Tuesday, December 18, 2012

In Tragedy, Look For The Helpers

It has been said that who ever tells the best story wins the culture.  It has been a while since I blogged and the purpose of my blog is usually to serve as future song writing inspiration.  However, today a friend and fellow band mate, shared a quote from the mother of Mr. Rogers.  So, instead of diving into the recent events in Connecticut, I thought I would look back at an event that took place ten months ago in our worship community. I chose this event because it is often too hard to see God's hand in the midst of tragedy. But given time, it becomes very clear.

I believe God is the creator of a wonderful tapestry.  He creates a mosaic made up of all the shattered and broken pieces of our lives.  When we see only the broken part, it is easy to feel discouraged.  But when lifted up by someone or something, we can often see the beginnings of that tapestry, that beautiful mosaic, a bigger work in progress.  It doesn’t justify the broken, the evil, the tragedy or the pain.  It does ensure these things don’t happen in vain.  It creates an opportunity to BE the church and through us, watch God take all these things and create something beautiful from them.

"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." To this day, especially in times of "disaster," I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world." - Mr. Fred Rogers 
This is my story of encountering “the church” and I don’t mean little c, as in a denomination or movement. I mean Big "C" as in the individual faces of the church.  The big "C", are those who simply love God and love people. By this creed, they serve. Some stories are powerful, but often times they can leave me feeling like I’m not good enough.  Stories that hint at “you might not be able to do what this person did, but you can do something.”  “You might not be able to go to Katrina Victims or Tsunami ravaged towns, or Haiti, but you can do something.”  Often my flesh hears...”You’ll never be as good as them. But sometimes just being you is all you need. Being you sometimes makes a situation better than you thought it could be, and better than you thought you could be.  Just being you, in service to someone in need, is the only thing God needs to begin that tapestry. 

For me, three weeks in 2012, was that time.  I led worship the weekend of February 26th. That was also the weekend of our new sound system installation. I had invited a bag pipe player to perform the Fray's new song "Be Still"  with me. That was Saturday night.  The next morning I led worship three more times, then headed out for my daughters soccer game. 
I was on my way when I got the call from a good friend of mine. He told me Mike's wife had been trying to get in touch with you.  I immediately called her.  She answered the phone screaming that Mike was dead. She was out of town at the time and it was clear she felt pretty out of control and helpless.  I was at the exit for their house when I made the call, so I pulled off the highway and headed to their home.  I called their daughter on the way and she answered the phone shouting “my daddy’s dead.” It was the worst series of phone calls one should ever hear. In that moment I knew my friend was gone.  Mike was his name, he played bass on our worship team and was a huge part of our volunteer community. He was the third worship team member that passed away over a 3 year period. Sadly, he would not be the last. Looking back, that was the moment I met the church.  The Big Church! 

I arrived at their house to find a police officer doing police business, taking statements, getting names of loved ones and getting timelines in order.  As soon as that was done, he began to counsel their daughters. Turns out, he used to be a youth pastor. 

Then there is Mike’s wife, who while in shock, was comforted by her employer. She found her a flight and someone to meet her at the airport when she arrived back home.  Mike's wife was terrified of flying, but she took great comfort when she got on the plane to take her seat and the woman next to her said "I don't know what you are going through, but I am praying for you." Mike's wife described the woman as a former Navy pilot who was now a doctor who just happened to sit next to her on the plane. That doctor engaged her in conversation, asked about her husband and explained every fearful sound that the plane was making. Mike's wife later said, this doctor was so kind, she even walked me off the plane all the way to my friends who were waiting for me at arriving flights and, gave me a hug when she left.  The two friends who came to pick her up at the airport, said no one was there with her. No one walked her off the plane and no one stayed with her while she walked toward arriving flights.  I believe that was truly an angel.

When the dust began to settle from the worst day in the life of this family it became apparent they had no life insurance, health insurance or real savings. A switch kinda flipped for me and I went into project and strategic planning mode. BC5. I built a web site and created a PayPal snippet. The percussionist who played with Mike, wrote a big story on his Facebook page about Mike and what this family was going to need.  The keyboard player hosted the website for us. People responded by asking where they could send the money.  

The website went live on a Monday night around 4:30PM.  Our goal was to raise enough money to cover Mike’s final expenses.  Once the site went live people started donating. A guitar player that played with Mike, reached out to a friend he knew owned a funeral home. The owner waived all of his usual fees and offered to conduct the funeral for us at what ever his cost was for a car, casket, and fees.  A close family friend who had recently helped them to go on a family vacation, donated a burial plot. The pictures from that family vacation would turn out to be priceless treasures of moments captured in time. The funeral home owner called in a favor with a flower shop to have the spray of flowers on top of the casket provided at a huge discount.

