A young woman named Lea, studying at Long Island University, walked into our church several years ago. I did not realize the impact of that action until two years later when, in December 2017, our church started making plans to host our first-ever Night to Shine—a prom1 for those with special needs—in partnership with the Tim Tebow Foundation. Lea heard the announcement and thought, We should open this up to the student athletes at Long Island University. Excited, she approached us. Within a few weeks, Lea had recruited more than 30 volunteer student athletes. They came and served like champions.
An immediate connection
At the event, I connected with several of the football players, but one young man really stood out to me, Tim. You could see that he was a natural-born leader. He and I also became friends. We stayed connected, and since then, several football players have made our church their home during the off-season. Tim led that effort.
In 2018, Tim told me, “I want to make a difference. I want my senior year to count.” (We had no idea what those words would really mean.) An idea came up about doing a Bible study for any interested football players. I remember Tim calling me and saying, “Hey, Pastor, I think Sunday at three o’clock P.M. will work for the majority of us.” I thought, OK, I’m gonna preach three sermons on a Sunday and then drive 35 minutes to host a Bible study. But soon, the Bible study was up and running.
At first, five athletes showed up. For the next 10 weeks, we held Bible studies on Sundays and before every home game. It truly became one of the highlights of my week. I also started sending out a “Verse of the Week” text every Monday to encourage them. Then it became individual messages to players; phone calls; and, ultimately, friendship. Tim’s decision to make a difference his senior year was starting to take shape.
Our Bible study grew to 20 to 25 individuals by the end of the season. When I arrived home after Bible study, my wife, Mary, would ask, “How did it go?” And I would tell her about each player and brag on them. I began to adopt them as part of my family!
One of the earliest lessons I shared with the football team was, “No matter what, God is good.” When the team was 0-5, I reminded them, “No matter what, God is good.” And when the team finished the season 0-10, I still told them, “No matter what, God is good.” It would become an anthem for what we were about to face.
An instant grief
One day, I was in the middle of a production rehearsal when my phone started lighting up with texts from the football players. “PT, call me it’s an emergency.” When I finally saw the messages, I slipped into the lobby and was able to get Joe. “PT, Clay is dead. He was murdered last night.” There, in the lobby of my church, I fell to my knees, overcome by the instant grief that one of the football players I had grown so close to had died. I could not believe it. Walking back into our rehearsal, I stopped everything, and we prayed for the family and football team.
The family set Saturday, December 27, for the memorial service. Several football players asked if I was going to attend. Without a doubt, I had to go. Clay had been more than just someone in the Bible study—he was my friend! So, I rented a 15-passenger van and planned to bring as many team members as I could squeeze into that vehicle.
A couple of days before Clay’s funeral, I received a text from Clay’s dad, Casey. He was going through what every parent who has ever lost a child wrestles with: “Did my child know Jesus?”
I told Casey about the day that Clay raised his hand to confirm his faith in Christ, October 13, 2019. Both Clay’s father and I cried. We spoke for about 30 minutes, and at the end of the conversation, I said, “I will see you on Saturday at the celebration of life service for Clay.”
An angel in disguise?
A friend, Sebastian, and I loaded up the van and drove a bunch of football players down to Tennessee—a 16-and-a-half-hour trip. At their request, I took a group where their friend had been savagely murdered. When we walked onto the property, you could feel the pain in every athlete. We saw the place where Clay was stabbed and then ultimately where he had died. All of us were emotional! In the middle of the parking lot, on the site of loss, I shared about the pain Jesus felt when He was at the grave of Lazarus. We formed a circle and prayed. And then, when I opened my eyes, there stood an older man with a guitar in front of us! I had no idea where he came from. The man said, “I’ll sing ya a song.” Before we knew it, he was playing “Freebird.” We all gasped. It had been one of Clay’s favorite songs. Then the man asked about another song and said, “C’mon, Trigger, my guitar, and me can play anything.” Trigger was Clay’s dog’s name!
