It might be surprising to some that when tragedy strikes Christians they often enter a very real wrestling match with God. Maybe I shouldn’t speak for all Christians, but I will say I often wrestle with God through difficult times. I know that I have some friends who would also openly admit to this as well. I believe we follow in the footsteps of people such as David who, if you take a quick glance through the Psalms, is regularly questioning and crying out to God in anguish. Maybe some would rather present a picture of their Christian journey as peaceful and perfect; nary a hiccup or reason to feel disappointed. Perhaps they will look down on me for being honest about my recent struggles with the death of a friend. To those people I would simply say, God is big and can take my questions.
On October 9, 2012 a friend of mine named Jon Chester passed away unexpectedly. When I heard the news, I instantly started bawling. That is no exaggeration; it was quite literally instant and intense. Now, it must be said that I am not prone to emotional outbursts. For the most part I am emotionally steady and it takes quite a bit to throw me off, but something about this was like a dagger to the chest. It was so unexpected and it was so unfair, he was so faithful to God, how could this happen? This is was I was thinking in those moments immediately after hearing the news. Every Christian has their stock theological answers when someone passes away unexpectedly. It’s not God’s fault, death is the result of sin reigning in this world. Additionally, as a result of sin our bodies are prone to failure but God is good and He loves us and this is just good bye for now. Those are all true and great but in the emotional moments after hearing this unexpected news the stock answers weren’t good enough. I wanted to know how this could be allowed to happen to someone as faithful as Jon. Well the answer I got was this…
4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
6 On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
7 while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?”
– Job 38: 4-7
For those unfamiliar with the Bible this is God’s response to Job after Job goes through some really terrible times, and it was the first thing that popped into my head when I asked God what in the heck He was up to. Some will say that’s a coincidence, but I’ve only read the Book of Job twice in my whole life so I don’t have it memorized. I really think God was redirecting my focus from my own anguish, to the fact that He’s God and may have a little bit of a better grasp on what’s really going on. It helped but of course I was still really upset.
My friendship with Jon started when he began an internship at the church where I was already an intern. We worked in the same department and developed a good friendship. Jon was an awesome guy who really loved people well. He didn’t look like your typical pastor but exuded a confidence and boldness that was out of this world. We spent a lot of time together during the course of our internships. We taught evangelism classes together, led Theo-Pub (a discussion group that met in Barrel 44 in the Short North) together and talked a lot about everything under the sun. Some of my favorite memories with Jon are just walking up and down High St. inviting people to Theo-Pub. We had a lot of time to talk about our hopes and dreams and the calls we felt God had placed on our lives. He unequivocally felt that he was called to church plant in Wilmington, NC and during his internship he was trying out ideas, such as Theo-Pub, that he would one day implement in Wilmington.
I remember being struck by his faithfulness to this call. The church where we were interns is large and it is easy to get comfortable there, but Jon was always just passing through. He frequently recruited me for this church plant. He said after I finished seminary I had to come down there. He even went so far as to look up houses that might be in my budget and he pointed out several times that the largest employer in the area was a hospital so my wife wouldn’t have to change careers. Even recently on Facebook when I mentioned that I was starting my last year of seminary he wrote, “And then heading to Wilmington.” Did I mention that he was also very persistent? He tried to recruit many people, and I was actually quite flattered that one of those people was me. I never told him how much I enjoyed doing ministry together as interns, and how doing ministry with him in Wilmington would have been a complete joy. In the back of mind I always thought I’d end up in Wilmington hanging with Jon, I only wished I would have shared that with him.
There are many things I wish I would have shared with Jon. I wish I would have told him that his confidence in regards to his call, made me more confident in my own call. Like I said, Jon didn’t look like your typical pastor. He was bald, had piercings and was covered in tattoos, but he wasn’t bound by other people’s expectations. He was able to live out his calling with confidence and boldness because he knew God and had faith in his call. I always admired that and I’m not being overly sentimental when I say that it had a profound effect on me. I wish I would have told him how much I admired his zeal and passion. Jon was an awesome guy who I appreciated so much and who was there for me as I struggled through seminary and my internship.
Perhaps there’s a lesson here about sharing how you feel towards people in the moment because you might not have a chance in the future. Certainly that’s important but I think there’s something more. In the days following Jon’s passing every time I thought of him the phrase, “Well done my good and faithful servant,” would sound off in my mind. This is from a parable that Jesus tells in which a master gives his servants bags of gold, goes out of town and returns to see how they did with their money. The servants who do well are the ones that got a return on the investment. The master tells those servants that because they were faithful with a little, they can be trusted with more. Again, I don’t think it is a coincidence that I heard this verse in connection with Jon. Before church planting, Jon did everything that was asked of him. Even though he was restless and excited to get started, he remained faithful, and God rewarded him with Carolina Coast Vineyard Church. He was only pastor for a short time but he fulfilled the call that God placed upon his life. Hearing about that community and seeing the outpouring of support from people there, it is clear that Jon and his wife Cathy, with the aid of God, have started something that is going to impact God’s kingdom. That is how I want to live my life.
As a Christian I do not believe that death is the end. I believe that when Christians die they go to Heaven to await the resurrection of all creation. I will see Jon again which does give me comfort, but his death still hurts. To me, this is a senseless tragedy like many senseless tragedies that happen every day. I wish God would have stopped it, but He didn’t. I don’t understand how this is the best course for God’s kingdom, and God is not obliged to give me answers. It is comforting, however, to know that God is in control. I believe that many years ago God was laying the foundations of the universe and the Earth which we now occupy. He created the planets and the stars and the millions of galaxies that exist in space. He brought forth life eventually culminating in his image bearers, humans. God is in control and that’s a beautiful thing; it can be a frustrating thing because I may feel like I’m entitled to answers but ultimately God can be trusted to run the universe. Sometimes (okay most of the time) I just need to get out of the way and have a little faith.
There is no doubt that I am going to miss Jon, and I will be in good company in that regard. Having faith in God and believing in the resurrection makes it possible, however, to grieve with hope. So remember it’s not goodbye, it’s see you later.