Planning Sunday after an Unexpected Tragedy

shutterstock_64532521_FotorLast Thursday at 10:06 AM, Brian Chesemore, a pastor at Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville, texted me and the other pastors. He informed us that one of our members, 42 year old Wade Stephenson, had been in a “very bad car accident” and was on his way to the hospital. An hour later Brian simply texted: “He’s with the Lord.”

I wept uncontrollably. Wade was a gentle, grateful, generous, godly man, a musician and leader who was loved and respected by everyone who knew him. He left behind his dear wife Rebecca, three young daughters, and a soon to be born son.

The tragic news spread quickly throughout our three year old church plant and rocked our world. But in the midst of profound grief, the gifts of the Spirit were on full display. By nighttime a Facebook page, Loving the Stephensons, enabled church members and friends to sign up to minister to Becca and her family in numerous practical ways, including financial gifts. The response was overwhelming.

A Change of Plans

We had already planned Sunday, but as CJ Mahaney has often told me, “The Holy Spirit helps us plan, but our plans are not the Holy Spirit.” So at the hospital on Thursday morning, we started over. We would point people to the gospel from God’s Word as always, but Wade’s death brought a fresh immediacy to the truths we proclaim every Sunday. People would be grieving. How could we comfort them with the hope of the gospel without sounding shallow or callous? How could we keep Sunday from becoming a memorial service, and yet still weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15)?

We ended up planning the meeting by email, and were nailing down final decisions Sunday morning. Being in pastoral ministry for decades teaches you there are no formulas to care for people’s souls. I thought it might be helpful, though, to share what we ended up with, and the thought process behind it.

The Sovereign God Who Sees and Knows

We started the meeting with a call to worship from Ps. 31:7: I will rejoice and be glad in your steadfast love, because you have seen my affliction; you have known the distress of my soul. I said something like, “Sometimes we come into a Sunday gathering with little or no desire to sing God’s praises or be with God’s people. We’re in a time of affliction. Our souls are distressed. And yet God calls us to rejoice in him because he sees our affliction. He knows the distress of our souls. And he assures that in Jesus Christ, his steadfast love is unchanging and unending. Let’s praise the God whose faithfulness never fails us.”

The first song was Great is Thy Faithfulness.  We wanted to start with a familiar and reflective song that reminded us who God is and what he’s done for us in Christ.

We then sang God Moves, my 2005 adaptation of William Cowper’s hymn that uniquely explores the mystery of God’s sovereignty. I edited a few lines and added a chorus that expresses a confident trust in God.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace
Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face

So God we trust in You, O God we trust in You
When tears are great and comforts few
We hope in mercies ever new
We trust in You

Following the song, Jeff Purswell shared how we had opportunity to trust God’s sovereignty as a result of this past week’s events. He referenced Wade’s death and reminded us that our grief can be hope-filled because Jesus has overcome the grave. He then read John 11:17-27, the account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.

Turning Our Hearts to the Gospel

We then sang It Is Not Death to Die, another Sovereign Grace Music hymn adaptation. The musical tone was still subdued, but we began to turn our hearts to the hope we have in the gospel. Death is our foe and a result of the fall, but for the Christian, death is a doorway not a destination.

It is not death to die, to leave this weary road
And join the saints who dwell on high who’ve found their home with God
It is not death to close the eyes long dimmed by tears
And wake in joy before Your throne delivered from our fears 

That led into the modern hymn Come Behold the Wondrous Mystery. We focused exclusively on the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and return of Christ, which form the substance of our hope in the midst of our sadness. It ends with the lines:

What a foretaste of deliverance, how unwavering our hope
Christ in power resurrected, as will we be when he comes

We were finally ready to sing of Christ’s triumph over death with faith-filled hearts. Sojourn Music’s New Again was perfectly suited for that purpose.

Death is defeated, and Jesus reigns
Tell the world there is hope in His name
He pushed back the darkness, He conquered our sin
And Christ will make all things new again

Brian Chesemore then led us in a pastoral prayer, devoting the first portion to praying for Rebecca, her family, her extended family, and those affected by Wade’s death.

Jesus, the Compassionate Conqueror

For the sermon, CJ preached on, “Making Our Way to the House of Mourning” from John 11:1-44. He skillfully, wisely, and powerfully grounded us in the unchanging hope of the gospel, not only reminding us of Jesus’ authority over the grave, but spelling out specific ways we as the church can care for someone who is grieving. You can download or listen to the audio here.

Our final song was In Christ AloneWe reminded each other that because of the cross, “the wrath of God is satisfied,” and that, “from life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny.”

