Last 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
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 Alone. We 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.
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