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Planning Sunday After an Unexpected Tragedy

Last Thursday at 10:06 a.m., Brian Chesemore, a pastor at Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville, texted me and the other pastors. He informed us that one of our members, 42-year-old Wade Stephenson, had been in a “very bad car accident” and was on his way to the hospital. An hour later Brian simply texted: “He’s with the Lord.”

I wept uncontrollably. Wade was a gentle, grateful, generous, godly man, a musician and leader who was loved and respected by everyone who knew him. He left behind his dear wife Rebecca, three young daughters and a soon to be born son.

The tragic news spread quickly throughout our three-year-old church plant and rocked our world. But in the midst of profound grief, the gifts of the Spirit were on full display. By nighttime a Facebook page, Loving the Stephensons, enabled church members and friends to sign up to minister to Becca and her family in numerous practical ways, including financial gifts. The response was overwhelming.

A Change of Plans

We had already planned Sunday, but as C.J. Mahaney has often told me, “The Holy Spirit helps us plan, but our plans are not the Holy Spirit.” So at the hospital on Thursday morning, we started over. We would point people to the gospel from God’s Word as always, but Wade’s death brought a fresh immediacy to the truths we proclaim every Sunday. People would be grieving. How could we comfort them with the hope of the gospel without sounding shallow or callous? How could we keep Sunday from becoming a memorial service, and yet still weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15)?

We ended up planning the meeting by email, and were nailing down final decisions Sunday morning. Being in pastoral ministry for decades teaches you there are no formulas to care for people’s souls. I thought it might be helpful, though, to share what we ended up with, and the thought process behind it.

The Sovereign God Who Sees and Knows

We started the meeting with a call to worship from Ps. 31:7I will rejoice and be glad in your steadfast love, because you have seen my affliction; you have known the distress of my soul. I said something like, “Sometimes we come into a Sunday gathering with little or no desire to sing God’s praises or be with God’s people. We’re in a time of affliction. Our souls are distressed. And yet God calls us to rejoice in him because he sees our affliction. He knows the distress of our souls. And he assures that in Jesus Christ, his steadfast love is unchanging and unending. Let’s praise the God whose faithfulness never fails us.”

The first song was “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” We wanted to start with a familiar and reflective song that reminded us who God is and what he’s done for us in Christ.

We then sang God Moves,” my 2005 adaptation of William Cowper’s hymn that uniquely explores the mystery of God’s sovereignty. I edited a few lines and added a chorus that expresses a confident trust in God.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace
Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face

So God we trust in You, O God we trust in You
When tears are great and comforts few
We hope in mercies ever new
We trust in You

Following the song, Jeff Purswell, the account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.

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Bob Kauflin currently has the privilege of serving as the Director of Worship Development for Sovereign Grace Ministries. © Sovereign Grace Ministries. WorshipMatters.com. Used by permission.