The Rev. Dr. Christopher J. Benek
"From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked."
I have lost a son today but thankfully, Heaven gained one.
Over the years God blessed Christ’s ministry through me with amazing youth after amazing youth. They have seemingly crawled out of the woodwork and somehow I’ve been fortunate enough to be blessed to know them. There have times when it has seemed like “my” kids could do anything. I’m not bragging but – aww heck with it… I am too bragging. I’ve been blessed with some of the best youth groups I’ve ever seen. Beyond spectacular. I actually often think to myself: if today was my last day on earth I have lived a truly fulfilled life. Really.
I love my youth kids – all of them. I would do just about anything for them and I have. For me it’s not just about some job – it’s about loyalty to what God calls us to. It is understanding that Jesus calls us to be the family of the church – and that may be a very unconventional family unit at times – but properly understood it is a family with non-disposable relationships.
In our time in ministry, Jeannelle and I have “adopted” many youth. Today, one of them – Tyler Kuhn – was killed in a car crash. It is days like this when you think that your heart has been ripped from your chest. There are not enough tears that can be shed… mourning runs deep. In this moment, it feels like I simply will never get over the loss. The insensitive might think that I am being over-dramatic with such a statement – but that would only be because they never met Tyler.
Tyler started coming to church, back in the day not by some masterful act of ministry but because he was enticed by his friends and brother whom were attending our church. The array of Co-Ed Youth Church League Softball and video games provided the initial draw, and when Tyler first came in he was pretty raw.
It was clear that he wasn’t foreign to the concept of God but he certainly wasn’t all aboard on the J-train either. I got the impression that Tyler liked the competition that the pack of boys and supporting cast of girls that he hung out with were stirring up in our youth group.
If Michelangelo’s art came to perfection on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel then my youth ministry equivalency bloomed amidst Video Games and Dodgeball with those boys. Tyler and I spent hours doing what most would define as “stupid stuff” together. One day we spent over an hour (maybe more) just throwing footballs the length of the gym trying to make them into the basketball hoop. It was ridiculous. It made no sense. But we cheered and jeered each other as he proceeded to school me in the made-up game.
Such exercises were the norm though. Games were made among the boys out of seemingly mundane things. One time Tyler started throwing foam practice golf ball off the wall opposite of a miniature toy skee-ball machine in the church basement. Like I said, the games didn’t have to make sense. It was the challenge that had to be overcome. He wanted to see if he could bounce the ball off of the opposite wall and then get it to bounce into the top, most difficult skee-ball hole. He must have tried for half an hour before I realized what he was doing. He had yet to succeed but was relentless in his attempts. I walked over said, “let me try” and in one seemingly impossible shot made the ball directly in. He howled, and jumped up and down. You would have thought he won the lottery. But it wasn’t over yet. He stayed there (a long time I might add) until he finally made it in. Tyler wanted to follow suit – he believed that he could accomplish the seemingly impossible.
Somehow, in the midst of all of that craziness, God was on the scene. We weren’t being traditionally religious in any way. We were just hanging out. But Tyler started showing up more and more and more.
Eventually, then, he started showing up on Sundays when I preached. I might have off hand invited him to church on Sunday – I can’t remember – But what I do remember was that him showing up and what it meant to me. After that he just was around all of the time.
Eventually, the day came when God called me to another church and – while it genuinely broke my heart to have to move away from my Greenville church family – In Jesus, I could do no other.
I could have predicted how most all of the kids would react when the news was broken to them that I was leaving. Yet two of them – I never would have guessed. Paige Tester, one of our younger girls lost it. She was so sweet and just started bawling one morning in Sunday school and that and I almost said “forget it God, I can’t do it”. The other was Tyler. He was genuinely sullen, not his nature. He still would hang around with me but he didn’t understand why I was leaving and I could tell. No Jokes, No Tyler heckling laugh. Sullen.
We rode around in my car together one day and he made some off hand remark about how he was mad because I was leaving. I couldn’t let the comment go. I remember quickly telling him something like “You know just because I am not going to live here, doesn’t mean I’ll ever leave you. If God wasn’t calling me to go I wouldn’t – you all mean too much to me. You know I love you right?” – He told me he knew and he loved me back. He never gave me a hard time about it again.
Actually, the one thing about the youth is that they never once questioned why Jeannelle and I were moving to Hilton Head Island. A lot of folks, when we announced our decision, made remarks implying that we were moving because of the climate or the ocean or some other superficial reason. None of the kids ever implied that. They knew – we could only leave them over a God thing because – we could do no other. They knew – that true Christian family is stronger and more valuable than anything the world can counter or offer. I knew when I left that Tyler knew that too.
Almost a year later, I returned to Greenville for a funeral. As soon as I pulled into the parking lot at First Presbyterian Church Tyler came running from the side doors and ran overs to me with a bunch of the boys, screaming my name and he ran right at me, up to me, and embraced me only to be to be followed by the herd. In that moment I was extremely honored, emotionally touched. I was choked up. There are not many instances in my life that I can say that I have felt as loved as I did in that moment. It was like Christ was hugging me. People talk about what it means to be blessed – but experiencing blessing actively, presently is almost indescribable. I went back to my room that night where I was staying and wept. I knew that these kids all understood Jesus fully in that moment of joy. That moment started with Tyler.
After the move Tyler and I would play Xbox360 online with each other and the guys and he would always talk smack as he threw down. I was terrible compared to him but he always wanted me to be on his team. Those times weren’t even about what was being said over our geekified headsets – it was about spending time together – even if it was semi-virtual time. How can two people be in each other’s presence even when they are hundreds of miles apart? My only explanation is the Holy Spirit of God uniting us.
Tyler is loyal, unwavering. It was as if in that day in the car together before I moved we took vows with one another – we made some kind of familial pact. It is the least trivial thing that I can articulate. For someone who is known for his joking and his laughter, for his hilarious antics, known for his joy – All of my memories of him are surrounded by a mutual acknowledgement of the importance of the moments that we shared together. As such what I have come to realize is that Tyler is a true disciple of Jesus.
This summer at the Cornerstone Music Festival, after defending our third year Dodgeball tournament title, Tyler shared his hopes and dreams for the future with me. He spent time praying for others, serving in the prayer tent that we were helping to host for the Festival. He was the most focused that I have ever seen him. I couldn’t help but think what wonderful things God must have in store for him. I couldn’t help but look at him and marvel – how deep this young man had become. What Joy. It made me realize that we should never underestimate the impact that we are making in other people’s lives. The pursuit of Christ – in love – should always be what matters most. It has made all the difference for Tyler. I truly believe if anyone was prepared to experience heaven now, Tyler was ready.
Often, others give us what we need to make it through to the next day. A wonderful brother in Christ of mine, a Nigerian Priest, who I don’t see nearly enough always reminds me in his wisdom that far surpasses any of my own: “We shouldn’t worry about the time we don’t have together… we should be grateful for the time we have.” I am grateful for the time that God has given me with Tyler.
The reality of death is harsh and painful but the joy of the Gospel in Jesus Christ affords us a celebration of the victory that Tyler has had over death. For me personally it affords some salve of comfort, a reassurance and sure hope that I will one day be reunited with my brother, my boy.
Alas, we have lost a son, a brother, today but – in Christ – we will see our boy and hear his voice in person once again, one day.
We love you Tyler.