By Zach Van Dyke
The other day a sweet, middle-aged member of the church where I am the youth pastor said to me with a saccharine and slightly condescending smile, “Grace is just your thing, isn’t it? You just can’t get enough of it.”
People say things like that to me a lot and it usually puts the biggest grin on my face. I love that people associate me with grace, but shouldn’t that be the case with all Christians? Isn’t grace our thing? Can any of us ever get enough of it? Doesn’t it have to be all about grace?!
If it’s not all about grace, then my story just doesn’t make any sense.
After I graduated from a Christian high school and won the coveted “Christian of the Year” award, my girlfriend, Kelly, got a job babysitting the Taylor kids. Mrs. Taylor was one of our favorite and funniest teachers. She had a reservoir of accents both legitimate and asinine that spontaneously poured out of her mouth without warning. We loved her.
But as much as we loved Mrs. Taylor, I hated that my girlfriend would be tied up babysitting three boys after graduation. I knew this would definitely cut into our make-out sessions! And how long could I count on Kelly to remember that she was dating the “Christian of the Year”? That at least warranted second base!
Daniel was a teenager and didn’t “need” a babysitter so he stayed with a friend. Sam, like most pre-adolescent boys, played video games constantly and no matter what I tried, he was not interested hanging with me at all. But Jesse, the three-year-old, couldn’t wait to embark on a new adventure.
He was a blast to play with because everything was extreme. While playing “trucks” with him, I witnessed some of the nastiest head-on collisions.
One afternoon, as I was playing, or should I say, trying to avoid my knuckles getting rammed by speeding hot wheels-I heard Kelly mention something to a friend on the phone that I had a different opinion about. I’m not one to let my opinions go unvoiced, so I immediately rushed into the room where she was to express my feelings.
Some time went by. I can’t really explain it, but I got an awful feeling in the pit of my stomach. I suddenly felt totally disrupted and uneasy. I ran back into the other room to check on Jesse. Empty. Only the scattered, flipped-over trucks and cars lay on the floor.
I immediately ran out the front door and hollered Jesse’s name. No answer. I ran back inside, still hollering. No noise.
Kelly was screaming his name too. Silence.
I noticed the glass door to the back porch slightly ajar. I knew. It’s an indescribable sensation to know something like that.
I ran through the door and saw a sweet, little boy floating lifeless, face-down in the pool. I lifted him up. His face was white. His eyes rolled back in his head. The veins in his face were exposed, purple and blue. Foam was oozing out of his mouth.
I shook him. I hollered his name. No reply. No noise. Silence.
Holding Jesse in my arms, I turned to see Sam standing behind me. All I could say to him was, “Run. Go away.”
Kelly came to the door and let out a gut-wrenching scream.
It seemed like hours before the ambulance arrived. It was only minutes.
As I was driven to the police station in the back of Officer Drinkwater’s car (obviously I could not or would not make that up…that was his name), I thought, “Christian of the Year”?!? God doesn’t allow this to happen to those who love Him.
Over 1,200 people attended Jesse’s funeral. Kelly and I did not want to go. Why would we? How could we?
We were seated just before the family entered towards the front left side. We had a perfect side view of the Taylor family: Mr. and Mrs. Taylor and their two sons, Daniel and Sam. I couldn’t cry. I was numb and angry…and even angrier.
As the last hymn was being sung, the Taylor family stood and started to walk out of the packed sanctuary. As Mr. and Mrs. Taylor passed in front of Kelly and me, they stopped, turned and looked down directly at us without any regard to our shame. With great intensity, they pulled both of us up out of our seats and hugged us. In front of all twelve hundred people and they wouldn’t let go.
A few months later, I received this letter from Mrs. Taylor:
I have missed you as you have been away at college. I hope you are enjoying Florida State. I know you are having a hard time. I am too. I have a love-hate relationship with my life. I love the sweet things…Sam, Daniel, ok even Mr. Taylor, but I hate my thinking. I think about Jesse all the time. I feel his hand in mine, such soft skin and his breath on my cheek. I can still hear his voice telling me he loves me. This is hard, Zach. My heart is broken, but you didn’t break it. I struggle with tears constantly, but they are tears of sorrow and longing. I long to hold my little boy in my arms. I long to hear him tell me he loves me. I long to see his smile. None of which I will ever have again in this body. My heart aches constantly. How does one cope with such a loss? I pray…there is some comfort. If God took all the pain away, would I grow as much? I don’t think so. Do I want to grow this way? Yes…No…Yes. (Know what I mean?)
Please know from the first second, the very first second, God filled me with compassion for you and Kelly. I’m a vile sinner, Zach. Corruption lives in me. Yet, the love of Christ dwells there also. In this I can be totally transparent, truthful and sincere. I love and care for you. I have so much mercy for you and Kelly. God has allowed me no ill feelings toward either one of you, not one. We could all “if only” ourselves to death. It does no good. It changes nothing.
You and I are much alike in that we both take life head-on. We like to “fix” things. Like you, I have prayed in the past for God to do “whatever” it takes to make me more dependent upon Him and to know Christ more fully. I never thought He would choose to work this way in my life. But He did. The greatest tragedy in all of this could yet come to pass if one of us moves away from our Heavenly Father. God is still in control, Zach. He is still God. Jesse’s days were numbered from the beginning. There is a purpose in this. I will continue to pray that you will stay close to God. I know He has big plans for you. You are a very special young man.
I love you,
Jesse died over 11 years ago.
Today I have been married to Kelly for nine years and we have three kids: Oliver, Atticus and Alice.
Daniel leads my students in worship at youth group every Sunday night right alongside me.
I am part of a team of five people who plan our church’s Sunday morning worship. Vicki is on the team with me. Just the other day, she told me that when she gets to Heaven she used to want to see Jesse first, but now she wants to see Jesus first.
All I can say is I’m so glad it’s all about grace.
Zach Van Dyke is Student Ministries Director at Orangewood Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Maitland, Florida. He and his family live in Orlando. Zach is also a featured blogger and youth pastors’ forum moderator at PoopedPastors.com.