As we walked away, someone said, “Pastor, that was weird. What was that all about?” I shared how Hebrews 13 teaches us to be good to strangers because they could be angels in disguise. After we had gone about 75 yards, we looked back. No one was there! Could it be, I thought to myself, Hebrews 13 playing out in our lives? I may never really know, but it sure felt as if God sent an angel to give those young men a message—“I am here with you.”
A stand for Christ
Thousands gathered to honor Clay’s memory. During the service, I walked up to the podium, my heart racing. As soon as I opened my mouth, though, I felt at ease and spoke from the heart. When Clay’s siblings and parents spoke, their faith was visible in every word. At the end of the service, Pastor Bergen invited anyone who wanted to give or rededicate their life to Jesus to stand to their feet. Hundreds of people throughout the auditorium and overflow area rose. I was in tears and saw God in a way that I had never seen Him before.
After the service, I jumped back into our rented van, drove back to the university, and dropped off the guys. As soon as Sebastian and I left the campus, I started crying. When you need to be the pastor for others, you hold things in and feel the weight of being strong for everyone else. But finally, at this moment, I just could not hold it anymore. Grief is tough. To be honest, I am still grieving, but I have seen God do so much in so many lives through this tragedy. The final chapter of this story has not been written yet!
As I have walked countless people through this heartbreak, I can’t help but think, Everything happens on purpose and for a purpose. I don’t always like what happens or how, but I do know that God can make beauty out of the ashes. I don’t ask God “Why?” ever! I refuse to ask myself questions that I will never know the answer to on this side of heaven, but I do wonder, What’s next? Meaning, I know, God, You are going to use this, just show me how! And I can tell you that God has worked through this tragedy in ways I could never describe. God showed up. He always does! Ever fully present, He never wastes a hurt.
A personal mission
I have had a personal mission statement for my 25 years of pastoring: “At the end of the long days and late nights, did anybody hear about Jesus?” It drives me to say yes to a Bible study after preaching three times on a Sunday. It compels me to spend time with student athletes, text them, and even invite them to my home. It pushes me to share God’s love with everyone, everywhere, whether convenient or not. Living with an eternal perspective is not a sermon slogan or cute cliché—it ought to be the thing that motivates every part of our lives.
Going through this has not been easy. People look at pastors as superhuman with a huge S tattooed on their chest, but we are just human. We hurt. We bleed. We feel pain and often hide it. But no matter how great the loss or pain, I still believe “God causes everything to work together for the good” (Romans 8:28, NLT). It never says “everything is good”—but that it “works for good.”
Paul wrote to the church in Colossians: “Fill your thoughts with heavenly realities, and not with the distractions of the natural realm” (Colossians 3:2, TPT). So many things can fill our thoughts: success, failure, fun, relationships, money, and more. Paul teaches us to live with an eternal perspective because you never know whose life will depend on our focus. We should see everything we do through the lens of eternity!
This tragedy has taught me four things. First, walk through divine doors. Something can seem totally inconvenient, but inconvenient doors lead to unimaginable opportunities. Second, live untied to this life. It is OK to enjoy the things of this life, but we cannot be bound to them. Third, guard your focus. Life can be so distracting. Instead of just being a pastor or holding a Bible study, I am shaping eternity. That must be my focus. Finally, reflect God’s glory. We do not represent ourselves; we represent God. Our mission is to point people to Him.
The million-dollar question is, Are you living for the eternal or the earthly? I know my answer. It is loud and clear. I will never forget October 13, 2019. God put Lea in our church, Tim in my life, and Clay in that Bible study. I choose to live for an eternal purpose!
Who are your Clays? They stand all around us at work, high schools, malls, supermarkets, universities, and even churches. Don’t pass by the opportunities that God puts in front of you. You just never know how you will influence someone’s eternity!
- Prom is a formal event designed is to give young people the opportunity to develop their social skills.