Faith General

That Wasn’t Supposed to Happen!

It was the summer before my senior year of high school. Me, the city-kid, spent it working for my uncle on his farm. Up early feeding hogs and helping with the wheat harvest. Kansas was super hot that year. To this day, I’m the only senior out of 525 in my graduating class that has a farmer’s tan in the yearbook!  In early August, my cousin Tim and I took a long weekend float trip on the Illinois River in northeastern Oklahoma. We piled into my 1971 Gremlin (Google that one!) and headed off for the 400-mile road trip. I was 16, Tim almost 17. No GPS, No cellphone. Just two crazy guys trying to gain a bit of independence. A right of passage you might say. We survived the canoe trip. Saw a few snakes along the way but managed to come back in one piece, albeit dirty and suntanned to a burnt crisp!  What 16-year-old wears suntan lotion?

This Can’t Be!

Driving back that hot August Sunday, you would have thought we were kings of the world! Life couldn’t be better!  I was planning to head to Kansas State University after high school, to major in architecture: a dream I had since grade 8. The next morning (Monday), my mom woke me to some unbelievably tragic news. One of my good friends, Kevin was killed Sunday in a car-train accident. He was driving the family station wagon filled with 8 kids to a swimming pool near their Flint Hills town and didn’t see the train coming. Six of the eight kids were killed instantly, including Kevin. I read the front-page headlines in dismay. “This can’t be!” I was stunned! Shocked! Bewildered! Sixteen-year-olds are not supposed to die! We are, after all at the invincible age where nothing we do will defeat us!  I literally stayed in my converted garage bedroom and cried the entire day. My younger sisters had never seen me cry like that. Neither had I. Emotions like I’d never felt before overwhelmed me. 

Fake Me!

A few days later, news got out that the six kids were ready for viewing at a small town funeral home in the Flint Hills of Kansas.  I wanted to see Kevin so bad but was literally too scared to drive the 140 miles round trip alone. My dad drove me. Silence filled the car. We hardly spoke. As I entered the funeral home, I was directed to the room with Kevin’s casket. One glance and I thought to myself. That should have been me in that casket. After all, in the years I knew Kevin, (since grade 7), he was the only friend I knew that lived out his faith in Christ with authenticity.  Kevin was the real deal. I was the fake. I was the one living a two-faced life. Acting the part of a good boy around others while harboring sinful thoughts and ways in secret. Those tears I poured out a few days prior when I heard of Kevin’s death were flowing again. This time with a great sense of loss for my friend. This wasn’t a dream. It was reality and it was slamming me in the gut. I felt sick.

Death x 6

The next day was the funeral. This time, I had enough composure to drive back up to the small town. A mutual friend, Ronnie joined me. I remember stopping on the side of the road, so he could smoke. When we got there we discovered the local high school gymnasium had been converted for the day into a massive funeral service. Over 1500 made their way into the gym. Friends, family or town folk?  The usher asked me. Friend. He took us to seats on the gym floor. I felt so exposed as if everyone was looking at me. Before me were six closed caskets with their respective school photos on top. The service was a total blur to me until they got to Kevin. An older man dressed in cowboy/western attire stood up. Harv Schmucker. I remembered his from church camp. He was a camp favorite and liked by even us city kids! He had my attention. I hung on his every word about Kevin.

I Heard His Voice

Standing there on stage with Kevin’s casket in front of him, Harv held up Kevin’s Bible. It was highlighted, marked up and a bit tattered. I recalled it being the same Bible Kevin would bring to junior high school. The same Bible kids would raz him about on school reading days. The same Bible Kevin would use when he got up early before school when he met with God. As Harv spoke I felt this tap on my shoulder. No one was there. The guy seated behind me hadn’t touched me. Who did? Then in my gut, I heard a voice whisper to me. David. I long to meet with you just like I did with Kevin. I love you, David.  It hit me like something I never saw coming! The God of the universe. The God who loved Kevin spoke to me. My duplicity days were over. The light bulb came on in my hormone-filled sixteen-year-old brain! The reason my “Christian” life was going nowhere was that I was not spending time with the Lord in his Word. So, on August 11 at a funeral in Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, I surrendered myself to Jesus in ways I never had before. I didn’t walk forward. There was no altar call. No invitation to publically follow Christ, but as sure as you are reading this right now, I left that high school gymnasium changed! 

