I am not sure what I am supposed to say and yet here I am. This young man just learned his fate “cancer.” And I am in a car alone with him on my way to a waiting group of high school students wondering what is happening. The very thing that never happens to you or someone you love, was happening. What do I know about cancer? I was just the youth pastor who was now just a bit more concerned with the faith of a few of the students in my youth group. They were already confused and now this. The first one approached me almost immediately with “If he dies, I am done” Oh, God knows I prayed that was not a place I was going to have to go with them. But this was an honest sentiment, which I appreciated hearing. It represented real hurt and confusion. I get it. I felt it. I saw it in eyes and heard it in conversations.
I have often thought about those early days and about how much of a privilege it was for me to be brought in to such a personal journey. I also thought about how inadequate and exhausted I felt during those many trips for treatment. What did I have to offer? I didn’t even have words to make anything better and my attempts to brighten the day wasn’t always met with great joy. And I can’t say I even blamed him for it because, let’s be honest, cancer is horrible enough without the chemo. Add chemo and it is like hell on earth for people. If you want to feel compassion for people, go into a cancer center sometime and hear the sounds, smell the smells, and see the 3-year-old kids pushing their chemo around. It is gut wrenching at the best moments. But there I was and for over a year, I did the best I could to follow the example of Jesus Christ. “Just be there” was all I could do and it seemed like it mattered to some extent. Interesting how God works because the end of 2013 after being there, I left Cape Cod and moved many miles from this church family.
And so a message came to me in November of this year that this young man was nearing death. My heart hurt. My mind raced. How do I pray? What do I do? And then when I got the news that this young man died, I wept. I was really surprised by the emotion that I felt and came out of me realizing that he was free from this pain now. I guess that is what the Bible calls”sorrowful and yet rejoicing.” It is this strange dance of emotions and I did them both. In that moment I knew I needed to get there for the funeral. I just needed to be there.
As only the Lord could have planned, I was already planning on being gone on a Sunday from my current church and it was that Sunday that the funeral was planned. Now the hard part: getting an affordable flight on Thanksgiving weekend. Through a variety of circumstances, God provided and there I was. I was there.
I didn’t know what was going to happen. My mind went back to a time when I was in High School and a young boy was killed in a car accident. I remember the youth pastor up front, weeping, completely broken. They always told me that if you do youth ministry long enough, sooner or later you will bury one of your students. I just could not believe the day had come.
But in all of this, I was struck again with this simple realization. There is great power in just being there. And all I shared were stories, reflections of my time being there. In all my time playing games during chemo, I didn’t really provide a ton of insight, I provided my presence. People in the church were overwhelmed that I had made the journey. It inspired them in a way that I was grateful for, but wasn’t expecting.
This is what the Church is all about. This is what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. You don’t have to have all of the answers. You don’t even have to have an answer at all. I didn’t. You need to simply be there. Learn to live in relationship with others. Love people. Allow yourself to care for them. I learned the power of that in a profound way. It is a privilege I will never forget.