By Brian Keepers
The line of people spills out the front entrance and wraps around the church. People shuffle back a forth in place, hands in pockets and talking quietly, trying to keep warm as they wait to see the family.
He was only eighteen years old. Died tragically in a truck accident near Phillipsburg, Kansas while going to either pick up livestock or deliver it, I’m not sure which. For almost twenty-four hours he was missing. He didn’t reach his destination. No one knew what had happened or where he’d gone.
His father found him.
The boy’s truck crashed in a ravine, spotted by a surveillance plane as a part of a search and rescue.
Jacob (“Jake”) Paul Roos was already dead. And his father was one of the first to see him, to see his boy, his firstborn son whom he had held in his arms at birth and nurtured and raised for almost nineteen years.
I was Jacob’s pastor for a season—from when he was two years old to six. That was twelve years ago. You know how you freeze a person’s face in your memory, a snapshot captured in time? This is how Jacob appears in my memory: a delightful little boy, a mischievous grin with a gap between his two front teeth and glasses that keep sliding down the ridge of his nose. He’d come up to me and yank on my pant leg and say, “Hey, Pastor Brian!”, his neck craned back and a toothy smile looking up at me.
That’s the boy I remember. But the pictures that line the sanctuary, among a sea of flowers and plants, the pictures playing on the overhead screen while people snake their way through the church building, inching along in line, is a young man. I don’t recognize him, and yet I do.
I see his mother’s smile. And her kindness. I see his father’s confidence. A wrestler and football player. Active in 4H and youth group and a love for farming. By the overwhelming response of people at the visitation—so many that the church cannot contain them—this is a young man and a family who are well-loved.
And then I come to the open casket. The undertaker did about a good as job as you can ask, but all the life is gone that is captured in those photos. I can still see the resemblance of that little boy’s face I hold in my memory, and my heart breaks. Breaks so hard I swear I hear it crack. A girl behind me, a classmate of Jake’s, breaks down in sobs so heavy, a grief so unbearable, that she collapses into the pew and her mother has to hold her while she cries so hard she shakes.
“Where, O death, is your sting?” St. Paul asks. Here it is, Paul. Here it is. And it is too much. Do you hear me, Lord? This is too much.
We wait in line for two hours, and finally we come to Jacob’s parents and both sets of grandparents. Both sets. Who outlive their grandson.
I come to Jake’s father. He looks at me with surprise, and then he pulls me in and squeezes me tightly in an embrace that seems like it lasts for minutes and neither of us say anything. We both cry. His hair is grayer than I remember it. My hair is gone.
We look each other in the eyes. “This one is hard to take,” he says to me, over and over. And then: “I wish I could go back. I wish it could be me. I would take his place in a heartbeat. It should have been me.”
I can only nod, tears streaming down my cheeks. Every parent knows what he means. What else can I say? “I’m so sorry” is all that comes out.
I’ve been a pastor for sixteen years, and there have been some pretty painful tragedies in those years, agonizing moments of walking with people through pain and loss. But this one hits me so hard. Maybe it’s because I’m not the family’s pastor anymore, and so I’m free to just be one among their community who is pulled into this tidal wave of sorrow, all the sadness and heartache and questions and anger and wondering.
Maybe it’s also the strangeness of coming back to a place, of stepping into a moment after a large gap in time, where I feel the whiplash of being violently ripped from memory to present reality. A boy in my memory with glasses and a beautiful smile who had his whole life ahead of him. Now a teenager lying lifeless in a casket.
When we leave, there is still a long line of people wrapped around the church building. While there are challenges about living in a small town, when tragedy strikes and we reel in pain, people have a way of showing up. In droves they show up. And there is beauty in that, a glimpse of grace in it all. But it’s an awful grace to be sure (to borrow from the Greek playwright Aeschylus). An awful grace, this moment, that can only be met and faced with lament. And community. And the Man of Sorrows, the suffering and weeping God, who promises that, in the end, even this shall be made well.
“How is faith to endure, O God, when you allow all this scraping and tearing on us? You have allowed rivers of blood to flow, mountains of suffering to pile up, sobs to become humanity’s song—all without lifting a finger that we could see. You have allowed bonds of love beyond number to be painfully snapped. If you have not abandoned us, explain yourself. We strain to hear. But instead of hearing an answer we catch sight of God himself scraped and torn. Through our tears we see the tears of God.”
– Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son
Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.