4700 East Beltline NE Grand Rapids, MI 49525 USA
9:00 am LORD'S SUPPER & Prayer ,10:00 am MAIN SERVICE
Message below presented by Michael Befus Senior Pastor
| Here we are. What do we say? This
isn't where we're supposed to be today...is it? We're
remembering and celebrating the life of Christopher Johan VanderTol-celebrating what a
wonderful friend he was to so many of us, what a gift he was to so many, remembering
his remarkable ability to make even the most absurdly bad joke or pun somehow
hysterically funny, remembering his instinctive draw toward the lonely, the misfit, the
awkward, the distressed.
And yet the painful reality is that we are memorializing Chris' life far too soon. We're
facing the painful reality that Chris' life was cut far too short. Regardless of what we say,
we all know deep within this is not how life is supposed to go. This isn't right. You're not
supposed to write eulogies for your 41-year-old friends. You're not supposed to bury your
son. You're not supposed to say goodbye to your dad like this.
So what do we do with that? What do you we do? Do we scream at the sky? Do we try to
shut our heart? Do we offer Hallmark card sentimentalities?
We need a way through this. A way that leads to life. I want to invite you to what I think is
a better way.
That way begins with talking honestly. One of the reasons l'm a pastor, one of the
reasons I love this book is that its just more honest than I know how to be most days
about the pain of life. Those that pour their hearts out on these pages were no strangers
to despair and depression.
But as for me, O LORD, I cry to you for help;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
LORD, why have you rejected me?
why have you hidden your face from me?
Ever since my youth, I have been wretched and at the point of death;
I have borne your terrors with a troubled mind.
My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me,
and darkness is my only companion.
The word of God is not triumphalist tips on how to win friends and influence people. The
Bible is honest about the pain of life.
So let us be honest...many of you know how Chris died, and its painful. But some of you are wrestling with why this happened...and that can be the greatest pain.
I had the privilege of sharing the last decade with Chris as his friend: raising kids together,
figuring out life together, taking care of this church together. ln the last few years Iíve
been his pastor. And so we've talked about it all: the joys, the questions, the faith, the
doubts. Chris had a strong faith, a resolute commitment to Jesus, a big heart, a deep love
for his family and his friends, a kindness with everyone.
Not all of you knew that Chris battled times of crippling anxiety, times of deep anguish,
clouds of dark depression. You might not have known that he been haunted with suicidal
thoughts before, thoughts that he worked hard to master and contain. You might not
have known it because most of the time Chris' heartache presented as a deep
compassion for other people that were hurting. Most of the time Chris' inner suffering
just came through as an outward gift for loving troubled people, a gentleness with
everyone, and a profound ability to create and make art.
It wasn't because he was hiding anything, its because Chris worked hard. Harder than
most of us have to do bring order out of chaos, to turn sorrow into compassion
You need to know, friends, that Chris' life didn't end because of sadness. lt didn't end
for lack of love and support in his life. lt didn't end because you weren't there for him. ln
his last days, Chris had deep and meaningful conversations with many of his friends and
family members. I've talked to them about the specific conversations.
But the reality is Chris didn't just die. He didn't just take his life. Chris was taken from
us. He was taken. The honest truth is Chris didn't want this ending, not on most of the
days of his life. On a different day he wouldn't have chosen it.
Friends, we need to talk honestly in a time like this, but in a time like this we also need
to listen carefully. Because when someone takes their own life you shouldn't assume
you understand. Unless you've battled this yourself you really can't understand.
We need to listen carefully to others that have.
One of the best I know is Kathryn Greene-McCreight:
she's a priest, a theologian, a
She says depression is not sadness. Itís not weak faith. Itís certainly not a moral
failure. She says for her, its like this, "a gnawing, overwhelming sense of grief, with no
identifiable cause. I grieve as though my loved ones were dead. I feel completely
alone and isolated. I feel as if I am walking barefoot on broken glass. The weight of
my very existence grinds the shards of grief deeper into my soul. When I am
depressed, every thought, every breath, every conscious moment hurts. (Darkness
"There is no 'other side," no perspective, no reminding myself that this will pass.
