Alumni on Hope

Hope When the Unthinkable Happens
Rev. Sanders L. (Sandy) Willson (M.Div., ’82)

Knowing the Lord in prayer, believing the Scriptures and fellowshipping in Christ’s Church make all the difference in the world when facing life’s greatest challenges.

Dr. Terri Fox had given her life to Christ, had joined His Church, had learned how to trust Him in prayer, had studied His Word–even committing to memory Paul’s letter to the Philippians. But she had no idea how God would one day use all of those things in a powerful way.

She and her husband, Roy, have three children: Roy, Jr., Meredith and Margaux. On September 15, 2009, they sent their girls off to school (Roy, Jr. was away at university), not knowing that this day would forever change their lives.

It was a clear day in Memphis, TN. Meredith, a beautiful, five-foot tall student at Evangelical Christian School, a strong believer and an active participant at Second Presbyterian Church, was riding home from school with some friends. Suddenly, they experienced a freak torrential rainstorm that was gone as quickly as it had come. But during those few stormy moments their car flew out of control.

When parents Terri and Roy first heard that Meredith was in an accident, they assumed everyone was okay. But for two hours they called various emergency rooms in town trying to locate Meredith, all with no success, until one of the emergency personnel suggested, “You’ll need to call the police department.” Roy and Terri knew exactly what that meant. In a few moments they received the visit every parent fears, as the Memphis Police Department patrol car pulled up to their house. Lieutenant Simon spoke gently: “We’re sorry. Your daughter has been killed. She didn’t suffer. She died instantly.”

For most people, this would be a devastating moment from which there would be no recovery. But for those who know the Lord, there is an alien strength and comfort we receive. Hear how Terri Fox speaks of her experience: “From the beginning when I received the news from Lt. Simon that Meredith was dead, I felt ‘the peace that passeth all understanding.’ I knew that life would never be the same for our family again, but I could feel what it meant to have the Holy Spirit giving me the strength, composure and ability…to talk to the hundreds of people who came to comfort us at our house.”

The funeral was an enormous expression of love for Meredith, and a massive outpouring of sympathy from all over the city for Meredith’s family. But after everyone had gone home and fallen asleep, the Foxes had to face the quiet, lonely terror of their new nightmare. For many nights they cried themselves to sleep, or just cried themselves into the next morning. Terri struggled with the thoughts and feelings of a devastated mother: “I don’t want to be the mother of a deceased daughter,” she said. “I don’t want to have to cling to Romans 8:28…I want to go to bed and never get up…I don’t want to do anything.”

But no matter how severely or frequently her soul would feel despair, the Lord would always bring to mind His Word. Terri says that the wonderful words she had memorized in Philippians especially comforted her:

“For me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (1:21).
“I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (3:8).
“I can do everything through Him who gives me strength” (4:13).

Reflecting on her family’s experience, Terri says, “I have learned…since Meredith’s death …that answers to my questions can be found in the Bible, and…[that] God does answer prayer. We don’t always get what we want, but He knows what we need, and [what] we don’t. I have grown so much spiritually since Meredith died…and give all glory to God for what has happened in my life…I know it is only…the power of the Holy Spirit working in me that gives me the hope that I have.”

Terri has also found that God has now given her new ways to encourage others. Recently, she spoke to 400 of our women at a special luncheon to encourage them to look to the Lord in prayer and in His Word during their trials. “People ask me how I could go on like I did with my daily activities and work and my answer was always, ‘I just think about where she is and who she is with. What place could be better than Heaven?’”

People in our city and church still can’t fathom why the Lord chose to take Meredith home at the age of 14, or why the Fox family would experience such devastating pain. But we now know, more than ever, how deeply God cares for His suffering children, and how powerfully He meets us in prayer, His Word and among His people.

We thank Terri and her family for being His special messengers to us.

Lessons Learned on the Battlefield
Chaplain (Captain) Patrick Lowthian (M.Div., '01)

It was a moment of failure in pastoral ministry.

It was late 2006 in Ar Ramadi, Iraq, and a soldier had died on the battlefield. I was speaking with the soldier’s lieutenant, a young man feeling responsible that one of his own would not return home to his family. Feeling anxiety myself, I forgot about pastoral care and immediately got down to other business. “We will need the squad to come up with some photos for the memorial ceremony,” I told the lieutenant. I could see the reaction on his face: “What are you talking about? A man just died! And you’re talking to me about photos!” I wanted to go back in time just 20 seconds and start over.

