is Breaking In
And Adam and Jackie, the Light of Christ evident in your own lives is what was poured into Abbott. Abbot’s light began with you in the way you live, the way you love.
You are an example to me, and an example to everyone who will hear these words, of how to bless when it would be easier to curse, of how to forgive when it would be easier to blame, of how to love when it would be easier to hate.
The Light of Christ is Breaking In
Through you and then through your children.
And it is beautiful and it is humbling and it is life-changing and it is the Light that you gave to your son.
He was a beautiful human being to all who knew him, to all who will hear about him, and we will never forget him.
We love you Abbott. May your light continue to shine…
For now, we stand here together holding the tension of smiles and tears…holding together the tension of joy and pain…holding together the tension of celebration and mourning…holding together the tension of happiness and sadness…holding together the tension of life and death…and holding together the tension of heaven and hell on earth.
We stand here together… looking for resolution, longing for resurrection, and hoping that one day everything will be made right.
That justice will prevail.
That peace will be attained.
That death will not have the final say.
And that love will ultimately win.
We believe that Jesus Christ triumphed over the stranglehold of death.
And it is in this that we place our hope.
Tears do not win. Sadness does not win. Injustice does not win. War does not win. Hatred does not win. Decay does not win. Death does not win. Evil does not win.
Life and love ultimately win.
We celebrate together the glory and resident goodness of God through all of creation…mourning the devastation and casualties all around us…and longing for the day when there will no longer be any death, sadness, crying, or pain.
We join together in the groaning of the entire created order as we suffer the stranglehold and crushing weight of sin and death, yet we wait together in patient and eager anticipation to be set free from the bondage to decay.
We remember together the life and death of Christ, carrying the tension of life and death within us presently, and anticipating a future in the Age to Come in which we will break bread and take the cup again together in celebration as we eat it new with Christ at the renewal of all things.
We gather prayerfully together in our mourning and in our tears. But we also join together in hope, longing for the day that will come when death will no longer have a sting, when every tear will be wiped from every eye, and when great joy and celebration will reign for the love of God will prevail.
Adam, Jackie, Abbott, and Ella, I want you to know how much I love you, how much our family loves you, how much our group loves you.
We will carry on together in hope, carrying Abbott with us, until we all meet together again.
Peace and love…
We established a scholarship in honor of Abbott and it is ready for donations. Here is the Abbott Forrester Garn Scholarship Fund link through the Heritage Fund. Just go to it and begin typing his name and it will populate. If you would like to send a check made out to the Abbott Garn Scholarship Fund, you may send it to the Heritage Fund at 538 Franklin Street, P.O. Box 1547, Columbus, Indiana 47202. Your gift is a tax-deductible donation. The first scholarship will go out THIS YEAR to a graduating senior. Thank you for your care, concern, and generosity. And please share this and spread the word.