August, 1985: Great is Thy Faithfulness….


It’s been 30 years since August, 1985. A lifetime ago, it seems, yet my memory of it is fixed in my mind, heart, and soul. But I have never told the story publicly. It was a life changing experience, yet I haven’t recorded it as part of my story.

It was Sunday evening, and I was in choir practice in St. Paul’s Church of the Nazarene, which was a small church about a 30 minute drive from the college I was attending: Mid America Nazarene College (now a university). I had been attending St. Paul’s mainly because it was the home church of my girlfriend, and future wife, Greta. Dick Wasson was the director, and as he passed out a new piece of music for the choir to rehearse, he said to me, “There is a tenor solo in this piece, would you take it?” I responded that I would. The song was a traditional hymn I had sung my entire life, but I was unaware of just how prescient the lyrics would be in just a matter of three short days. The piece began with my lone voice, accompanied by piano and organ, singing the first verse and chorus:

Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father;

There is no shadow of turning with Thee.

Thou changest not; Thy compassions, they fail not.

As Thou has been Thou forever wilt be.

Chorus:

Great is Thy faithfulness!

Great is Thy faithfulness!

Morning by morning new mercies I see.

All I have needed Thy hand hath provided.

Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!

I was at football practice. It was Wednesday, which is a full-pad work day, and practice wasn’t going well. My playing eligibility was through, so I was a graduate-assistant coach in charge of receivers, and I was frustrated. I remember having offensive play sheets inside plastic covers in my hand, my whistle on a cord around my neck clenched in my teeth, and my Pioneer baseball hat tilted back on my head. One of the managers, I think, called my name, “Coach Williams…you have a visitor.” Turning my head, I looked towards the field house with a semi-scowl on my face. It was Greta, slowly walking towards me, and I also noticed her father, Loy, hanging back next to the field house. Although I had recently asked Greta to marry me, and we had become engaged, I was still a little irritated at the interruption of practice. This irritation was the young me so engrossed with football, which felt as important as life and death, that anything which got in the way brought at least irritability. However, something I noticed in her body language…and a subtle, inner argument which reasoned that she would not break into practice without an important purpose…focused my attention upon her. As I came to a standstill before her, she went straight to the message:

“Larry….your dad was killed in an accident early this morning…”

She might have said “I’m so, so sorry…” but if she did, I couldn’t hear it, because for a moment, I was shocked into deafness… I remember quickly saying, “No!” I then turned threw my play sheets up in the air, my body saying for me, “football doesn’t mean anything right now.” I stood motionless for a moment, my mind trying to find some semblance of purpose for her statement, thinking, “this can’t be” yet knowing Greta wouldn’t tell me this unless she knew it to be true.

Trying to emotionally hold myself together, I bent over, picked up the play sheets, then quickly walked over to the head coach, in order to let him know about my dad and that I was leaving practice. As I told Coach Degraffenreid about my dad, my voice began to break when I mouthed the word “killed”. I then quickly turned and began to walk very quickly away, placing a sensory shield between me and anyone else. I was numb, yet beginning to sob deeply as I walked up to the football field and then aimlessly around the track. I looked up into the sky and choked out, “Why God?” All the while knowing that death is part of life from which my dad was not exempt. I walked fast, and a part of me observed my actions, and suggested that I was trying to walk away from the truth of Dad’s death. It was true…but I didn’t want it to be true, and if I could walk fast enough, the truth would change, it would turn out to be a dream from which I would awaken.

Summer and winter, and springtime and harvest,

Sun, moon, and stars in their courses above,

Join with all nature in manifold witness

To Thy great faithfulness, mercy, and love.

On one of my laps around the track, headed back to the bleachers, I found Coach D there to meet me. His face was ashen, and he asked me how it had happened. Greta must have told me more of the story while I was blanked out from shock, because I was able to brokenly say that he had been driving truck at night, hit some cattle on the highway, and was thrown clear of the truck cabin. Killed instantly. Coach Degraffenreid is a short, stout former offensive lineman, and he wrapped his arms around me in a fatherly hug. I heard his voice catch with emotion as I continued to cry in deep, wracking sobs.

