Sunday, May 25, 2008

Mourning with those who Mourn

Thursday afternoon we got the information for the Maria Chapman memorial service. Having spent much of the day wishing we could be with the Chapman’s and our other friends in Nashville that work with Steven, we decided the least we could do was fly up for the service. Bill had commitments with family in Ocala, so Carmen and I booked flights . We would fly up Friday for the viewing and stay for the memorial service on Saturday.

We landed around noon and rented a car, located our hotel and headed for lunch. While we ate, our buddy Jim Houser called. Jim is Steven’s right hand man and had called our morning show earlier to give us an update on the family. I found out at lunch that we were one of four media outlets to whom the Chapman team talked. Jim had spent the morning chasing details and putting out fires. When he called us, he had just finished the family viewing. We invited him to join us and he readily accepted.

It was good to see him.

While we were there, the head of radio promotions for Steven’s record label called me. I’ve known Grant almost as long as I’ve known Steven. Grant joined us.

I don’t know if we offered much comfort, but the time was sweet.

Jim made sure we knew that there was a time set aside for just before the public viewing and he would make sure we were on that list. He wanted to make sure we got to see Steven. It would mean a lot to him that we made the trip.

We got to the church just before 4pm and the line was already stretched from the altar, where the entire Chapman family stood in front of the small white casket, (they shouldn’t come in that size) all the way up the aisle and into the lobby.

We took our place in line and began the slow, somber march toward a broken family. There were a number of pictures dotting the area around the casket and a 10 minute slideshow played silently and continuously on the big screens.

The room was so quiet and the mood was heavy as we all marched forward trying to think of the right thing to say. There is no “right thing”. There is only, “we’re so sorry and we are praying for you.”

Our time came and Mary Beth, Steven’s wife, was gracious, showing us the last picture they had taken of Maria. She was all dressed up and ready for her dance recital. A quick hug and she thanked us for being there.

On to Steven. I could see from his reaction that he was surprised we would come all this way, but glad we did. We embraced as old friends. This is why I flew 700 miles. This is what I have wanted to do since Wednesday night when we got the news of this terrible tragedy. “Thank you for coming”, Steven whispered. “How could I not?” I replied.

For a moment we just held each other. I wish I could say I eased some pain or gave some strength, but all I could really do was grieve with him, if only for a moment.

Too many still waiting.

Too many wanting to offer their condolences.

Too many waiting to “mourn with those who mourn.”

From Steven, I moved on to Caleb, the oldest brother, a strong young man with red-rimmed eyes. We talked about having just seen each other in Lakeland and I let him know he was in our prayers.

Next was Will. Where Caleb is reserved and artistic and introspective, Will is playful, adventurous and a bit harder to wrangle. Where Caleb may hold his emotions close to the vest, Will wears them on his sleeve. Steven and I had just talked about this a few weeks ago as we shared our experience of raising boys. Today, Will is a young man struggling to make sense of tragedy.

If you have ever seen any of the blogs by Will on Steven’s website, you know that it was Will who would be most likely to grab the three sisters and play games. He loves those girls with all he is.

Here, in front of that tiny white casket, he wears a pink blanket across his shoulders.

It’s Maria’s blanket.

He shifted nervously from foot to foot. He didn’t want to be there, but he had to be. Saying goodbye is not easy. I took his hand and let him know we were praying for him. I asked if he was okay. He nodded, unconvincingly and I resolved to pray harder.

Last in the line was Emily, the oldest daughter. She’s newly engaged and her fiancĂ© stood at her side. She looked like she hadn’t slept in days. I’ve only met Emily once before and I told her about it. She was maybe 2 years old and sat on my wife, Emilie’s lap backstage at Reunion Arena in Dallas as her dad sang.

Steven and I have talked about her often and she has become quite a young woman.

I told her we’re praying and congratulated her on her engagement.

We met Tanner. I think this Cinderella has definitely found her prince.

After we made it through the line, we took a seat in the church. There wasn’t any reason to stay, but we just didn’t feel like leaving.

We watched the slide show, the line, the family.

We prayed.

Mark Hall of Casting Crowns came through the line with his wife Melanie. They were on the Music Boat Cruise when they heard the news. The boat docked Friday morning and they hopped a plane to be here. Mac Powell of Third Day made the same trip.

We sat for four hours watching the family accept condolences, hug, cry, hug more. Each of the kids took a short break or two, but Steven and Mary Beth would not.

Mark Hall and I talked about how tired they must be.

We talked about how many were here for the family.

We talked about how amazing Caleb and Emily were doing. I tried to imagine how my kids would react. Would they be so strong and mature?

Will just seemed vacant.

He’s not yet ready to feel the love and support.

He feels the loss, but I’m not sure he feels the love.

I’ll pray for each of them over the next several days, but for Will more fervently.

Eventually Carmen and I left with Mark and Melanie Hall.

Our buddy Josh, from Steven’s record label, and his wife Amy joined the four of us for dinner. We ate and talked. We talked about how difficult this is for us, but that we get to go back to normal. For the Chapman’s normal is a long way off.

Then, back to the hotel for a few hours sleep. I wondered how the Chapman’s were doing. Up to now they hadn’t been back to the house, they’d been staying with friends. Eventually they’ll have to go back. They’ll have to face the driveway and the empty room. More prayers.

