Last Thursday, Christian musician Steven Curtis Chapman and his family appeared on CNN’s Larry King Live to talk about the tragic death of their adopted daughter Maria. I have always thought that Chapman was the real deal—a man of faith, thought, commitment, creativity and passion. This interview confirmed what I had always thought about him, but to see how that faith has been passed on to his family—even in the face of an unspeakable horror—was powerful.
The interview began with the predictable “what happened?” questions. The grief was still palpable as Steven and his wife, Mary Beth, told about 5-year-old Maria playing in the family’s yard that day in May. The family was getting ready to celebrate the high school graduation of their 17-year-old son, Will Franklin. After running some errands, Will was coming back home and somehow, as he pulled up the drive, Maria darted in front of the car and was run over. Steven made it clear that his son was not reckless, speeding or distracted by a cell phone. It was all a horrible accident.
You never plan for tragedy, so you can’t plan your reactions. It just happens. Steven and Mary Beth call 911 and begin frantically performing CPR on Maria’s bleeding, broken and probably already lifeless body. Within minutes, the paramedics arrive, loaded Maria and begin the journey to Vanderbilt Hospital.
Now watch. Will Franklin, overwhelmed at what has happened and his role in it, starts running. Running away from the accident scene. Running away from the house. Running away from his family, Running away, with no destination in mind. His older brother, Caleb, ran after him, tackled him, held him and through sobs, yelled in his ear, “You can’t leave. We love you!” Caleb later said he felt he was holding on while Will took his last breaths. Inconsolable grief, guilt or shame has a way of killing part of a person’s soul. Caleb held Will and tried to pour life into his ebbing soul.
Watch. The ambulance is pulling away; Steven and Mary Beth are in a car being driven behind it. Steven sees his sons locked in embrace on the ground, and tells the driver to stop the car. He opens the door, leans out and yells, ‘Will Franklin! Your father loves you!” I can’t even write that without crying. What a phenomenal picture of a father’s fierce, never-failing, unchanging love for his son – at the moment of his greatest brokenness.
This is what families do. Makes no difference if they are biological or spiritual—like the church. In the moments of our most evident brokenness, deepest darkness and greatest sadness, family comes and puts skin on the realities of our heavenly Father’s fierce love, the Son’s gospel presence and the Spirit’s breath of life. Family holds on tight and says, “you can’t leave—we love you” and helps us hear our heavenly Father’s voice calling our name and saying, “Your Father loves you—still.”
Steven had recorded a song on his latest CD called ‘Yours”, which affirms God’s sovereign reign over all peoples and places and situations. After Maria’s death, he wrote a new verse which says:
I’ve walked the valley of death’s shadow
So deep and dark that I could barely breathe
I’ve had to let go of more than I could bear
And questioned everything that I believe
But still even here
in this great darkness
A comfort and hope come breaking through
As I can say in life or death
God we belong to you.
Broken and hurting people may have a hard time singing along, like Will Franklin the day his sister died. But having a family—biological or spiritual– built on faith in this sort of God means that there is always somebody else there who will hold you close and sing for you when you just can’t. Not singing to you, or at you, but for you. I’m pretty sure that’s what the Bible means by compassion.
A family like that pours life back into my ebbing soul and helps me, even faintly, to hear heaven’s Voice again. A family like that is a remarkable gift, a redeeming power….a miracle.
(The entire Larry King interview is available on You Tube. I’ll try to post links later)