Itís the torment of simple consciousness that leads to suicide. lt is not wanting to
hurt the self. lt is simply wanting not to hurt. (Darkness 15)
I used to think that suicide was the most selfish act imaginable...But I now
understand that the one who takes her own life is in horrifying agony. (Darkness)
This is hard to hear. Itís hard to slow down and really pay attention. I don't know about
you, but when you see someone you love go through this, your mind is probably filled
with questions of what might have been, if onlys, could have done, should have saids-
thoughts that you could have prevented this.
And that is horrible, and it hurts, and it shouldn't be this way and its not right, and its not
fair, and its not the way life is supposed to be, and you can't go back and change what's
happened but the fact is youíve got a choice now. You can shut down, wall off your heart,
you can scream at the sky, you can say weird religious stuff, or you can do what Chris
did: you can let sorrow enlarge your heart to love bravely. You can love bravely. You
can let sorrow takes it course and then you can love bravely.
One of the most confounding parts of this last couple weeks is to discover all the people
whom Chris' love touched. Just 10 days ago, right here, on a Sunday morning, as you
heard earlier Chris was pacing the parking lot.
suicidal thoughts, a teenager who was sure God couldn't be real. And through Chris' own
sorrow, he reached out a hand and prayed for this kid. Like prayed the very best prayer
he could! And he changed somebody's life.
You can keep your sorrow for yourself, or you let sorrow enlarge your heart to love
o To have conversations you need to have.
o To forgive others.
o To reconcile with those you've banished from your life.
o To slow down enough to notice that there are probably others in the room that
need kindness...and you could give it.
ln the coming days the grief will affect us each differently. You might scream at the sky, you
may pound your fists, you may cry your eyes out, you may just shut down for awhile.
Friends, I had to go to all those places just to type this out. So by all means grieve honestly.
But let it move you to love bravely.
Because here's the truth: you are loved fiercely.
Times like this should remind us that no matter how bad it gets, there are people that
love us and would grieve like this if we were gone. There are people that would be
devastated if you were gone. All of you.
You are loved fiercely. And not just by your friends.
Its the transformation in people like Chris, the miraculous ability to love through
unimaginable sorrows that ought to convince us that Chris' faith is real. That Chris' God is
real. That Chris' God is love.
Chris had experienced the love of God in ways that changed him. Because God loves us
with a fierce love. An undying love. A father's love.
The family asked if I would address something that some religious people fear, and that's
that suicide is some sort of unforgivable sin. And friends, I want you to hear loud and
clear there is nothing in this book that would suggest that and everything to suggest the
I have a son, I am a father. And I gotta tell you, there is nothing my son could do that
would cause me to stop loving him. Nothing that would cause me to abandon him. And
especially not if he were suffering so much that it led to this. Nothing could be more
Hereís what the Bible tells us about God. Here's what a man with a very painful life told us
about God as he looked back on it all...the Apostle Paul.
lf God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him
up for us all-how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will
bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? lt is God who justifies. Who then
is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died did more than that, He who was
raised to life-is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall
separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or
nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:
"For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered."
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am
convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor
the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will
be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans
The funny thing is, even when we're not sure we still believe that, there's something in
each of us that wants to believe that, isn't there? That wants to believe someone loves us
enough to give up everything. That loves us enough to hold our lives through life and
death and beyond. We want to.
And that desire ought to tell you something. You ought to let your heart tell you what
your mind is too slow to figure out: You are fiercely loved. And you can open yourself to a
greater love than you've ever known just the same way you would with anyone else. By
getting honest enough to ask for it.
Some of you should tell someone you need help today. lf you're having thoughts of
ending your own life, you need to tell someone today. Right here, we'll have counselors
here afterward as others go get refreshments.
Some of you should say right now... God if you're really there, would you show me what
your love feels like. Especially if you were raised with a religion that is less than perfect
love. Right now. Would you just close your eyes a moment and ask him? Let's be silent for
a moment together and just make a prayer to God...wherever you are.