Going Out of Our Way

I walk into the bare apartment and it all comes back to me, rushes at me like a gust of wind in my face.  I spiral back 26 years and am that girl again, the terrified and excited coed, the child of privilege walking into the missions house and wondering, “What in the world am I doing here?”

Here is suburbia in northern Chicago.  I remember the way I looked at the house—a pale green wooden two-story structure, so perfectly middle class, so assuredly not Atlanta’s Buckhead, not Vanderbilt’s campus.  This was so far out of my comfort one that I didn’t know what to call it.

If I had walked onto another college campus, I would have known how to act.  But here was a place I did not know, a place I felt called to—whatever that meant—a place where God seemed to have reached down and picked me up and transported me to, all in a dizzying breath.  Here.  Missions 101.

I was in class, after all.  I was in a wonderful world of new things and learning.

How I learned!

And I remember him.  My first glance as he stood there in his doorway, bare-chested and in cut off jeans took my breath away.  Surely this was not part of the plan.  Not him!

I recall as if it were just a few minutes ago how all of the wonderfully spiritual thoughts and intentions flew right out of my brain and landed somewhere halfway around the block and there I was—love at first sight.  What did I do with this? 

Everything I am remembering is familiar and so strange, one long lesson after another.

This apartment in perfectly clean, decorated with comfortable furniture, stocked with everything we need, but bare—bare of living.  I recall how quickly we filled up that other house, the house of 26 years ago, the house of our learning to be teammates.  We stocked it with groceries and we tentatively spoke to each other—the young couple with the baby, the Jamaican girl with the boisterous laugh, the teenager with the northeastern accent and the big smile, the young woman from Quebec who did not speak English and spoke a brand of French that I had never studied in my eight years of language schooling.  And the young man.  The him.  The one who was making it oh, so difficult to concentrate on all the other new people and new things I was supposed to be learning.

And now it is 26 years later and he is still here, beside me, and I am in awe.  We got our beginnings in this place, this mission, this little haven of middleclass suburbia where young eager Christians were given a chance to spread wings and fly off to the far places for God. 

Earlier today we stopped in a little town 50 miles north of Chicago to visit a couple who had been instrumental in our lives during that transitional year in Chicago.  Now they are older, and he is suffering from Parkinson’s; he is feeble and unsteady, physically weak, his voice tired, but as sharp as ever in mental acuity.  We share a meal, we share stories of the past, we remember.  As we talk, I think of the joyful sacrifices that so many on the staff with our mission have made throughout the years to keep us on the field.  We have learned so much from those who are older and wiser.  Our heroes.

We cannot stay long—we have miles to go, and he is tired.  As we say goodbye, they seem so grateful and surprised that we would go out of our way to visit them for a short hour.

And I marvel.  We tell them how good it is to be with them and we are telling 100% the truth.  I want to reach out and say, “Visiting you was not going out of our way.  Visiting you was just another step on our way, right along the road to Zion, toward our Master.  It is a delightful side trip into yet another of God’s good gifts: friendship preserved, a chance to whisper ‘thanks’ to one of our heroes, and a hint of what will come to us one day, too.”

We leave them, and I burst into tears.  I cannot hold them back.  The hurting is so real, so deep.  In this life of missions that began in that pale green house 26 years ago, we have said way too many goodbyes.  And after a long while, it became easier.  The tears did not flow so freely.  We hardened that weak muscle enough to survive all the transitions.  But every once in a while the tears come in a flood, a heaving flood of ache which he understands.  We understand.  We reach across the seat of the car and grasp hands.

We reach across the memories and years and miles and grasp eternity.  And whisper a humble ‘thanks’ for the way Our God has brought us this far.


They have come here to grieve.  And to celebrate.  Right now they are four.  Soon others will arrive and by this weekend, our house and yard will be overflowing with youth.  As it should be.  Again.

Beau is barking as he welcomes another student.  Chris is making pancakes.  The house is littered with backpacks and mattresses and empty milk cartons and plates with brownie crumbs.  The kids greet me with smiles and tears.  They do not differentiate between the two because life has caught them off guard.

He died tragically, in a boating accident on the Lac d’Annecy at 2:30 on a Sunday morning.  A student from their class.  19. A childhood friend.  They grew up with him.  In the early morning hours, as the boat shot through the water in a 5 kilometer per hour zone, it struck a rock, was projected against a cliff and he and the four other young passengers were hurled into the water. Two survived.  Three did not.

