He Gives and Takes Away: Worship When Faith Is Under Fire
Reflections on the Front Street Baptist Church Bus Tragedy
It is easy to praise God in the good times, but what about the bad times? Never before have I seen such a display of what it means to worship God through all circumstances than in the six days living with the survivors of the Front Street Baptist Church bus wreck and their families at the UT Medical Center in Knoxville, TN.
A Memorable Day
Wednesday, October 2, 2013 will be a day forever etched in my memory. I was walking on the beach with my wife, Sandy, at the NC Baptist Assembly (Caswell), enjoying a moment of relaxation during one of my busiest times of the year. I was to teach a class on worship to church planters early Thursday morning—a task I always enjoy. My great friend, Tim Stutts, pastor of Front Street Baptist Church, called me and told me something terrible had happened: the church bus returning from Gatlinburg, TN, carrying many of their senior adult group, was involved in an accident. Several of the passengers were killed. Many were in critical condition.
The next hours were extremely emotional and difficult. The eighteen people on board were all very good friends of mine—many very close friends. You see, I had served on staff at Front Street Baptist Church for 23 years before coming to my position at the Baptist State Convention, and many of these dear people had shared life with my family most or all of those years, celebrating births, mourning with us in deaths, helping us raise and disciple our son and daughter, and ministering beside us in local, domestic, and international missions. Now we knew that some of them were gone and others were in critical condition.
Destination: UT Medical Center
After resting in God’s strength to teach the worship class first thing Thursday morning, Sandy and I began a trek across the state, which led us to Knoxville later that day. Since the pastoral staff at Front Street had to deal with worship services, funeral/memorial services, and so much more, Sandy and I offered to go spend some days ministering to the victims and their families—all whom we loved so dearly.
By time we arrived, we had learned that six of our group had gone on to their heavenly home, seven were divided between three different intensive care units (many very critical), four were in regular hospital rooms, and one had just been discharged. In addition, two other dear souls lost their earthly lives – Trent Roberts of Tennessee (passenger in the SUV), and Moses Farmer of Louisiana (the truck driver). After arriving at the UT Medical Center, we met one of the chaplains that evening who helped us navigate all the locations in the facilities and find a hospital room that would become home until the following Wednesday.
God’s Grace Abounds
The next days were emotionally difficult, but absolutely amazing. The grace of God was apparent everywhere I looked. First, it was seen in the responders to the accident, many describing the accident scene as the worst they had ever encountered. Then there were the organizations, such as the Red Cross, NC Baptist Men, Tennessee Baptists, Rapid Response Team chaplains from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, individuals, churches, and more. The UT Medical Center staff displayed the hand of God in their interactions with our people. I think of one nurse who was so committed to his patient in ICU that he stayed several hours after his shift was over to do all he could to keep his patient off the ventilator. The same nurse was caught singing a hymn to his patient. I could go on and on, but perhaps even more astounding were glimpses of God’s grace in the lives of victims and their families. Let me share some stories with you.
The Accident Scene
I heard from several sources that the accident scene itself was quite unusual. In the horrific wreckage, people were not screaming to get help for themselves. The victims were seemingly more interested in getting aid to their friends than getting their own needs met. One first responder described the victims as “selfless.” Brad Phillips of Jefferson County Emergency Management stated, “The people that were injured weren’t worried about themselves; they were worried about the next person that was laying next to them, their friend,” he recalled.” (They would say,)”I’m fine,” even though they may have had broken bones, severe injuries. They were worried about the others.” There was a calm serenity amidst the chaos. In the midst of a scene that can be full of terror, God’s grace was abounding in His children’s lives.
The Witness of Families and Patients
I had one care provider ask me about our church. “What denomination is your church,” she asked. After I replied, she commented that she had not experienced people like this before. There was such an air of concern for others and an inner peace.
Doris was church pianist when I began my ministry at Front Street. We served together for 23 years. Doris has continued to be instrumental in worship leader training across North Carolina and has accompanied me in mission trips to Asia on four occasions. I could not ask for a better pianist! Doris suffered many serious injuries in the accident; her right hand was shattered. I visited her one morning and she was glowing as she shared of her progress, which included walking to the door and back. Early in the visit, I was called out to attend to another need. Her sister shared with me that Doris had just learned that she could lose her hand. As I reflected on her great attitude that I had just witnessed, I marveled at the strength and grace she displayed. A former pastor of the church and his wife had visited with her, and what she told them went something like this, “The doctor is telling me that my right hand is so severely damaged that I might lose it. That’s not good for a piano player, but I’m not going to dwell on that. I’m just so grateful to God for the many years He allowed me to play.” Doris’ dream, as a young girl, was to be a church pianist, and she has blessed many with her ministry over the years. I am amazed at her faith through hard times.
Lynn’s wife, Brenda, was killed in the accident. He lay relatively motionless in ICU on the ventilator, making it very difficult to communicate. His condition was quite serious. On one occasion, he asked for pen and paper and penned these words: “God is good.” I wonder how many of us find those words on our lips when we walk through such incredibly difficult times of grief and despair.
The Roberts Family
Only God’s grace can explain what I witnessed with Trent Roberts’ family. Trent was the young man who died when the bus hit the SUV. He was an amazing young man who loved the Lord. Pastor Tim had come to Knoxville for the day, and while there, we received word that Trent’s family would like to come meet with Tim, and Tim asked me to accompany him to the meeting. Trent’s parents, brother, aunts, friends, and co-workers gathered with us in the hospital chapel. Trent’s mom spoke of how they wanted to come and visit with our people, pray with them, and find ways they can help out. They helped us catch a glimpse of their wonderful son and talked of the joy he was experiencing in his new heavenly home. They inquired of needs of our families, looking for ways they could meet those needs. Trent’s mom said something that blew me away: “God gave his only Son for me, so why can I not give my son so that God will be glorified.” Wow. What a mature faith and such grace that was seen in this family. The family and friends then visited and prayed with several of our families and patients. It was truly an emotional and healing time for all parties.
Beverly’s Devotional Book
Beverly’s devotional book was discovered in the rubble of the bus accident. The book was pretty much in excellent condition except the pages of the day of the accident–they were scuffed up with dirt. Of amazing interest was the devotional in that book for day after it was discovered. It seems as though it was written especially for such a time as this. Take a look:
Afterthoughts: Rejoice in this day that I have made,…thank Me in all circumstances.
I could go on and on about each person that was part of this accident. Each waking moment I see their faces. These are not so much their stories as they are God’s stories. With each person I talked with–many facing months of rehabilitation, many losing a spouse, many realizing that their life will never be the same—I saw worship. Not self-pity, not despair, not anger, but WORSHIP. They continued to worship God through it all.
I was constantly reminded of the song, Blessed Be Your Name, that talks of worshipping God in the bad times as well as the good times. Then there’s the part that says, “You give and take away. My heart will choose to say, “Lord, blessed be Your name.” It’s easy to sing those lyrics when life is “normal”, but when the “taking” comes into our lives, are we able to say, “Blessed be Your name”?
For 26 years I have seen many of these dear friends live out their faith in God, but now, I really understand how powerful that faith is. I have truly witnessed worship when faith is under fire. This will forever shape my life, my ministry, and my worship.
Thank you for your continuing prayers for my dear friends. Prayers from all over the world have been felt by all those touched by this incident. God is being glorified!
Take a moment to worship with this song: