The other day I received word that a conference for which I’d registered had been cancelled due to lack of registrants. It was to take place in Cleveland and I had built a two-day schedule of events around this conference, so I made some adjustments to the schedule and kept the trip as I had planned.
I and a friend from Van Wert (fellow pastor Dave Ray) left on a Thursday morning, heading for a lunch appointment with two brothers in Christ (Pastor Phil Zielinski and Building Hope in the City’s executive director, Brian Upton). This was a meeting I was really looking forward to.
Dave, Phil and Brian are all good friends of mine and each has been (and continues to be) influential in my life. That might be seen as a bit ironic because the three of them couldn’t be more different from each other (and from me) in terms of ministry style, but I had the sense that once the three of them got together, they would get along very well. (While Dave and Phil knew each other already, neither one of them knew much about Brian, nor Brian about them.)
So there we were, about noon on Thursday, the four of us walking down Lorain Avenue near the Westside Market in Cleveland. Our lunch meeting, then walk and mini-tour of Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood, was outstanding. We talked ministry, theology, economics, beer, coffee and ice cream (among other things). It was a great time with some of the best guys I know.
I knew going in, it was going to be great day, and it was.
Then I got the phone call.
I don’t do Facebook. I learn about what’s happening in people’s lives the old-fashioned way, when people tell me. This time, it was my wife who called.
I’m not sure how she started the conversation but when she said the name, I knew what had happened. Laura called me about my friend from high school, a kid from the neighborhood who, during our middle school and early high school years, might have been described as my best friend, Carl Harz.
Carl Harz. We lost touch right after graduation. But he was on Facebook. Laura followed him, and every now and then she would update me on his life. Three kids, active in church, job going well, grandchildren while yet in his forties. Every report indicated that he and his wife, Lisa, and their family were doing great.
I always had in the back of my mind, “I ought to email him or something.” But time has this way of slipping by…
I knew what had happened to Carl before Laura could tell me. That morning, before I left for Cleveland, I had the television on for a couple of minutes and I saw a report on the morning news of a motorcycle accident in downtown Fort Wayne that had happened within the last hour. The cyclist had been killed. A truck had turned into his path.
The report immediately reminded me of the accident Carl and I were nearly in back when we were 17. I was riding on the back of his motorcycle on the way to work (we worked together, which made our after-school janitorial jobs infinitely more fun and entertaining) when a truck turned in front of us. We both instinctively leaned to the left, all but laying the bike down, slid underneath the back end of the truck (and missing it by inches) and then popped the bike back up again and just kept on going—like we had planned it.
We were young and dumb and just laughed it off.
As I watched the news on Thursday morning, I was thinking of Carl and our close call that day long ago. Yet I hadn’t put two and two together. Why would I?
But when Laura called and said, “It’s Carl.” I knew.
What had been a great day, truly a fantastic day spent with brothers I care about and respect deeply, was now suddenly a terrible day, horrific beyond description as a loving husband, father, grandfather and friend had been taken from us.
There are times in our lives when we are simply not in a frame of mind to make clear decisions. The emotions are too strong, the pain too great, the grief too overwhelming. Among God’s great gifts are friends who come along side and bring encouragement, comfort and wisdom right when these are needed the most.
At the time when Laura called we had already said goodbye to Brian, so it was Dave and Phil who stepped into the gap and made God’s presence real on that terrible great day. They encouraged me, they prayed for me. They ate pizza with me while I talked about Carl. It was everything I needed.
On their advice, we cut the trip short. We went home. I needed to be home to be with Laura, needed to be home to grieve this loss, I needed to heal yet another wound inflicted by a world that always ends in death.
It hurts, thinking of Carl being gone. I hurt for his wife and family. I hurt for myself, for not getting in touch with him as the years rolled by. I hurt as I am reminded once again that life is so very fragile and so very temporary.
But in that hurt I am thankful for how God was there (as always) for me. My brothers in Christ were Jesus to me. As a result, in the hurt I found hope. I felt the presence of God in the person of my brothers and I was reminded of the life to come, the life only Jesus can bring.
I can’t answer why the Lord allowed things to work out the way they did for Carl and for his family. I’m not even going to pretend I know the answer. It’s not how I would do it, that’s for sure.
But in the midst of my loss, I will hold on to what God gives: His only Son and the promise of resurrection unto eternal life. He’s given me also friends and family who care, who love me unconditionally, and who will be there for me, even on a terrible great day.