Saturday morning. Sunshine and blue skies. The memorial service was set to start at 11. We left the hotel at 9:45 to meet Josh and Amy at the church at 10. When we arrived, the crowd was already arriving. We found a seat near the back and waited for Brian, another friend from the record label, to join us.

The church was silent as the pews filled. There were fewer pictures, but more flowers. The slide show was playing again.

About 10:45 Michael W. Smith sat at the piano and began to play softly. I recognized “How Great is our God” and others played beautifully in classic Smitty Style.

At 11am, the side door opened and the family, pall bearers and closest friends entered and were seated down front. Michael began to sing:

Hide me nowUnder your wings
Cover mewithin your mighty hand
When the oceans rise and thunders roar
I will soar with you above the storm
Father you are king over the flood
I will be still and know you are God
Find rest my soul
In Christ alone
Know his power
In quietness and trust


After a prayer, Pastor Scotty Smith led us all in a responsive reading from the Heidelberg Catechism. It asks the question we’ve all been asking. “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” The answer? Basically, we are not our own. We belong to Christ and He causes all things to work for our good.

Matt Redman was in an airport in Atlanta getting ready to fly home to the UK when he heard the news of the tragedy. He left the airport and rented a car. He led us in worship. Nathan and Christy Knockles of Watermark were with him.

The words of “Blessed Be the Name” had never been so hard to sing. “You give and take away, my heart will choose to say, Lord blessed be your name”. Ironic that these words are taken from the very passage in Job I shared a little over a week ago after Pastor Forrest Pollack and his son were killed. Who knew they’d be hitting me again so soon.

I thought about Carmen. Two weekends, two funerals.

Matt ended the worship with a song he and Steven wrote for another family that lost a child not long ago. When he got to the bridge, “She’s safe in the arms of Jesus” it was almost too much. I watched as Caleb left his seat and held his brother, Will.

Will burried his head in Caleb’s shoulder.

I hope he was beginning to feel the love.

I hoped he was ready to begin to really mourn.

It’s through the mourning we find comfort.

Next the Chapman family and a few friends took the podium to share memories of Maria.
They were barefoot because this is holy ground.

Will still wore the pink blanket around his shoulders.

One of the ladies that helped watch the girls opened with some great memories of a little girl who loved to cup your face in her hands and look you in the eye. Who would often say, “I love it when my whole family is together.” Who loved to wash dishes and, since she didn’t have a spare outfit, would wash them butt naked in the sink.

More stories followed.

A theme developed.

Maria loved to cuddle, loved to play, loved to draw flowers, used way too much glue and loved to be butt naked.

A few thoughts from the family memories:

Caleb was strong. He said many have asked what they are feeling. He can only say, confusion. He talked about how some paintings are purposely blurred by the artist. Up close you really can’t see it. Step back and it comes into focus. That’s what this is like. Right now they are very close to it. They have just started to back away, but it’s a really big painting and they’ll be backing away for a while.

Mary Beth shared some great memories and so much humor. Who knew she was so funny? She wanted us to laugh and feel joy again. It’s what Maria would want.

Steven shared how Maria and Mary Beth were talking about heaven one day not long ago and how Maria said “I want to go there”. Mary Beth, “so as not to mess up the sinner’s prayer” called for Steven. Steven talked with Maria about the cross and salvation and Maria prayed on her own to accept the gift Jesus offers us all.

He then shared about the accident.

Praying for healing.

Not wanting to accept that she was gone.

Asking God to give them something they could see that would let them know Maria was okay. That the gospel was true and she was in his arms. “Just let me see. Just let me see.”

A few days later, Steven returned to the house.

He endured another wave of grief as he stood in the much too empty bedroom of a little 5 year old princess.

He went to the art center in the kitchen and found the last flower that Maria had been working on.

So much glue.

He flipped it over to find a simple word written in Maria’s 5 year old hand. A word he didn’t even know she had learned to write. There on the page Maria had written, “SEE”.

Emily shared her memory of calling to tell the family about her engagement.

Maria was the last of the three girls to come to the phone.
“Oooo, you’re getting’ married, you’re getting’ married!” which she apparently said while butt naked and shaking her booty.

Then the question none of the other 2 had asked, “Whaddya say?” “I said, ‘yes’, silly.”

Maria would ask the same question a few more times when the girls met Emily later at the airport. Emily then went on to present the gospel in one of the most profound ways I’ve heard.

She talked of the cross.

She talked of the Bridegroom and the church, his bride.

I can’t do it justice, but let me just share this.

The bridegroom has asked for our hand in marriage. Maria has accepted his proposal and he has taken her to the place he prepared for her. “The proposal has been made, whaddya say?”

Geoff Moore (Steven's long time best friend) sang "With Hope as children brought flowers to the casket.

Scotty Smith closed the service.

He didn’t do the prepared sermon, there was no need.

So many had offered reasons for hope.

The gospel had been presented at least 4 times.

And, as you’d expect if you’ve ever been to one of Steven’s concerts, it went long.

The service was just over 2 hours … and it was great.

We rode back to the airport to fly home to our “normal lives” and I thought again of the family.

This weekend they’ve had so many surrounding them with love.

Sunday they will have the church family.

But Monday, or Tuesday, the people will be gone and the house will be quiet.

Then they will feel the wave again.

Normal is a long way off.