Time Moves On

It’s been four decades since Kevin was killed. An August doesn’t go by that I don’t pause, reflect and honestly thank God for that tragedy. Not that I would wish such a horrific accident on anyone, but that through the ashes of death and loss, God has accomplished supernatural, life-giving changes that have impacted me for eternity. Over the past decades, God has used His Word to foster in me a living relationship with Him through Christ. The Word of God is supernatural. It is the only book on the planet, in the entire universe that is authored ultimately by God Himself. In fact, the ever-present Holy Spirit uses God’s Word to accomplish things in us that we couldn’t even ask or imagine. 

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven

    and do not return there but water the earth,

making it bring forth and sprout,

    giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,

so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;

  it shall not return to me empty,

but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,

    and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. Isaiah 55:10-11 ESV

I look at it this way, every time I read God’s Word, I have the opportunity to meet with the God of the universe!  In fact, in James 4 we are told that God longs jealously for the spirit that he made to dwell in us. Why would I want to miss that?!

No Walk in the Park

I won’t lie to you, just because I’ve been in God’s Word consistently, daily, has been no guarantee that life is carefree. Truth is I’ve been through a ton of hard issues, circumstantially as well as soul-altering. Refiner’s fire, molding and shaping me. Ridding me of the dross of self and clarifying the presence of Christ in me. Lessons learned and joys experienced.  As tough as some of it has been, I would not trade it for anything.

I have no idea what things you’ve been through that you’ve said to yourself “That wasn’t supposed to happen!”  But it did.  God orchestrated events in your life that if you had the pen and could write the script, they wouldn’t have been there, like Kevin’s death is for me. But, the hope is that in the midst of the trial, the hardship, the pain, the loss, you are becoming a man not perfectly, but increasingly yielded to the work of the Spirit in you. When I think back to that hot August summer I ask myself What if I hadn’t responded to God’s tap on my shoulder? What if I ignored His voice in my soul? Where would I be today?  I can tell you this, I wouldn’t be telling you this story. I wouldn’t be offering you the hope of the Gospel.

3 Things to Do When Things Happen You Didn’t Plan On

1. Understand that even in the midst of horrific tragedies, God has not abandoned you. He is there and He longs for you to draw near to Him amidst the pain.

2. Before you conclude God is to blame for the unexpected, look around at what is going on in the greater scheme of things. Think beyond the immediate moment before you make your judgment call. Humanly-speaking, we see through a glass dimly. God sees far more and we can trust Him to accomplish much through tough times.  

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.  James 1:2-4 ESV

3. Good is bound to come to those who trust God for what catches them by surprise. I lost contact with Kevin’s parents a few years after he died. Decades went by not realizing they live a mile or two from me. We reconnected several years ago,  They still miss Kevin, as any parents would, but when they hear about lives changed for Christ because of their son, the tears of joy you see on their face tells the rest of the story. The final chapter has not been written on Kevin’s life. Nor has it been written in my life or yours. 

What things were not supposed to happen to you? What story is God writing in your life? He’s not finished with you yet.

Warrior On!

David Riffel is the Founder and Executive Director of Having gone through his warrior years (18-30) essentially without a mentor, God has placed in him a heart for warriors, to come alongside them in various ways as they figure out life. David’s newly released book, Mentoring Warriors: Coming Alongside Young Men 18-30, outlines principles for mentoring and gives advice for warriors in six key areas of life: self-management, life skills, education/career, relationships, faith, and identity.

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