Christian Living

Spiritual Life

When Tragedy Unexpectedly Strikes

I have a dear friend named Cecil Murphey. I always smile when I see Cec. Though we only meet each other occasionally at Christian writers conferences, Cec has prayed for me every day for the past two years. I think that's remarkable -- and I am extremely grateful to him for this humble service.

Cec Murphey is a mentor, a spiritual father, and a dear friend, not only to me, but also to hundreds of writers and ministers around the world.

Cecil MurpheyLast week I was shocked when I received this e-mail from our mutual friend, Jan Coates:

Cec just phoned me and there’s some terrible news—his house burned down this morning, and his son-in-law died in the blaze.

There is a grief that takes hold of you, deep in your core, when an unexpected tragedy occurs -- especially when it happens to someone you love. When I opened this e-mail, I blurted out, "Oh no, no, no, Lord Jesus."

But this was only one of several tragedies that happened that week.

On the Bluffton University campus -- a Mennonite-affiliated college in Ohio, smaller than some high schools -- candles flickered inside the gymnasium Friday evening as nearly 500 students and residents of this small town assembled for a vigil. They gathered to remember four students killed, along with a driver and his wife, when the college baseball team's bus veered off the side of an Atlanta overpass and plunged to the road below.

The service began with several quiet moments as people reflected on the accident and wept. “Lord, we light these candles as a community of faith, a community that grieves,” said Eric Fulcomer, dean of students. At the center of the gym floor, a baseball and glove sat on a table surrounded by candles.

Philip YanceyThat same week, author Philip Yancey was severely injured in an automobile accident on a remote highway after a busy weekend speaking in New Mexico. He was driving on a curvy road at about 65 mph. On his Web site, Yancey relates the incident:

A curve came up suddenly and I turned to the left, perhaps too sharply. As you may know, Ford Explorers are rather notorious for fishtailing, and this one did. I tried to correct, but as best as I can reconstruct what happened, my tire slipped off the edge of the asphalt onto the dirt. That started the Explorer rolling over sideways, at least three times and probably more.

Amazingly, Yancey says, the vehicle stopped right side up.

All windows were blown out, and skis, boots, laptop computer, and suitcases were strewn over 100 feet or so in the dirt. I tried my hands and legs and they worked fine. I was able to unbuckle the seat belt and walk away. Within five minutes a couple of cars stopped and their occupants, Mormons on the way to church, called for help.

Yancey says he had a lot of minor cuts and bruises on his face and limbs, and a persistent nosebleed. Later, he received the shocking news that he had broken the C-3 vertebra in a 'comminuted' fashion. He writes, "I didn't know that word either; look it up and the dictionary says 'pulverized.'"

The good news was that the break did not occur in the spinal cord column itself. If it had, well, C-2 is where Christopher Reeve's break occurred, so you get the picture of what can happen up there. The spinal column has three channels, one for the spinal cord, and two for arterial blood supply, which is where my fracture occurred. The bad news was that due to the splintered nature of the break, a bone fragment may well have nicked or penetrated an artery.

In all, I lay strapped onto that body board for seven hours. I had plenty of time to think. I've done articles on people whose lives have been changed overnight by an accident that left them paraplegic or quadriplegic. Evidently I had narrowly missed that fate; and I mean narrowly -- my break was about one-half inch from the spinal cord. However, if my artery was leaking, an artery that feeds the brain, or if it threw a clot, well, a fate worse than paralysis awaited me.

And as I lay there, contemplating what I had just been teaching in Los Alamos about prayer, and facing the imminent possibility of death for the first time, I felt very peaceful. I reflected on what a wonderful life I have had, with a life-giving marriage partner of 37 years, all but three of Colorado's 54 14,000-foot mountains under my belt, adventures in more than 50 countries, work that allows me both meaning and total freedom.

And as I thought of what may await me, I felt a feeling of great trust. I have come to know a God of compassion and mercy and love. I have no clue what heaven or an afterlife will be like but I felt sustained by that trust. OK, the morphine drip was beginning to kick in too!

As it happened, thank God -- oh, yes, thank God -- the results were far better than either of us could imagine. The MRI revealed no arterial leakage. I was released within half an hour…

The common denominator in all three of these tragedies is that every person involved is a Christian. It is important to understand that just because someone is a believer does not make him or her immune to tragedy and loss in this life.

Jesus said that the rain, the floods, and the wind will come in the life of every person who walks on planet earth:

Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock. Though the rain comes in torrents and the floodwaters rise and the winds beat against that house, it won’t collapse because it is built on bedrock.

But anyone who hears my teaching and doesn’t obey it is foolish, like a person who builds a house on sand. When the rains and floods come and the winds beat against that house, it will collapse with a mighty crash.” (Matthew 7:24-27 NLT)

The Lord makes it clear in this passage that the storm is not the issue -- the storm will come. Where a person builds his or her house is the issue. If your house is built on the rock of Jesus Christ, then even when the storms blow, your house will stand. Even in the midst of tragedy, you will not be destroyed.

Yes, Christians mourn the loss of loved ones. We wonder why such things happen. But like Philip Yancey as he laid on that gurney, we trust in a heavenly father who holds all these things in his capable and loving hands.

When Jesus began his earthly ministry, He quoted Isaiah's prophecy and declared that He had come to comfort those who mourn:

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion — to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. (Isaiah 61:1-3 NIV)

Christians grieve the loss of loved ones, but we have this promise from the Savior that He will bind up the brokenhearted and bring comfort to all who mourn. This is our hope.

This is the assurance that sustained Philip Yancey as he faced the possible end of his life. This is the peace that sustains those who lost loved ones in that tragic bus crash. And this is the rock on which Cec Murphey and his family have built their spiritual house, so that even though they have lost their family member, they have the comfort of knowing they will see him again some day. And even though their physical house was destroyed, their spiritual house will never fall.

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