I was not thinking of the significance of July 31 until I started to see different posts in my Facebook feed yesterday afternoon. Several people were posting to a group created in the days following the untimely and tragic death of a gifted, creative, passionate woman who was both a friend and someone who worshipped in our church. It was seven years ago yesterday when she died. Her death continues to be one of the most painful I have ever experienced as a pastor.
I read many of the posts yesterday about friends who remember exactly where they were when they heard the news or even what they were wearing that day. I remember getting the call and going to the Irish Times to gather with several of her friends. But the experiences in the days following are what stand out the most to me.
I remember going to the airport, standing on the sidewalk waiting for a black SUV, seeing the vehicle pull up, approaching it, and showing the driver my license before he turned over a box to me. I remember putting that box in a shopping bag I had brought along and seeing the lid tip off while I put it in the bag. It was my first time seeing a person's remains - ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
I remember going inside the airport and repeatedly checking the monitors indicating when the flight carrying the woman's father would arrive. I remember pacing and praying and then seeing my friends who came to be present when we greeted him and sent his daughter's remains with him. I remember sitting down at a seafood restaurant inside the airport with the shopping bag that deserved a real chair sitting at my feet.
I also remember sitting in my friend's apartment with her mother while different people knocked on the door. They had come to purchase a piece of furniture that was advertised on Craigslist or in the building's online forum. Several people asked why the items were for sale. I shuddered each time I heard a question but the mother calmly responded with the same words each time, pointing to an accident.
To this day, these experiences cause me to pray for an understanding heart. An understanding heart can be hard to find, and even harder to train and keep. I want a heart that remembers how we never know what a person is going through - how the woman serving us coffee at Starbucks may be facing eviction, or how the person in the office next to ours may have just learned about a lump in her breast, or how the person sitting at the table next to us may have just lost his daughter. I want a heart that seeks to see what it cannot possibly know - that the person I am wanting to barter with in order to buy a great lingerie chest may be simply trying to get through one of the most painful experiences of her life.
My father used to tell a story of going in and out of the church each Sunday in the days following my parents' separation and eventual divorce. He shares how he was in pain but no one reached out to him - no one sought to sit with him, let alone acknowledge what he might be going through or inquire about what brought him to church.
As I remember Tracy, I stand in awe of the strength of her mom. I have never before seen that much strength in a person as I did sitting with her that day. But I also pray for an understanding heart, and I pray that I am a pastor who leads our congregation into reaching out and acknowledging whoever is sitting around us on Sunday mornings or any other time we gather. I pray we are people who regularly seek to reach out to and befriend the people in our buildings, offices and other places that are seemingly all alone - because, you never know what a person might be going through. The older I grow, the more I see that pain is something we all experience. We all know the emotion of pain. What if we sought to assume that pain may be present and respond in such a way?
"Give your servant therefore an understanding heart to lead your people, able to discern between good and evil, because no one is able to govern these people without your help." 1 Kings 3:9