My friend Johnny would have been eighteen years old today.
I met Johnny in the Fall of 2012 in a brick house a little south of Robinson, Texas. Robinson is a mid-sized town south of Waco on highway 77. It was my first time to lead the Bible study that Johnny and his friends had been in for years.
Johnny asked big questions that made other people in the group think. Johnny texted a lot. Johnny was the first pick when we played tackle football. Johnny challenged me to a wrestling match before I left. I got his number that first meeting. Over the last few years, I watched him play football and basketball, and we got meals together. I loved Johnny. He walked around with a smile on his face, a swagger in his step, and hurt and pain in his heart that now I wish I would’ve known about.
Another kid in my Bible study, Kyle, called me at 10 AM on Wednesday, May 20th. His voice was shaking when he told me the news. Johnny had taken his own life minutes earlier in the parking lot of the school. I went out to the high school to hold my guys, to weep with them, and to pray with them. No one said much. What could you say? God made tears for moments like that, not words. I came home, grabbed a picture of my K-life guys that sits on my desk, and wept like I’ve never wept before.
I pulled myself off the couch and grabbed my prayer journal.
Lord, I don’t know why Johnny took his life this morning. I’ve got so many questions swirling around my head and I’m feeling guilt, Lord. HE WAS MY K-LIFE GUY. We met up. Just last month, we were planning to get a meal together. And today he took his life.
After a day of grief spent with my K-life guys, that night I went to the prayer vigil and sat next to my Bible study co-leader Jordan. Jordan is a mountain of a man, 6’4″ 220. I’ve never seen him frown, let alone break down like he did that night. We sang some songs and prayed some prayers and it all hurt so deep.
Death cuts deep. It takes our own away from us and knocks the people close to them down on their knees. It causes fear. It causes pain. It takes us out of our daily routine, our 9-to-5, our day-to-day existence that feels so dependable, so within our own control. It leaves so many questions swirling around our heads, questions with answers that would tie any bows around what happened. Why wasn’t I more aware of his pain? Why didn’t I schedule that lunch date? How’d he get to that point? Could I have done anything?
Asking those questions and looking for those answers doesn’t help. They don’t make anything better or bring anybody back. Jordan and I sat in the first row of the balcony and lingered after the service, weeping like 21-year-old males aren’t supposed to do. Those questions were pulsing through my mind and I could feel those questions running through his mind. Guilt. Shame. Blame. All of it, pulsing through my mind, pulsing through his mind. I didn’t love Johnny perfectly. I have regrets. I wish I would’ve texted him more. I wish I would’ve told him I loved him more. I wish I would’ve pursued him and told him how precious the Gospel told him he was. But I can’t do any of those things anymore.
Jordan and I sat in those pews and spoke aloud in strained voices a few of those regrets. One of us would go—it would start “Man I wish I would’ve…” and it would end in tears. After a few turns back and forth, I spoke aloud what a friend had told me earlier that day. “Jordan, we can’t take this on us, and we can’t let our guys or our buddy Alex take this on them either. We can’t live under that. We’re too weak and we’re too frail and we’re too broken.”
Our tears kept flowing but our conversation turned a corner. We started telling each other that night that we were going to cling to Jesus tighter and love better because of this. We told each other that we wouldn’t let guys slip through the cracks, that we’d love every one of our Bible study kids like crazy from this point forward, that because of this tragedy we were going to love better and love deeper and love more like Jesus. We walked out to the parking lot, hugged for longer than tough guys are supposed to, and got in our cars to go grieve somewhere else.
Two weeks later, our wounds are still open. They’re more open today because this was supposed to be a day of celebration of eighteen years of life.We’re still hurting deep. There are still questions, and there are still no answers. I don’t think there ever will be answers. There are still regrets. I don’t think mine will ever completely leave.
For me, here’s the only answer to any of this grief. Here’s the only sentence that makes any sense or brings any peace to my soul. My days here on earth are precious and fleeting, and while I’m here I’m going to follow the example of my Savior and King Jesus Christ, loving others deeply and proclaiming boldly that life to the full, eternal life, is found in Him. That’s all I can say, that’s all I can cling to, that’s all I can live for.
Robinson friends and family and anyone else who’s feeling this pain or has ever felt this pain before, we can’t carry any burdens of guilt or shame or blame in this. Let them go so you can grab onto Jesus Christ, the only Answer that brings peace or healing. We can’t love Johnny back but we can love better in his absence and in his remembrance.