Lessons learned from another family’s sorrow

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By Bill Horner


“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” Galatians 6:2.

The year 1970 was an emotional, touchy-feely time. The nation had experienced a decade of turmoil with political assassinations, riots on college campuses, and an unpopular still-raging war. 

Suddenly the Jesus Revolution had swept the west coast and was moving east. 

Such was the cultural background during our church youth retreat on Old Hickory Lake that year. We worshiped and sang and laughed and cried together that weekend. In one moving moment, as we stood in a circle to pray, Carter Butler spoke up. “My brother-in-law Curtis got sent to Vietnam this week. I never thought to tell him I love him.” We prayed for Curtis.

The whole Butler family was close-knit and vivacious. What they lacked in material possessions, they more than made up in love. 

Marcia, the oldest of their children, had recently married Curtis, who quickly became part of the family. Marcia and Curtis had great plans for working with youth.

Not many months later the awful word came. There had been a helicopter crash.  Curtis and the rest of his crew were killed instantly. The Butlers were devastated.

My Dad was one of several men from our church that descended upon the Butler house that evening to express their sympathy. Blake, Marcia’s father, turned to these men with tears in his eyes and confided, “Men I need your help. Curtis will be buried in Dallas, where he was raised, and we don’t have the money to get there.”

Immediately billfolds and checkbooks came out. The need was met. Our church was sometimes accused of being a stuffy, high-class congregation. I learned not to judge others too hastily.

But what do you say to someone who has just lost a loved one, so young, so tragically? I had to face that issue walking into the church youth group the next Sunday. As several of us were standing around discussing this family’s loss, Sarah walked up. Sarah was Marcia’s younger sister. Normally smiling and lively, that morning she was somber with eyes red and swollen. I was suddenly tongue-tied. I wanted to shy away from her, for I simply did not know what to say. But I knew that if her friends avoided her, it would only add to her sense of loss.  What should I do? I felt like a knot on a log.

Gary Lowry came to the rescue. He immediately stepped up to her and said, “Sarah! I’m sorry!” That was all. I learned in that moment how much compassion and empathy could be conveyed in a heart-felt “I’m sorry!” I muttered, “Yes, Sarah!” She hugged us both, appreciative of brotherly love expressed so simply.

A few days later Dad asked me if I wanted to go with him to pick up the Butlers at the airport.  They were arriving back home from Dallas and the funeral. With mixed feelings I agreed to accompany Dad. I wanted to help him out on this errand.  But again, what would I say to them?  I was almost paralyzed with the fear of speaking an inappropriate word.

As it turned out, I didn’t have to say anything. The Butlers did all the talking. They just seemed appreciative that we were there. 

And Marcia was the most talkative of all. In detail this young widow described the funeral of her late husband. 

“It was windy and drizzling rain when we got up that morning,” she explained.  “We knew it would wreak havoc with the flower arrangements we planned to put on Curtis’s grave.  But,” she added, “an hour before the funeral, the wind died down and the sun came out. We don’t know why the Lord chose to take Curtis, but He cared enough to change the weather to comfort us in our sorrow.” I was amazed at such simple yet profound insight into the workings of the Lord.  And I was amazed at such faith even in the midst of grief.

“And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” Romans 8:28.