So how do you write about something you wished never happened? How do your describe something that felt so dark, but in reality was actually illuminating? Where do you begin?
I guess I’ll start from the beginning…
Sunday, July 8th around 8:45pm – First Day of ETV Summer Camp
It was a typical tent-discussion with a handful of 9th and 10th grade boys following the first message from camp…”What’d you like? What didn’t you like?” etc., etc. One comment stood out from the rest…It came from a boy entering the 10th grade named Caleb Justice. In a conversation about the relevancy of God and the Bible, Caleb spoke up and said, “It doesn’t surprise me that God’s word still makes sense to us today [after being written some 2,000+ years ago]…I mean, He’s God and that’s just what He does…”
It’s amazing how enlightening a single statement can be. Words have a way of doing that…to inspire…to reveal truth…to stick. Caleb’s words stuck. I left that conversation thinking about the nonchalant, “no duh”-type of way that Caleb spoke about God.
“What else did I expect? God always works. He never fails. Every year at ETV, He does something amazing. Yeah…this is what He does.”
Little did I know that God would begin to work in ways I could have never imagined. But this wouldn’t be the kind of work that was easy or brief. This was to be a work that would involve pain and loss. A work that work that would require faith and courage. A work that would require sacrifice…
Monday, July 9th around 11:00am – Arriving to the Lake
My main responsibility for the week was to oversee all of the lake activities – we had a great week planned with multiple boats for students to go tubing & wakeboarding, we had water polo goals for the shallow water, countless water floats for the students to use and enjoy, and we even had fried chicken for lunch (which is way better than the usual ham & cheese sandwich with no mayo)! So it was set to be a great week!
For months I had been preparing for the week of camp. I had several areas of responsibility that I was overseeing for the week and I wanted to make sure that I was as prepared as possible to lead and serve well.
One of my areas of responsibility was the Lake Team…I know, I know – tough gig, but somebody had to do it 😉 Like I told the ETV Leadership Team, “If somebody needed to suffer in the sun and make sure the lake was covered, I would be willing to ‘take one’ for the team.” So I did 🙂
I planned for a great week at the Lake with lots of fun activities, but I learned quickly that you can’t plan for the unexpected. Within a matter of hours everything would change.
Looking back now – a full year later – it seems as if this was a “small” microcosm of what to expect over the next year. Life is full of so many twist and turns – almost all of which are unexpected. It’s as if we set our plans only to appease our minds and give us some sort feeling of control.
It’s interesting really – with so much being out of our control, we fight and struggle for every little bit of control that we can muster. Now I’m not advocating abandoning plans, or saying that plans don’t have purpose, but it’s foolish to think that because we plan things will unfold the way we expected. If there is anything that I’ve learned in this life it’s that few things go the way I plan.
Proverbs 16:9 says, “We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps.”
Only God knows fully our exact steps and the direction of the paths we journey. All that we experience and all that we go through are part of God’s plan and His purpose.
This is the foundational truth that I’ve held onto over the last year. It’s what has brought me peace amidst turbulence. And it’s been the light that has guided me through darkness.
And darkness was certainly looming…
Monday, July 9th around 2:30pm – “The Phone Call”
The shore was silent…the music had stopped…the “vibe” was changing…not a problem. I would simply get my iPhone, restart the playlist, connect it back to the stereo dock, and the beach party would resume. As I reached for my phone, I realized that I had an incoming call – it was the Camp Director, Mathias Califf – unassumingly so, I answered the phone. What was said to me was not what I expected – how could anyone ever expect what happened next…
Mathias: “Hey, do you have a moment?”
Me: “Yea, what’s up?”
Mathias: “Listen, Greg (Goosetree) just called me and there is a situation happening at the waterfalls. I don’t have all of the details, but Caleb Justice slipped off a rock into the river. Brett McLean went in after him but neither of them have come up yet and it’s been about 5 minutes.”
Me: “What do you mean? Did they get carried downstream?”
Mathias: “I don’t know man. I don’t have all the details, but it sounds pretty scary. I’m on my way there now, so I’ll call you as soon as I have more information.”
