The worst kind of pain is that which seems to have no point.
That’s what my pastor told me. Well, me and hundreds of other mourners who gathered at Woodmen Valley Chapel in Colorado Springs today to say goodbye to a dear friend.
It seems like it’s been a theme over the last few days over at the church—fitting, I suppose, given the central place that pain unfortunately takes in most of our walks of faith. Nothing can shake us more than pointless pain, nothing can rip us apart more than senseless tragedy. It’s easier to believe in a kind, loving God when the world treats us as it should—or rather, as we want it to. It’s harder to feel that love when it feels as though we’ve been kicked in the teeth.
But perhaps there’s no better place to process that pain than in a place where we go to contemplate and worship God Himself. That’s what I’ve had the opportunity to do in the last few days, and I wanted to share just a bit of that with you.
Pierce O’Farrill stopped by to chat with the congregation during our regular Saturday worship service (he was there Sunday, too). O’Farrill, in case the name doesn’t sound familiar, was one of the people who was wounded when John Holmes allegedly opened fire at an Aurora movie theater in July. A dozen people died that dark night, and O’Farrill was nearly one of them. He was shot three times: twice in the foot and once in the arm, an arm still held together by pins and rods sticking out of his skin. He could see the blood pooling around his head, and he knew Holmes was standing just inches away from him—pausing perhaps to reload. He remembers thinking, “I trust you, Lord. If this is it, I’m ready to go home.”
It wasn’t “it.” Holmes, according to O’Farrill, stopped firing and just walked out of the theater—waiting (O’Farrill says) to be arrested. The 28-year-old moviegoer survived. Now, he’s telling the world about that miracle—and how he forgives John Holmes. He calls him a “lost, tortured soul who was swallowed up by the darkness.”
It was a very different gathering I went to today—a memorial service for someone whose time on this earth was up. My friend, like O’Farrill, was ready to go home. But for those gathered in the church sanctuary, it felt all too soon.
He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the age of 49. And, fighting a disease that claims most of its victims within a year, he survived for almost four. He left behind a wife and three fantastic kids. He was the sort of person who bought Subway gift cards and handed them out to the homeless, who volunteered anywhere and everywhere, who would always tell you exactly what he thought in the nicest possible way. He wasn’t just a good man; he was a great man—a guy you could always depend on to do the right thing every day, every hour. He loved his family, his friends and his life.
As I said, hundreds of people came together this afternoon to say goodbye. I can’t say that I knew him as well as many of those who were there. Our sons played soccer together for many years, and that’s where we talked—about our team and the other team, about work and vacations and sometimes about God. We saw each other on Saturday afternoons, sometimes shivering against the spring wind or, in the autumn, watching the leaves practically turn colors in front of us.
It was during one of those countless, casual talks that he invited me to church. At the time of his invitation, I hadn’t been a regular churchgoer for a decade. It wasn’t as if I had lost my faith in that fallow time: I had just stopped thinking about it—or, at least, thinking about it with any sort of seriousness. And he caught me in a moment where I’d determined to start thinking about it again.
I went that Sunday. And from there, much of my spiritual life followed as naturally as water downhill—a soft stream pushing through a child’s mud dam. It’s been a long and complicated journey, of course—few walks of faith ever seem to follow a set path—but I can trace much of who I am and what I do to that invitation.
In that moment, my friend changed my life forever.
I thought about that as I sat in the sanctuary and looked at the people there. Some perhaps knew him less than I did. Many knew him far better. But we were all touched by him—and, I’d wager, touched deeply. Even in the pit of his disease, he still ministered to people. It was never about him. It was always about the people around him.
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”
That verse, 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, was one my friend sometimes quoted. He believed it and lived it.
When I consider the pain he suffered over the last four years, it’s hard for me to accept or understand it. When I consider the tragedy in Aurora that scarred so many people, it’s hard for me to figure how it could all be part of a master plan.
And maybe we’re not meant to. We can’t comprehend how God works—what He does or doesn’t do and why.
But while I don’t know where God might be in the causes of our pain, I do believe God can work through it. He can do incredible things in the midst of the darkness. As O’Farrill said, “there’s light everywhere.”
This weekend, I was convicted in the best of ways. I watched O’Farrill use his horrific experience to help others. I watched as a sanctuary full of people celebrated a life well lived. And I realized that, comparatively, I haven’t done that much with my pretty easy life. I’ve not cared for others as I should, loved others as I’ve been called to do. It’s so easy for me to get caught up in the day-to-day detritus of life and forget that, at it’s core, life is a sacred gift: a gift to enjoy, a gift to use wisely, a gift to, as best as we can, give to others.
Pain sucks, no question. But pain need never be pointless. We can learn from it, grow from it, even if sometimes others suffer to teach you the lessons you should’ve learned—that I should’ve learned—long, long ago.