A year ago today, in some muggy Tennessee heat, our family was gathering in Knoxville to get ready for the wedding of my brother and his lovely bride. This was a very celebratory time, both for the occasion and for the chance to see so many friends and family. It was the day before the rehearsal, and we heard that Ryan Hurst Carter, a good friend of our family, was in a car accident… and died. Boom. Just like that. He was a 27-year-old bundle of energy who never met a stranger because he was so convinced that God loves all those strangers.
Of course at the wedding we celebrated and had a great time, but it was a stinging reminder that death is always lurking, that in this life even the high moments of new beginnings full of hopes for a bright future cannot be separated from realities that crush hopes.
When I got home from that wedding trip and was hacking around on guitar, I pulled up “How Great Thou Art.” Like many hymns, I know the first verse pretty well... and after that I get pretty fuzzy pretty fast. Since I was playing through it and working on the chords, I kept going after the first verse. The second verse is pretty neat – it gives a great sense of enjoying God’s creation.
The third verse, though, starts to hit hard. And I when I think, that God, His Son not sparing, sent him to die, I scarce can take it in. As I was grieving the death of a friend, I scarce could take it in. How could God send someone to die? That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing, he bled and died to take away my sin. Gladly? Gladly bearing the burden of death? Wow… How great Thou art!
That third verse hits hard. The fourth verse? I couldn’t do it. It struck something deeeep inside me, and I was so overcome I could barely get the words out. And still, ever since Ryan’s death, I can hardly get through that verse when I play it at home without being brought to tears. When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation, and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart. Then I shall bow, in humble adoration, and then proclaim, “My God, how great Thou art!”
“When Christ shall come” – that is our hope! Christ will come; he will make things right. God knows how much is wrong in our world; IoH families’ entire lives are weighed down by a particular kind of wrong. For families, having children is one of those high moments of new beginnings full of hopes for a bright future. As we know in this ministry, that high is not immune from stinging reminders of death, realities of illness that crush hopes.
These families need to know “what joy shall fill my heart.” My friend Ryan was as joy-filled as anyone I’ve ever known; his death created a real loss of joy for many of us. I think this is the part of the song that gets me most: when someone is taken home to Christ, our first, strong reaction is “what grief” – not “what joy” but “what grief” fills our hearts. “What joy” is so unexpected as a response when someone is taken, but that unexpectedness can be transforming... Somehow it resonates deep in the soul to sing “what joy” while grieving at the same time.
This joy is not something that comes from avoiding death – it comes from going through death. Again, the previous verse, the third verse, says God, His son not sparing, sent him to die… That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing, he bled and died... It is because Christ went through death into new life, resurrection life, that there is joy for those going through death. Joy is not found by avoiding death (as if that’s even possible!) but by going through death with Christ.
This is the hope we want to inspire: hope that doesn’t avoid death but transforms it into the joy of God’s presence. And we don’t have to wait for Christ to take us home or fully come and redeem this world – we get to proclaim how great God is even now in confident hope that Christ has started coming and is continuing to come, that in some ways he is present already.
You’ve probably heard the line that “home is where the heart is”; I’d say that home – true home – is where God is. We will be home when we are with God, but, again, we don’t have to wait. Christ doesn’t only take us home – he comes to us and makes his home among us. We and these families can be at home with Christ here and now. This is the kind of home, and kind of hope, that death does not crush. Instead it transforms the sting of death into joy that fills the heart, making us bow in humble adoration and proclaim, "For thou art great, and doest wondrous things: thou art God alone." (Psalm 86:10)
Prayer: O Lord, our God, when we in awesome wonder, consider… you… our souls sing how great you are. Thank you for your marvelous creation. Thank you for gladly bearing our burdens to the point of death. Thank you for being our home, a home furnished with fullness of joy as we go through death with you. May your greatness be sung by our souls, by our actions, by our words, by our thoughts and our feelings through this day and throughout Legacy Retreats. May each family member we serve know how great you are. In Christ’s name, amen!