Since then I’ve had the unfortunate experience of being the chaplain of 30 men who died. I’ve conducted 21 memorial ceremonies and assisted in at least a dozen notifications of death.

Those numbers mean that when death comes near, I’m no longer the anxiety ridden junior officer I was in 2006. Now when I walk into a room filled with grieving soldiers or family members, I do so as a confident pastor of my assigned flock.

These are some of the lessons I have learned along the way.

Remember That I Am Primarily A Pastor
My mistake back in 2006 was getting hung up in my own task list while forgetting to be a pastor. That young lieutenant didn’t need another thing to do; he needed someone to care for his hurting soul. Even now, when tragedy strikes my unit, those higher up the chain immediately begin demanding things from me: reports of recent activity, biographies of the fallen, memorial ceremony bulletins, plans for how I will care for the soldiers, the leaders, the family members. To the best of my ability, I push against these demands. My job early on needs to be my care for those who are grieving. The business stuff can wait a few hours.

Timing Is Everything
I have learned not to insert myself into the situation at the inappropriate time. If I’m too early, no one will talk. If I’m too late, they’ll say “Where have you been?” So I make an appearance early on, figuring out a way to make sure those who are grieving know I’m there and available. But I don’t demand their attention. They usually need to sleep and eat and conduct self-care anyway. Then, later, I look for the right time to be a little more assertive. I’ll enter the squad room or work area, make small talk, ask a few innocuous questions and get a feel for the room. Hopefully, pastoral intuition will kick in and tell me if they are ready to talk, or if I’m still laying the groundwork for the conversations they need to have.

I’m The Expert In This Matter
Most people, even soldiers, don’t think about death and aren’t around it very often. Pastors, on the other hand, have thought long and hard about death, and we’ve been around death more. We’ve pondered the macro issues and have settled in our  own heads some answers to the big questions. When it comes to death and grieving, we are the experts.

I now find comfort in this expertise. When I walk into the room, I remember that I’ve done this before, and that I have something to bring: prayer, words of wisdom, a comforting touch. I don’t give astute theological reflections on death, but I can bring a calming presence to the room that says, “It’s okay.” Which brings me to my final point:

Calm Down
When someone dies, many people freeze up, or they begin to hyperactively fix things or just do something. I try not to contribute to this mayhem. Instead, I say a prayer, breathe deeply, recall my macro perspective on death (“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” 1 Corinthians 15:55) and then walk into the room as the calm and confident pastor that people are looking for.

In the military, when we need to conduct a death notification, all the principal actors gather in a room to make sure we are ready. Then, the notifying officer and the chaplain get in the vehicle to head to the house of the next of kin. It’s at that point that my heart begins beating heavily and my throat goes dry. But it’s important for me to remember that while I’ve done this before, the guy next to me, the guy who is about to actually pronounce the notification, has never done this before. So I remember my four lessons, I remind myself to provide pastoral care to him, and we do our job. Numerous times I’ve had notification officers say to me, “I don’t know how you kept so calm in there.” It’s their way of saying, “Thanks. The fact that you had it together helped me keep it together.”

Of course, we do none of this alone. As pastors and chaplains, we serve a unique role of representing Christ to others in their hardest moments. He does not leave us to do these things of our own accord. The calling to care comes from Him. Knowing when to speak, when to listen, when to visit—these things come from our pastoral intuition given to us by Him. And being the calming presence in the worst of times springs up from a peace given to us by Him. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 4:7, ESV).
Of Routine and Resurrection
Rev. Margaret Manning (M.Div., '96)

How does one talk about hope in the midst of grief and loss?  Where does hope reside? 

I ask myself these questions (and many others) in the wake of losing my husband of 17 years on March 2, 2011. An early morning phone call from across the country brought me the news. My husband whom I met at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary—my husband who had shared a life with me of ups and downs, joys and sorrows, “for better and for worse”—my husband who had just celebrated his 47th birthday—had suffered cardiac arrest and was not expected to live.  

