Hard to believe my life was radically altered about 22 years ago through two teenagers. So when I get the chance to speak in front of high schoolers, I remind them that they can change the world. If it wasn't for two brothers named Rob and Jason (15 and 17 at the time) I might not be alive. I could be dead, or living a dark, empty life.
See, when I was 16 when I was befriended by some high school peers who genuinely cared about me, invited me into their family, and boldly shared the love of God in such a real way, that I responded, followed, and gave my life to learn about this great God who loves us and revealed himself through Jesus, and the Bible. I certainly didn't deserve it, and had a lot of maturing to do in life to understand it. And some times, I still feel unworthy of it, but I am motivated to live in response to the love I was shown, and share it with others.
It still seems crazy to me that I am who I am and doing what I do. It's been a good, long, hard journey, but I am so grateful.
So last month when I was speaking to a few hundred high school students at a weekend retreat, I told them story. I spoke of how I've seen God work in my life through others. I told them of Rob and Jason. I recounted working through hard family times, my personal journey of understanding my identity, and shared one of the darkest times I've ever experienced.
I spoke about the phone call I received one Sunday morning, two years ago, on October 14th, 2012.
(For more on this anniversary see my former posts.)
The phone call that I hope no one ever has to have.
Caller: Is this Tony Gapastione?
Me: Yes.I don't remember much from there, besides falling to the ground. My knees just gave out as if I was standing underneath a crumbling building. I couldn't hold myself up, I just wept in my driveway. It is still hard for me to think about, let alone, type..
Caller: This is Dr. So & So from BLAH BLAH...(some hospital in San Diego). We need your permission to take your grandmother off life support. She assigned you as her 'do not resuscitate' contact. She's suffered a self inflicted gun shot wound to the head. She is brain dead.
The story is long, deep, and extremely sad.
But I went on to tell these students of the many people who came around to support me during that time, much like Rob and Jason did twenty-two years ago. I described the people who prayed. The recounted the many people who just sat there with me (like my wife), and I encouraged these students to be like the people who literally held me up when I couldn't stand up because I was filled with sadness.
Well, I'm sure you can imagine these high school students could identify with the pain of death. Many have dealt with their own depression at the young age of 15-17 and many of them have experienced the tragic death of loved ones through suicide.
We ended our time together at that retreat, standing up and praying together. We linked arms resolving to believe God was with us, and he would get us through whatever dark times we'd encounter, together.
After I finished, a student came up to me with tears in his eyes. He said nothing. He just stood by me. He kept wiping his tears, trying to form some words.
I put my arm around him and asked if I could pray for him.
He looked at me and said, "I just need to get over it. How did you do it?"
I stared back at him.
"Do what?" I asked.
"How did you get over your grandma's suicide?"
Oh, you must have misheard me. I'm not 'over' it, at all. I don't think I'll ever get over it. But God continues to walk with me through it.
And when I said that, it hit me.
I don't think I'll EVER GET OVER 'it.' God, being the good Father that he is, would ever expect that of ANY death we'd experience. Because death was never his plan. In fact, I love when Jesus is at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, the original language says he just roars, from the pit of his stomach. It was never his plan, death was not his plan! So even Jesus weeps over death, and offers us himself, his love, and his perspective.
That's what I told that student.
God's perspective is that THIS LIFE is not the end. There is more. He is with us now, and he is preparing a place for us to be with him. Read John 14.
Please don't hear me saying, or in any way endorsing we should mope around and allow depression or sadness to take over our lives.
But we can acknowledge our feelings and emotions, not hide them, and walk through them with God and others at our side.
We can learn how to see life the way God sees it, with HOPE.
If you are reading this, suffering through the pain of death in any form, I want to encourage you that you ARE LOVED. God is with you, and he is FOR YOU! Talk to him, walk with him, and reach out to others to pray with you and hold you up when you can't stand on your own. I'd encourage you to join a church family. (Not just sit in a building on a Sunday, but connect, engage and be a part of something supernatural, a group of people alive, serving together, and living on a mission).
Don't try hard to "get over" death, pain, sadness. Just fall, and fall into the loving arms of your creator, the ONE who made you, loves you, and wants to be with you, and let HIM pick you up, and walk you through whatever it is you are dealing with.
That's what I told that student at the retreat. That's what I want to tell myself. That's what I want to tell you. I hope you all can have a Rob and Jason in your life. People to love you, pray for you, help you, hold you, and speak the truth to you.
That's my 2 cents.