Sorrow announces itself with rain.
It comes in suddenly, on what would have otherwise been a bright, sunny day. A gorgeous day, one that wasn’t as hot as anticipated, which was perfect for eating lunch outside and driving with the top down. A perfect day for students to laugh and joke with each other just like they would on any other school day.
That would change quickly, though, when the rain fell. And when it fell, it fell fiercely. It fell like the tears of the students at Jackson Prep that were about to fall. Students that were just about to learn that their friend and classmate, Walker Wilbanks, had passed away right about the time the rain came in.
Pain announces itself to a group setting.
They’re only kids. High school students. Too young to have to experience loss like this. Too young to have to learn and process that somebody they have known for virtually their entire lives is now gone. Too young to have to call their parents, tears in their eyes, and explain what had happened. Too young to have to collapse on the floor of a gymnasium with nothing else to do but hold and comfort each other.
They are proud kids. A football team that takes pride in who they are and exist as the kings of campus. In their minds, they are invincible. But at this moment, they are all too vulnerable. Proud, respected athletes weeping and hurting with tears and snot and real, confused, and genuine emotion coming out. There’s no explanation for any of this. And the few scattered youth ministers who were asked to be there don’t have an explanation. They can only offer hugs. For many of them, they were at the football game the Friday before. They were there for the last night that Walker was conscious, though nobody could have known it then.
Peace announces itself through a dream.
His father has a smile on his face. And yes, it’s a weak smile of a man who has said goodbye to his teenage son, but it’s still a smile. And it’s because he knows something for sure. As he tells his story to those who came to see them at the hospital, he smiles.
The closest to Walker were some of his teammates, a group that altogether his father called The Fiercesome Five. One of them was having difficulty all weekend processing what was happening. He was at the hospital until late on Sunday evening and when he got home, he could only make it to the couch in his living room.
While sleeping, he had a dream. A simple dream in which he received a text message from his close friend Walker, who asked him what was up. He replied by telling Walker he was worried about him. Walker’s reply was simple: “Man, don’t worry about me. I’m fine.” When he woke up, he was at peace. The four other members of the Fiercesome Five were able to visit one more time that afternoon. They were able to say their goodbyes with peace in their hearts.
Joy announces itself through the truth.
Hundreds packed into the gymnasium for a prayer service, not quite sure what to think about it all. How could this happen to a fine kid? How could our classmate, our teammate, our friend, and our brother be gone? Why couldn’t God have answered our prayers for healing?
But the truth is presented by one man who knew the situation well. A man who had experienced the loss of a dear friend when he was their age. A man who had been angry as well. He knew the truth, and he had to share the truth.
The truth is that God is a Healer, and He wanted to heal Walker. He could have healed him right in that hospital, but He had a bigger plan. He would heal Walker forever in the life to come. In doing so, He brought hundreds of hurting people together in the gymnasium that night to be reminded that God loved Walker and that Walker loved God. Through that healing, many hurting people in the gym were healed as well.
Grace announces itself through a passing comment.
“Hey, Sola Gratia, right?”
He said it as he was leaving the gymnasium prayer service. A quick, passing comment to a bumbling idiot who knew nothing for sure other than that he had been saved by grace. It was a reference to a short Bible study one Wednesday night that summer. A reference to something the bumbling idiot had said that he was sure nobody would remember. A reference that meant “by grace alone”. That night, grace was desperately needed.
The kid who said it needed grace to deal with the passing of somebody he knew from their days playing youth football together. The bumbling idiot needed grace to offer to the hurting students around. And that grace was so deeply felt that after the prayer service, even just hours after Walker’s passing, there was genuine happiness in the building.
You see, sorrow comes to us suddenly, a surprising storm, and it brings pain that affects us all. But there is still peace to be found through the dream of a better tomorrow and a better eternity. That truth brings us joy, even in the midst of hurting.
And that grace? It comes from above, same as the rain that falls. It’s the rain that comes from a God who wept when his friends were hurting after the death of Lazarus, and those tears fell again from the sky when his children at Jackson Prep hurt.
But that rain, falling like tears from God’s own face, isn’t the end of the story. Walker Wilbanks knew that. And that’s why he’s able to tell us, “Don’t worry about me. I’m fine.”
Rest in peace, #65. Seeing the impact you had in this life, I can’t wait to meet you in the next.