I’m not sure how the timing went, but it seemed at the time that Pastor Dan Vanderpool, (the team chaplain and associate pastor at College Church of the Nazarene, which was located adjacent to the football complex) was immediately there. After a few moments of consolation, Coach D turned me over to Paster Dan, and went back to practice. Pastor Dan suggested we go to the church, pray, and contact the members of my family.

Great is Thy faithfulness!

Great is Thy faithfulness!

Morning by morning new mercies I see.

All I have needed Thy hand hath provided.

Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!

College Church was hosting a yearly conference of all the Nazarene churches in the organizational district, which included St. Paul’s. While I don’t remember him doing so, I suspect Loy, Greta’s father, went into the meeting to get Alan Thompson, the youth pastor at St. Paul’s at the time. Dan escorted me into Garret Chapel, and we went to the altar to pray. I have no idea what was prayed, but I felt both surrounded by care, and completely alone at the same time. Kneeling together, crying at the altar, an assurance began to take hold deep in my soul. A phrase began to repeat itself in my mind: “Dad died in what he lived for.” I felt and knew, in the depths of myself, that God was, and is, real, not an impersonal force of nature; but a caring, loving, living Presence, who can and does step into time and place at God’s impetus. I understood that God was present in the horror of my father’s death, yet didn’t cause it or refuse to stop it. I also felt the reality of Jesus as the Incarnation of God in a human body. I was assured of it, not intellectually convinced. I just knew it. I knew that God was in pain about my pain, yet also IN the pain to redeem it. Although it is quite difficult for me to adequately articulate, all of this seemed to become part of my being, yet not in an intellectual way. It was an intuitive ascent to the message of God’s Spirit, written into the fabric of my humanity.

Great is Thy faithfulness!

Great is Thy faithfulness!

Morning by morning, new mercies I see.

All I have needed Thy hand hath provided.

Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.

Sometime during the prayer, I began to be impressed to take action in a particular way. Actually, I knew exactly what I needed to do. I needed to tell the football team…my brothers in blood and sweat and blunt force trauma…about my understanding. Since Dad was a preacher, and evangelist, I suppose you could say I was just being my father’s son. There might have been some of that, but more pronounced was this feeling of being compelled to share my experience with this particular group of young men. As we rose from kneeling at the altar, I said, “I know what I am to do…I want to speak to the football team about my experience of God, in this moment.”

Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,

Thy own dear presence to cheer and to guide,

Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,

Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!

Before going back to the field, I called my mom, brother, and sister. Bill, my brother, told me about the plans that had been made already for the funeral, which was to be held in Elkhart, Kansas in the small church in which Dad formerly was a pastor while I was younger. Dad was to be buried next to his mother and father in the cemetery there. The placement seemed appropriate. Dad’s sister and family still lived there, and Dad’s family rode out the Great depression, and Dirty Thirties in the surrounding area. (After reading about life in the Dust bowl, I find dark humor in the fact that although they are all once again covered in dust, still the incessant wind will never move them from their home in their beloved High Plains prairie.)