Paralysis can be defined as a state of powerlessness or incapacity to act. I’m not 100% sure that this is what I experienced, but it definitely captures how I felt in that moment. I suddenly became overwhelmed by a flood of emotions…fear, uncertainty, disbelief, hurt, and even anger. Each emotion reared itself, making me well aware of its presence.
Yet, amidst all of those feelings I had a sense of hope. Uncertain hope, but hope nonetheless. “Maybe they’re just around the bend…They should come up any moment now…When Mathias calls back, everything will be ok…There’s no way that this could happen at camp.”
It was that small measure of hope mixed with the other wild emotions that led me to prayer. I mean prayer like I never prayed before. It was a desperate prayer. A prayer like I’ve only prayed maybe once before. I longed for the best, but I feared for the worst.
It makes me wonder – in that moment I begged of everything from God…I believed in His ability and in His power maybe more than I’ve ever believed – so why is it that we don’t seek God in this way even in the smallest of matters?
To pray with that same level of burden, to believe with such a deep sense of conviction, to trust with the highest degree of reverence – this is what I’ve learned. That in all things God desires for us to seek Him in this way – even when the outcomes are not what we desire.
Monday, July 9th around 3:00pm – “Cruel Reality”
The phone rings. Mathias Califf calling. Swipe to answer.
Mathias: “Hey Ricky…man, I don’t even know how to tell you this…”
In that one, half-sentence I knew…more was said, but it didn’t matter. As cruel as it seemed, reality set in. Things would be forever different.
Mathias: “Do you want me to call the parents? Or is that something you think you should do?”
Me: “No, I think I should call them. I think it would be better for them to hear it from me.”
That 30-minute window felt like eternity times three. It’s funny how we can want something so badly – in my case this phone call – yet when we receive what we “wanted” it ends up not being what we wanted at all.
As soon as those words were uttered my heart sank. This game of life had dealt it’s cruelest hand – death.
Brett McLean and Caleb Justice
As reality set in, I couldn’t help but feel as if someone was playing a cruel joke on me. That day at the lake, I did my best to make sure that everyone was safe. I watched the shore to make sure no one was too far out. I kept an eye on every person – I didn’t want any accidents happening on my watch.
Yet here I was having to face a situation in which I was unable to protect one of my own students. In all honesty, I felt like a failure. Doubt began to creep it’s way in, ”If only I had been there – maybe I could’ve reached him. This happened because I wasn’t there. This was my fault…”
As foolish as it may seem, these were my honest thoughts in that moment. I don’t know how long those thoughts lasted, but it couldn’t be very long. Within moments I had to muster the courage to call Caleb’s father and break the news to him. There was no room for doubt or self-pity. Courage was what was need. Yes, courage.
Yet again it seems that this moment – when all of life seemed still – served to be a reminder of a greater lesson that God would begin to teach me.
You see there are situations that we experience far more consistently than we’d like to acknowledge that cause us to doubt. They have to do with relationships, with family, with work, with school, with ourselves – and they all cause us to doubt. We doubt who we are; we doubt what we’ve learned; we doubt what we’ve become; we doubt the process that has led us to this moment; we doubt our decisions; we doubt the decisions of others; we doubt God.
But it is in these moments, these seasons, of doubt that God is often times pulling us forward, urging us to live with courage. He’s at work within us stirring up the courage that will drive away the doubt; courage that will fortify who we are; courage that will cause us to overcome.
It is this courage that allows us to face all of life’s cruel realities, even when we don’t know how…
Monday, July 9th around 3:05pm – “The Conversation”
Search contacts. Locate Shawn Justice. Take a deep breath. Say a prayer. Dial mobile.
Shawn: “Hey Ricky!”
Me: “Hey Shawn. Do you have a minute to talk and can you sit down?”
Shawn: “Yea, sure – what’s going on?”
Me: “Shawn, I don’t even know how to say this but…Shawn, today Caleb was at the river near the waterfalls. He was on the rocks around the pool and he slipped in. Another leader was nearby and he went in after Caleb to try to reach him. It’s been over 30 minutes and neither one of them has surfaced. Shawn, I’m so sorry…”
Shawn: Pauses. Deep breath.
Me: “I’m so sorry Shawn…I’m sorry…”
Shawn: Exhale. “Ricky, it’s ok, just pray…I’ll get Sara and we’ll head up to the camp.”
