A couple nights ago in my town, a car filled with young college girls wrecked. Four girls, aged 19 and 20, died.
Their moms and dads sent their daughters off to college last August, just as I did my oldest. They shared heartache and joy and listened to stories as their year of college unfolded. They never imagined their precious child would die just as spring semester exams neared. Words can’t explain the shock and sorrow I imagine they’re now feeling. The unexpected tragedy has ripped their world apart.
I find myself praying fervently for these moms and dads I don’t know. In my weakness, I find myself not knowing how to pray: I ask the Holy Spirit to pray for them, with inexpressible groanings, in harmony with God’s own will (Rom. 8:26-27).
I also find myself praying fervently for the fallout from their deaths. There’s surely a better word than fallout, but I can’t think of it at the moment. I mean this: The Holy Spirit works beauty from ashes, and I pray He’ll use this tragedy in the lives of thousands. I pray He’ll work in and through the pain for the good of Christians and non-Christians. I pray for non-Christians watching that He’ll work for the ultimate glory of Jesus in their lives.
He does those sorts of things: I know because He did just that in my own life.
The unexpected tragedy I watched unfold centered around a 20-year-old I knew. Her name was Kathy Randall. She’s been in heaven almost 35 years now, as we count time on earth. She’d just finished her sophomore year of college and was spending the summer on a mission project. A mosquito bite infected her with encephalitis, and Kathy died within a week.
I worked at the hospital where she died. I was 19 and lost. I was considering suicide, hopeless, hiding. I wouldn’t have had words to name my inner yearning, but I was desperately searching for life’s meaning. That search would take me overseas, where I was sure I’d find lasting relief and change; but I’d return home, still the same inside, no lasting hope or sustaining happiness found.
It was not escape from my inner pain, but Kathy’s family’s plunge into excruciating pain, that ultimately spoke. I watched. And even in their tragedy, they were under-girded with quiet hope and peace. They were brokenhearted. They wept for their child. They openly mourned. But in the middle of it all, I, standing watching at the hospital room’s doorway, saw a steady joy and strength I wanted. Mr. and Mrs. Randall, and Kathy’s friends who visited, knew and loved Jesus. They circled her hospital bed, holding hands, praying to a God they really knew was there. I wanted whatever it was they had.
I was born again six months later. Kathy’s parents were the first people I called. I’d become a Christian, and I called to say thank you. I called to say that I knew my new joy didn’t do much at all to relieve their continuing pain, but thank you. I said that I knew any new beauty in my life came from their ashes, so thank you. I cried. They cried. They said thank you.
And that’s what I find myself praying for today: That the tragedy of four beautiful lives unexpectedly ended would result in beauty from ashes, in a joyous blessing out from this mourning; and in heaven someday, festive praise instead of this current despair.
To all who mourn in Israel, he will give a crown of beauty for ashes, a joyous blessing instead of mourning, festive praise instead of despair.