All 19, all bright young students, France’s elite, celebrating the end of a grueling year of studies.  Too carefree, too sure that life was before them, indestructible, invincible. 

Ironically, at that same lake on that same night, a group of 15 young people from our church were camping out, singing praises to the Lord, sharing laughter and dreams and the Bible.  The noise from the impact of the boat against the rocks woke a few of them.  They heard the distant sirens and went back to sleep.

Paul and I had been in Montpellier for the weekend, rejoicing with friends at the marriage of their daughter.  Heading back toward Lyon, Paul driving and I in a semi-sleep, exhausted from a full weekend of visiting friends and the festivities that lasted into the wee morning hours, we heard of a boating accident on Lac d’Annecy.  I was thankful that we had already talked to Andrew on the phone, reassured that he had returned safely from the young people’s weekend there.  I dozed again.

Once back home, I immediately called the friend's residence where Chris had spent the weekend.  The father answered the phone, speaking softly, almost incomprehensibly.  Finally he said, “I’m sorry.  I’m stunned.  I’ve just learned that one of Charley’s classmates was killed in the boating accident in Annecy.”  And that is how we found out.

Adrien.  Dead.

Years ago, when we first moved to Lyon, and Chris and Andrew started attending their new school, Cité Scolaire Internationale, Chris and Adrien had become friends.  I remember how happy we were when Adrien asked to attend church with us, and I remember the Sundays when we would drive to his house, tucked into the prestigious 3eme arrondissment of Lyon and Adrien would come out of the house, smiling, ready for church.

It didn’t last long.  Perhaps a few months.  He had other interests; life was full for all of our teens.

On other occasions there were parties at his house.  I met his parents, both dentists, so young and successful and kind.  And his two younger sisters.  A beautiful, tight-knit family.

Now they sit in that refurbished manor, with the manicured grass and the sunporch overlooking the pool, in a deep grief.  I imagine them there and I cry.  Life is cruel.

And our young people come to cry too.  They do not want to be apart, alone in their grief.  And so they wade through the heartache together, first at one house, then off to school, then to another home, then into town.  A band of friends, intercepted by death, brought together by death, bonded ever more tightly by tragedy.

Fidji has known Adrien from the time she was a little girl.  Charles, too.  They fluctuate from disbelief to rage to despair.  The students hug each other, cry, share memories and find themselves laughing hysterically at some long forgotten antic in which they and Adrien were involved.

Paul and I watch and pray, hold out our arms to hug them, suddenly vulnerable children again.  I bake brownies, I send notes on Facebook and I write.  Writing has always been for me a solace, a way to grieve.

I write because I cannot not write, because I want to remember this.  I want to remember the strength of the human heart in the face of tragedy.  Fresh faces, young, with the world in front of them, ripped in two by the unthinkable, holding each other up.

Adrien’s friends will all don light blue shirts on Friday for the funeral.  Held at the thousand-year-old St. John’s Cathedral, the funeral will be for the three young people who perished in the boat accident.  The church will overflow.  The tears will flow, overflow, too.

Last night, when Chris, Charles, Sam and Fidji arrived at our house, they were wearing black pants and white shirts, after having spent the evening serving a meal to the homeless at the Salvation Army post.  They were exhausted but giddy because, although the week was filled with grief, it also held a bright spot.  Fidji and two other young people from church had found out that morning that they had passed the compulsory tests allowing them to proceed from their first year of medical school to the second.  No small feat, basically meaning their grades were among the top 100 out of a class of 700.  Reason to celebrate.  An extremely competitive and demanding year ending with success.

And so they celebrate.  And cry.  And laugh.  And eat brownies.  And talk.

I watch them there, drained and yet eager to try on life and I am thankful for the words of Scripture, so very concise.  So true.  “Weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice.”  Sometimes, oddly enough, life allows us to do that very thing with the same group of people.  Life is like that.  An endless roller-coaster ride.

I am thankful for another verse of Scripture.  “I will lift up my eyes to the hills; from whence cometh my help?  My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” 

Questions?  Oh, yes, they abound.  Answers?  Few and even those are far from appropriate right now. 

Weeping and rejoicing and lifting our eyes, we continue.

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