Just typing this very conversation is incredibly difficult. With each keystroke I relive the conversation. Moment-by-moment, line-by-line, sentence-by-sentence everything comes back. This is a conversation that I’ll never forget – and trust me, for good or for bad, I’ve tried to forget. But my mind won’t…it can’t…let go.
It’s a conversation that has been re-played in my mind every week for the last year. 52 weeks. Every. Single. Week.
How do you tell the father of a 15-year old boy that his son has just passed away in a drowning accident at summer camp? Better yet, how do you respond to his sense of peace and understanding?
As I’ve said before, I wouldn’t wish this conversation on my worst enemy…
There is much to be learned from this conversation. While I’ve learned some things, I’ve not fully extracted all that is to be gained from this brief phone call. In fact, when I think of this conversation it only leads to more questions and more learning.
How does one maintain a measure of calmness when you’ve been dealt terrible news? At what point in my relationship with God will I begin to know and understand God in such a way that I am not panicked about life’s troubles? When I face an unbelievable challenge or reality – do I think to pray? Or why think at all – why not pray?
I’ve had a year to think on these things and to be honest this is still in “process mode”. I haven’t arrived yet. I haven’t figured it out yet, but I’m working on it. This conversation that I sometimes wish I could let go of, has become a source for deep introspection and self-evaluation. So for that reason alone, I will continue to replay this conversation and relive possibly the most difficult thing that I have ever done in my life.
Monday, July 9th around 3:30pm – The White River Falls
Right after calling Shawn Justice, I was on my way to the waterfalls. While the distance was only 7 miles, the entire drive seemed to move in slow motion.
Upon arriving to the falls I saw Joshua, Caleb’s older brother, who was just yards away when his brother slipped into the falls. I could hardly bring myself to look at him as I still battled feelings of guilt and failure.
I walked towards the White River Falls – a set of falls so gorgeous, hidden in an Oregon desert valley. I had been to the falls many times before. I always stood in wonder and in awe of God’s creation.
It was here that I was able to gather myself for a few moments. Emergency crews were on the scene and the state park was now closed as rescue crews sought to retrieve the bodies of Caleb Justice and Brett McLean. Still I was able to sit silently, to reflect, to talk…
I found a place of solace – a place where I could approach God and talk with Him about what had occurred. He already knew, but I knew He wanted to hear it from me. It was there that I told Him all about Caleb and Brett. I told Him about how Caleb once tried to play “Hide and Seek” with me even though I didn’t know I was playing, plus he was hidden in plain sight. I told God about the time Brett and I sat in a pizza shop and laughed because we were two young guys with matching “doulos” tattoos on our left wrists sharing a vegetarian pizza.
I told God that on the surface Caleb and Brett appeared to be polar opposites, but that in reality they were very much the same – both were risk-takers; both had a passion for life and even more passion for Jesus; both had unique personalities with their own quirks; and both were comfortable being who God wanted them to be. I also told God that I would miss them dearly.
Yes, it was at the White River Falls – the place where the waters roared loudly and violently – that I was invited to talk with God.
Psalm 27:8 – “My heart has heard you say, ‘Come and talk with me.’ And my heart responds, ‘Lord, I am coming.’”
Over this last year I have found God’s invitation to talk to be one of the most comforting things in my life. In God, I have found a friend that I can approach about anything at anytime. He’s worthy of being trusted with deepest hurts and our darkest fears. He’s gives us reason to celebrate and provides us with great joy. No matter my situation, I take God up on His offer to talk and many times this is exactly what I need.
Monday, July 9th around 5pm – “The Message”
After some time at the falls, Mathias and I began to talk about the rest of the day and evening – what would be the plan? Who do we communicate to? What do we communicate? How do we let the other students know that haven’t heard yet?
With several other youth pastors unaware of what was going on, and with Mathias having to stay with the emergency crews and law enforcement, I headed back to the camp to take the lead on communicating to the students and to the volunteers.
I’ve given dozens of speeches and I’ve preached hundreds of messages in my life – many of which I’ve prepared for hours, some I’ve done ‘off the cuff’ – but none were as conflicting as what I was about to say. It was up to me to tell about 150 high school students and 100+ adult staff & volunteers about the incidents of the day. I didn’t know what to say exactly, but I knew two things: they needed the truth and they needed hope.