My little crowd of supporters and I walked across the parking lot from the church to the practice field. As we walked, I wasn’t exactly sure what I would say, except the phrase, “Dad died in what he lived for.” I approached the team, which was now huddled together in mass surrounding Coach D. As I approached, the human blob opened to allow me into the center. “I just found out that my dad was killed in a truck accident.” I began, my voice quivering slightly. “I wanted to tell you guys, that at this moment, I am more assured of the reality of Christianity than ever in my life. Dad died in what he lived for. I would like to encourage you to love your family and parents, right now. Don’t wait. Love God, right now, because God loves you.” While I don’t remember verbatim what I said, the message was what I have written above. As I spoke, I turned around, looking each player in the eyes, hoping they could hear my heart. As I turned, I saw these hulking young men with tears in their eyes, and not a few of them openly crying. As I finished, Coach D suggested each player call their parents that evening, and we pulled in close for one last shouted exclamation: “M. A. N. C. MANC, Win Manc, Win!” just as we did after every practice. Many of the guys I had played with during my playing career came by to hug me and wish me condolences. They told me then, and have in the years since, the impact my experience had on them. (The team bought a plant with what seemed like hundreds of small flowers and sent it to the funeral. When the placard was read during the service, I immediately teared up, my throat also tightening as I understood each flower to symbolize each player and coach.)

After speaking to the players, Loy suggested I get some clothes from my apartment, and he would drive me to their house, where I could rest and plan for the trip to Elkhart for the funeral. We stopped by my apartment, I got my stuff, and as I was leaving, two of my roommates, Dave Diehl and Randy Snowbarger (a football player) hung around until I was ready to leave. Randy wrapped me in a bear hug and said, “I love ya, man.” I mumbled “Thanks!”. Dave and I, while friends, were not really close. We hung out with different crowds of people, and although I was closer to his brother, Don…also a football player… Dave and I liked each other, and were friendly, but didn’t share a lot in common. However, Dave’s comments and actions to me in my grief bonded me to him immediately: “I love ya, man, and I’ll be praying for you,” he said as he hugged me…A trite phrase, is might seem. But his eyes and voice communicated a depth of caring and friendship that comforted me deeply. I am mindful, now, of how important gentleness and kindness are to someone going through grief and loss. There are really no words of “wisdom” or “explanation” to one in the depths of sorrow as to why someone close to them has died. Better to save your breath other than to confess your promise to love and pray for them; then follow up later by listening to their anger and pain, which will eventually come. At the time of loss, no explanation really explains, and no wisdom is wise. Listen…love…and pray. For me, at least, God brought thoughts that comforted. I remember thinking that  my sorrow and grief were a tribute to my father, for he was worthy of my grief. Losing him at that time in my life meant…

…he wouldn’t officiate my wedding…

…he would never meet my children…

…my children would never know my father…

…I would never have him to talk through decisions with…

…he could never tell me his story, when I was an adult and would listen more deeply…

I remember thinking that God must have deemed me capable of learning how to be a man, because he took Dad so early in my adult life. Older me understands the theological problems with that thought, but at the time, I needed the assurance that I was capable of learning how to be a father and husband. The last one…husband…didn’t end as I expected. My marriage ended in divorce, and that was totally out of my father’s realm of life experience, but I am finding my way courageously. I think he would respect that.

There is certainly more to the story, but I would like to end this portion with some comments on how the experience of Dad’s death has stayed with me…spiritually. If Dad were alive today, and still believed the same doctrines and theology I remember him to hold; the two of us would likely have some quite spirited conversations. Conversations about the interpretation of scripture would probably be at the top of the list. My life and experience in our culture, and the church culture have led me to ask questions…continually. That doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t believe in God. I just see God differently. Just HOW differently is what the questions are all about. I have experienced God’s interaction with me…personally…too many times to doubt God’s existence. I also consciously choose to trust the veracity of the Gospels in presenting the Incarnation truthfully, if not always concretely. I’m still searching to make sense…deeper sense…of the scripture of the Bible and the scripture of Creation. I am skeptical of either Sola Scriptura OR Sola Naturalism. I believe Truth is informed by both and they ultimately don’t conflict. It is our interpretations and prejudices of both that bring them into apparent conflict.

Or at least that is where I stand at the moment. My experience of God in August, 1985 still resonates…

…even after 30 years.

Great is Thy faithfulness!

Great is Thy faithfulness!

Morning by morning new mercies I see.

All I have needed Thy hand hath provided.

Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!

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