Frantic plans were enacted to get me on the first available flight back home. The almost six hour flight stretched on interminably, and the news that greeted me upon arrival was not welcome. While the medics were able to finally re-start his heart, it came 50 minutes too late. A battery of neurological tests presented conclusive, consistent evidence that my husband’s brain function was lost as a result of oxygen deprivation. Machines kept his heart beating and his lungs breathing. Once the decision was made to remove him from those machines, he breathed his last, labored breath an hour and 45 minutes later.

A lifetime was over in 105 minutes. Not only had his life ended, but the life we shared together ended as well.

My new companion is grief. Grief accompanies me through all the “little deaths” I now endure. There are the obvious deaths; anniversaries, birthdays and holidays are now reminders of who is lost, rather than events to be celebrated. I lost my conversation partner, my helper, the one whose breathing was a constant sound in the bed next to me. What I didn’t anticipate was the death I experience in the smallest of tasks. Easily overwhelmed by duties I used to “multi-task,” I find myself confused and flustered, forgetting what was once at the forefront of my mind.

Tasks like going to the grocery store—once a shared event filled with the anticipation of new adventures in cooking—now provoke tears and raise questions that mock my new status as a widow. Just who am I shopping for now? Finishing the last of the coffee filters he had purchased and used each morning to make our coffee signals another death. Foregoing the former pleasure of making and eating pizza together on Friday nights reminds me of how often I now eat alone. Seeing our “pairs” of mugs in the cupboard triggers pain. The dishes we received as wedding gifts are constant reminders of all the meals and celebrations shared with family and friends. Now they largely sit in the cupboard unused and seemingly unnecessary. The eventual distribution of his things looms over me like a specter. The reminders of my husband’s absence conspire against hope. Death and disorientation seem to pervade my very existence, carving a large, hollow cavern in my soul.    

As I traverse this undesirable landscape of grief, and even as I feel abandoned by the hope I once had, I sometimes catch myself looking for signs of life and of what remains. The birds in my yard seem to pay special attention to me. My flower garden returns year after year with the blooms and fragrance of roses, lavender, peonies and dahlias. The beauty of creation around me remains and endures.

My quotidian tasks and duties hold me in a routine as regular as breathing. I get up and still make coffee. I weed my garden, and take my dogs for their walks. The clothes eventually must be washed and the house kept up a bit. All of these routines—done while my husband was alive—remain. And though they are viewed through the scrim of grief as I must do them alone now, they have a surprising power to hold me, to steady me, to keep me, like the constancy of an ancient liturgy. Indeed, they offer faint glimmers of hope that life goes on and endures. While more often than not this thought that my life endures without my husband brings on a weary longing, there is perhaps the hope that one day life will have just as much joy as sorrow. 

Poet and author Wendell Berry summarizes this hope in a poem from his Sabbaths 2009 collection. He begins with a quote by William Faulkner. “‘Maybe,’ Mr. Ernest said, ‘The best word in our language, the best of all.’” Berry then proceeds to describe a bookkeeper tallying all the suffering and pain in one column of his ledger, everything he now knows of cruelty and grief, meanness and greed and loss. He reckons these figures in their great weight, though he has no means of truly weighing them. Then he enters all he knows of the opposite decree—of beauty and love, generosity and grace and laughter. And he weighs these unweighable figures as well, knowing they can simply register on his heart. He closes the book, not able to say which outweighs the other—good or evil—though he longs to know. Berry concludes with the bookkeeper’s ponderings:

He only can suppose
the things of goodness, the most
momentary, are in themselves
so whole, so bright, as to redeem
the darkness and trouble of the world
though we set it all afire.
“Maybe,” the bookkeeper says. “Maybe.”
For he knows that in a time
gone mad for certainty, “maybe”
gives room to live and move and be.

Novelist Marilynne Robinson describes one of her broken heroines clinging to a similar maybe. In pain at the loss of her feckless husband, the grandmother of Housekeeping watches the wind fill the sheets she is hanging out to dry and is suddenly relieved by the billowing promise of spring, by the resurrection in the ordinary. In a time mad for certainty, this is my hopeful routine.

Editor’s Note: Margaret Manning’s late husband, Sonny Manning, graduated from Gordon-Conwell in 1994 with an MA in Social Ethics.