So on the drive to the camp, I began to think. I gleaned on an experience that occurred just 9 days before the tragedy at ETV (which I wrote about here) and I knew that despite the tragedy, the call had to be to worship and to love.
To worship because the day we arrived to camp we celebrated God’s greatness and how good He was; and if God was good yesterday, then the truth still remains that God was still good on this day. Like David when he lost his son in 2 Sam. 12, the only appropriate response seemed to be worship. The beauty of worship is that it requires a total surrender of one’s self in acknowledgment of One that is bigger, or superior. Despite our troubles, I knew God was still in control.
And to love because this was an experience that we all went through – it wasn’t just me, everyone at camp was going to go through this…together. And since we were going to walk through this experience together we needed love. Love for our brothers, love for our sisters, love for our Creator. It was love that was to become the pillars of support on which we would stand.
So this became our “rally cry” of sorts: To worship and to love. That night we broke into groups, told stories, laughed, cried, supported one another, exhorted each other, and sang songs…we worshipped and we loved.
Singer/songwriter Reuben Morgan from Hillsong United once said, “When we are more aware of our weaknesses than our strength, it is ok to sing out of HOPE rather than certainty.”
Although two friends were lost, we all sang out of hope.
It was in this moment that I learned I could worship in any and every situation. That worship of the one true God is not dependent upon my circumstances. No…God is far greater than that. He is much more deserving of that.
Only a God so gracious and so loving could receive and accept a worship so broken yet so pure.
Monday, July 9th to Tuesday, July 10th – Reflection
The 24 hours that followed felt like I was in the twilight zone. All of it felt like a whirlwind…I remember looking at my watch exactly 24 hours after I received the first phone call and thinking how fast, yet how slow, time had moved. So much had happened in such a short span of time. Little by little I began piecing together my thoughts and looking for what God was doing in me and around me…
I’ve always been a “big picture” kind of guy. I’ve always tried to step away from a situation and see how everything was coming together and try to assess what could be. This has always come very natural to me – even when I was a young teenager.
This situation was no different. As time passed, I began to step back and look for what God was doing. He was doing something and it was BIG. All over the world people were becoming aware of what had occurred and they began reaching out and praying together. God’s people were rallying together and sending their prayers and support our way. At the camp, there was a spirit of unity and humility. God was at work and I began to see bits and pieces of what He was doing.
I went from looking around to looking within – what was God doing in me? I wasn’t sure, but I had questions…Why was I chosen to be at the center of these events? What did God want me to see about Him? This wasn’t a short-term learning experience, so how would this affect the rest of my life and my ministry?
In this last year, I’ve walked through all sorts of challenges and I’ve faced countless situations that have required reckless faith. I’ve had people tell me that they know God is going to do great things in me and that they can’t wait to see the story God has written for me. I’ve pursued dreams that I’ve had for 10 years and I’ve seen God honor that in my life.
One reason: I’ve sought every opportunity to be used by God and I’ve accepted every situation that He has presented me with.
There’s no magic here. There’s nothing special or unique about what I’ve done. It’s something that every single person can choose to do. No matter who you are, you can decide to embrace everything that God puts before you and learn to see it as an opportunity to bring honor to Him.
My Continuing Journey…
Sadly, many of us don’t choose to be used by God in this way. We choose comfort and convenience over character. We settle on contentment rather than growth. We look for shortcuts rather than trusting in the process.
It’s certainly not easy, nor is it always fun. There are many seasons where you truly walk by faith not knowing where you are going – but that is the essence of the Christian belief system. It’s Faith.
Hebrews 11:6 says, “It is impossible to please God without faith.”
It doesn’t say that your chances of pleasing God are reduced…it says that it is impossible. Faith isn’t an option, it’s a must.
Not only is this the chief lesson that I have learned, but it is what was exemplified in Caleb’s life.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “It’s not the length of life, but the depth.”
Through all of this, I have discovered that the key to depth is not possessions, pleasure, or even experiences; but rather the key to depth is faith. You see I’ve learned that faith is what leads to a life that is full of depth, meaning, and significance.
It really is amazing how much you can learn in a single day. There are some things you learn that will stay with you forever – you’ll never forget them.
Funny isn’t? How some moments span into eternity…