This past August, our youth pastor and an adult leader took five high school boys on a mission’s trip to the Upper Peninsula. After a few days of hard work, they were excited to have a day off to enjoy the beach at Lake Superior. While they were swimming and fighting the waves, a couple of the boys were carried down and under by a very strong undertow, and one of them drowned. The death of Eli, who was only 15, is a terrible tragedy and the heaviness of this loss is still impacting our small church body every week.

When we receive news like this, it shakes us. The death of loved ones brings mourning. The sense of loss pervades everything else and for a while we can’t continue as if everything is “normal.” This was the case for our community. The loss of Eli brought all of us sadness. We mourn with his family and those boys who were on the trip with him.

For weeks our worship gatherings carried this tension of suffering and mourning alongside the hope and joy we find in our Lord Jesus Christ. God has been present in our sufferings, graciously instructing us and pouring out his grace. For our body this loss has been an opportunity to know Jesus more intimately and to see more clearly where our hope is placed. I can say without doubt that the Lord is gracious, compassionate and good.

Looking back now, a few months after Eli’s death, I think I’m ready to try to articulate the things God has been teaching us through this experience and how they impact the way we think and plan our worship gatherings. I’ll share them briefly here and then can unpack them more in future posts.

The first is that suffering is promised for those who would follow Jesus. Until the rule and reign of God is fully established in all creation, we should expect it and rejoice in it, even more so for us who are called to shepherd the church. How can we lead the people of God through it, unless they can see the Lord bring us through it? Our response and actions teach the church how to view and respond to suffering and what it means to hope in the gospel.

Secondly, we must abstain from happy-clappy superficial levity in our worship gatherings, and learn how to create room for the real pains of life. Our culture elevates the value of happiness, or the absence of pain and suffering, but it does the church no good to provide places of escapism from the realities of our day-to-day living. It is in the tension of the now and not yet that Christ, who was no stranger to suffering, meets us and mediates for us. The tension of joy and suffering needs to be present in our worship gatherings as we set our hope in the gospel and its fruition in the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Lastly, every person goes through the process of mourning differently, and this is ok, a healthy thing. It is not a sin to laugh as we mourn, and it is definitely all right to experience the weight of sadness and the heaviness of loss. Even now, many weeks after Eli’s death, my heart still grieves, especially for his family and for my friends who were with him on that trip, but the thought of his death is not with me all the time like it was when I first received that tragic news. For others, it may seem as if there is not a moment of the day that goes by that the death of Eli is not present in their hearts and minds, and they may bear the heaviness of such grief for quite a while.

My friends, we have people in our churches every week dealing with such sorrow. We cannot forget them once we ourselves are not also bearing the fullness of such pain. We must have an awareness of the pains of our people that we might suffer alongside them exercising faith. Our hope is secure in Jesus, and truthfully, our sufferings are but light and momentary, compared to eternity with him, where God himself will wipe away the tears from the face of each person, and death will be no more. Come, Lord, come.

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