Before giving the benediction, CJ took a moment to instruct the church to let Becca and her family leave the meeting first. It was one more way of pastoring both the Stephenson family and our members. CJ then spoke these words from 2 Thess. 2:16-17 over us: “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.” We left more aware that Jesus himself will comfort us in our sorrow not only during the present circumstances, but for eternity.

Different, but the Same

We’re just beginning to care for the Stephenson family, and will continue to grieve with hope. But God encouraged our hearts this past Sunday in ways I find difficult to describe. It was a work only his Spirit could accomplish.

And yet as much as the circumstances of this past week impacted our Sunday plan, in many ways we did what we always do. We sang songs, prayed prayers, and heard a message from God’s Word that displayed our sin, God’s mercy through the cross, Christ’s compassion, the sovereignty and wisdom of God, and the reality of heaven and hell. I’m grateful we didn’t need to teach unfamiliar doctrines or develop a new vocabulary to comfort people in their grief and point them to the glorious hope we have in Christ.

It’s a hope that sustains and strengthens us, even in our darkest hours.

(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.com)

9 Responses to Planning Sunday after an Unexpected Tragedy

  1. Jamie Mason July 27, 2015 at 8:54 PM #

    Hey Bob,
    Great article. Our team faced a similar issue years ago. On Saturday night, the son of one of our team’s vocalists committed suicide by jumping from a bridge in the middle of town. We found out about it on Sunday morning.
    Fortunately, the Holy Spirit really spoke while I was choosing music that week. During rehearsal on Wed., some members of the team commented that the set was like a dirge. I told them that I didn’t know why, but the set seemed right as I was praying and prepping……
    The encouragement was that God is sovereign and even when there is no time for changes, He can and does lead and love well during preparation. He gave us the opportunity to “grieve with hope” as well.
    Thanks for your ministry Brother. I can’t tell you what your leadership and writing has meant to our team.

    • Bob Kauflin July 27, 2015 at 9:14 PM #

      Jamie, thanks for making that point. You’re exactly right. God is sovereign when we know what’s coming, and even when we don’t. Thanks for your encouraging words.

  2. Aden S July 28, 2015 at 4:14 AM #

    Mr. Kauflin,

    This post was timed providentially. Admittedly, many of my thoughts have turned to death and eternity as of late. It’s certainly a sobering but hopeful reality. These passages of Scripture and songs were a great methodical reminder of Christ’s ongoing work that He will complete.

    The Stephenson family will be in my prayers! And I will also be praying that, by God displaying His perfect character through this tragedy, people are reminded of the glorious truth that “To live is Christ, to die is gain.”

    What a praise that Mr. Stephenson is now in the presence of his Savior!

  3. Allan Bynoe July 28, 2015 at 1:41 PM #

    Hey Bob,

    Thanks for pastoring and reminding us that God is ultimately in control at all times. My condolences to you and your team as you not only grieve but plan a conference that awaits. So many of us needed to read this post for our lack of knowing how to lead in difficult times. Your detailed layout for worship service is clear when seeing the level of communications between yourself and the pastor. Just pulling together with CJ and laying out the liturgy in efforts to point people towards the gospel while it’s difficult. I will be praying for the Stephenson family as they continue to grow.

    May God be glorified!!!

    Allan Bynoe

  4. roz flinchbaugh July 31, 2015 at 8:33 AM #

    This is my church’s week this week. Strange how the Lord brought me to this post before the events of the week unfolded. But grateful that He was preparing me for it.
    Thank you for writing this. It is helpful, especially as I seek to remember truth in the midst of the tragedy.

  5. Kelly McBride August 5, 2015 at 3:08 PM #

    Praying hard for this dear family. Though I don’t know them personally, I do know…and I do know His Faithfulness is Great!!!!-Kelly McBride (formerly Clark)

  6. randall August 17, 2015 at 9:59 PM #

    This is extremely sad. We had a member of our church, Westridge Dallas,Ga. get hit by an 18 wheeler last week. It was a shock. This is when worship matters even more. It was such an emotional service. Thank you God for being there during the low points of life.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Morning Mashup 07/29 | Grace Satisfies - July 29, 2015

    […] My heart weeps and grieves for the family of Wade Stephenson. Bob Kauflin also wrote this great piece on how a church continues to meet in the wake of tragedy. You can support Becca Stephenson and her […]

  2. Planning Sunday after an Unexpected Tragedy | WorshipIdeas.com - August 24, 2015

    […] Continue reading. […]

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