Monday night we had an idea of what we needed to pay for Mike’s final expenses.  Three other woman close to the family began providing meals by way of a website. People could register to bring a certain dish but also view what the family had already been provided.  

I received a call from a friend checking in about the website. While we were on the phone, donations were coming in at a rate of $100 per minute.  It was overwhelming. In four hours we had the entire funeral costs covered.  The Church wasn’t done yet.  In six hours we had enough to buy the plot next to Mike to give his wife some piece of mind or donate it back to the person who gave theirs.  

Two days into this we were all pretty wiped out.  Tuesday morning we awoke to find over $10,000.00 in the account and the money kept coming in.  We began to plan Mike’s final celebration with the family.  A few minutes of planning, then 20 minutes of story telling, memory sharing and tears.  Then a few more minutes of planning, praying and more tears.  That process repeated for hours and hours.

At the end of another long day of counseling with the family, I walked out of my office on Wednesday flat out exhausted. My phone rang.  It was the spouse of a member of our worship team.  She asked how I was doing.  I was honest.  I said "I’ve hit a wall and I need help." I asked her to send reinforcements.  That night at my house the church showed up again.  A singer and elementary school teacher on the team, typed up the notes from the family. She created an obituary and crafted a draft to give to a graphic designer who offered to design the program for free.  A friend and former co-worker who happens to be an admin guru sat in my home office scanning bags of high resolution photos for Mike’s slide show.  Another friend and small business owner made a spreadsheet of everything that was rolling around in my head and others that were providing services to the family.  My wife was on itunes buying all the songs that the family wanted for the playlist behind the photos.  Several hours later we were done and I was able to think about the worship set for the funeral. I was amazed at how people simply served in the areas that they were naturally gifted in that night.  Even in the midst of that we were able to comfort each other.

The hospitality director of our church scheduled a story telling time at a house.  We all gathered and told the funny stories we remembered from knowing Mike.  It officially started the healing process. 

This is where God really began to show Himself to me.  During worship at the funeral where I use my iPad as a music stand.  Donations kept popping up over my chord charts  while we were singing.  We were still getting donations alerts from PayPal.

After the funeral, I came home and started a letter writing campaign to over 30 car manufacturers,  car dealerships and small businesses.  I believed that God was going to gift them a brand new car.  Mike and his family had been driving a 1998 minivan with 216,000 miles on it.  It was on its 3rd or 4th transmission, no A/C and you had to put the key in or put a screwdriver in the ignition and then hit it with a wooden mallet, that they kept in their car, just to get it to start.

During the grieving process, Mike’s wife started wearing all of his clothes and covering them with his Cologne. This is where another member of the Big Church steps in. Another friend of the worship community, designed and hand made three survivor bands.  He made them just for Mike's wife and their two daughters. They could spray his cologne on it and wear it on their wrists. Just to make help with the healing process.  

Three days later after paying for all the funeral expenses we had $6,900.00 left over, another $11,000.00 in new donations in the PayPal account and $1,700.00 in a local bank Memorial fund.  We made all these plans to leave all this money for the family because someone was going to gift them a car.  We just claimed it.

Three weeks went by and nothing but declines, and condolence phone calls telling me there was nothing these dealers could do. Their house had plumbing problems, a 26 year old hot water tank and a bathroom that had to be gutted.  

Friends of the family had given Mike their word that they would help him get that bathroom fixed. Big C stepped up again and they began that remodel.  A plumber donated and installed a new hot water tank. Friends and relatives came out to help clean out the garage and a local contractor from the church called in some friends that gave us great discounts on a brand new garage door and gutters.  A Habitat for Humanity coordinator came and installed all new outdoor lighting since they had hardly any working exterior lights and it just wasn’t safe.

Still no car.  That’s when I started questioning God.  I wrote Ellen and Oprah and I thought for sure someone would come through. God had another plan, once again it would fall to the responsibility of the Big C, those who love God and love people and most importantly serve them.  

I kind of got upset with God and said, “I believed you would gift them a car....what’s up?”

God replied, “I did, the money is in the bank.”  Like every conversation I have with God it went something like this...”No God, you don’t understand, we want to leave the cash for the family. We need a free car gifted to them.”  God replied again, “ I did, the money is in the bank.” After a pause I began feeling like God was reshaping my perspective on this. I called a fellow pastor who was managing the donations with me and doing some free financial counseling with the family. I told him what I felt I heard God say. His reply was... ”No Charlie, you don’t understand, we want to leave the cash for the family, we need a free car gifted to them.”
Then God said in the only way that I tend to hear him; “ you asked for funeral costs, and you got em." "And you got enough to buy the space for his wife next to him.”  You asked for a new car, and you got it." "You have enough money to pay cash for one and still have $6000.00 left over to spend fixing up the house.”  

At the end of the day, we decided to say, "Church, job well done."

Later that week, on what would have been their 16th Wedding Anniversary, a bunch of us arrived at the car dealership and waited for Mike's wife to arrive. When Mike’s wife arrived, she was able to manage a hint of a smile. A friend who attended the church worked out a great deal at the dealership where he worked. We wrote a check for her first brand new car that day.  Then we all climbed in it and took pictures. She drove off with no loan, and tears in her eyes. As she explains, Mike use to always go to Jungle Jim's and on the way back, they would stop off at that exact dealership and look at new cars.  Mike would always say, “someday, someday I’ll get you a brand new car so you won’t ever have to worry about transportation or breaking down again.”

That evening she brought her new car home. She parked it in her garage with a new door and keyless entry pad. She walked into a safe, well lit house, after a day of volunteering at church. She had a working bathroom and hot water.

God began weaving into that tapestry in the moments after Mike passed away.  Two years earlier I mentioned that we lost another team member who had left our community to take a church nearby, then suddenly passed away. Here are some other strands of God's tapestry. The car salesman at the dealership was the guest pastor who filled in at that church while they grieved the loss of their pastor and looked to find a replacement.

Another strand of that tapestry was a woman who worked at the car dealership.  She asked what was going on when she saw us all gathered around the sales table taking pictures. The salesmen told her hundreds of people from their community donated money, so they are buying a new car for her. The woman asked, “what type of church does that for someone?”  That sales clerk showed up at church the next weekend. It was a weekend where we were celebrating the fresh water wells in Nigera that our church helped to fund and build. That weekend we had more people of color than not on the stage.  We performed a song called "Wade In The Water"  Marcia Caulton (Mardy) as we called her performed that song like only she could. After the celebration a woman came up to Mardy, and said, "I don’t know how to tell you this, but my husband was delivered from Racism during worship this morning." Mardy was a singer on our team, she also sang at Mike's funeral, and she was at the dealership that morning when we piled into that new car for pictures.  Mardy passed away just a few months after Mike and the entire city must have shown up for her funeral.

So I close with this.  I live by the scripture, “Man makes his plans but the Lord guides his steps.”  While we were all making plans and acting in our strengths, God is weaving them into the lives of broken an hurting people and creating a beautiful mosaic. For our community we were good at pastoral care, organization, planning, counseling, fundraising, worship, wheeling and dealing, writing, buying, graphic design, networking, building, repairing, handyman, plumbing, electrical work, hospitality and social networking. God was using the skills of the community to tell a bigger story.

You see, if one person had donated a car, the glory and attention would have gone to Ellen, or Oprah, or a local auto dealership. Instead of the 262 individuals that donated. So now we all get weaved into that tapestry. Now the glory goes to God because His church the Big "C" showed up.

Now every donation from the $4.50 cent donations to the thousand dollar donations are weaved into this story.  People used whatever gift they had, no matter how small or large and offered it into this story. God took all the little things and the the big things and created a beautiful picture with it.   A picture that tells the story of Tragedy, Support, Love, Hope and eventually Healing.

I learned a valuable lesson those three weeks in 2012. Community is EVERYTHING! The words engraved in the side of our church building really have life changing meaning. 
No matter how small you think your contribution is, God will take it and make something magnificent out of it.

The body of Christ came alive for me in three weeks in 2012 and has not ceased to amaze me since.  I felt like I got to sit on God’s lap. He let me see things the way He sees them. I saw them from a higher perspective. It is truly a life changing experience to see the Body Of Christ, Be The Body Of Christ.

So in light of the CT. Tragedy, I hope in this story you will find comfort. For if we look at the helpers, we will see the hand of God.  And when we join hands with that, it is well with our souls.  

Thanks for taking the time to read this and this week Mike’s wife found new love and was married.  Sometimes God even puts sprinkles on top.  

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