2. Hardened

“Blessed is the one who fears the LORD always, 
but whoever hardens his heart will fall into calamity.”
Proverbs 28:14

“He who is often reproved, yet stiffens his neck,
will suddenly be broken beyond healing.”
Proverbs 29:1

The large sanctuary was filled with people, and the sounds of hushed whispers, sniffles, and the occasional cough echoed off of the high ceilings. Sitting on the second row, The Friend watched as the family of her lifelong best friend shuffled in slowly. They took their places on the row in front of her, and she reached up to squeeze the shoulder of Sarah’s mom. She had always called Sue her second mom, and she felt an even greater bond with Sue now that her only daughter had died. In Sarah’s absence, The Friend was all Sue had left for a daughter.

The pastor made his way to the center stage, and The Friend eyed him curiously. It had been a little over ten years since she’d last stepped foot in the doors to this church…long enough for them to change out those old wooden pews for these new cushioned seats. The pastor she had grown up with had since retired, and about 8 years ago, this new guy had come along. After 8 years of service, the Friend knew he wasn’t “new” to the church anymore, but he was certainly new to her. 

Once at the pulpit, the pastor took a moment to spread out his notes, to compose himself, and to look around the room. From her close vantage point, The Friend could see the sadness in his eyes. Who wouldn’t be sad on a day like this? 

“Church, I usually delight whenever we gather together. Today is not one of those days.”

The Friend shifted in her seat, desperately trying to push down the huge lump of grief that threatened to explode from her chest. She looked at the beautiful oak casket at the center of the aisle in front of her. With her guidance, the family had chosen to have a closed casket. Sarah’s burns had been too extensive.

“It was just five weeks ago that Sarah’s family gathered on her parent’s farm. They celebrated that night the union of a young couple, as Sarah and Nick gave their wedding vows before a small, intimate gathering of friends and family.”

The Friend reached down for a tissue, dabbing at the edges of her eyes. These past few weeks had been an emotional roller coaster as they had all anxiously waited to see if Sarah might survive her extensive injuries. The Friend had wept until she thought she would run out of tears, and she did not want to release her grief in front of so many strangers here at the church. As the pastor continued in his message, her mind wandered back to the night of Sarah’s wedding. 

Honoring their “best friend’s forever” vow some 20 years prior, Sarah had asked The Friend to be her Maid of Honor. There was no one else, really. They had grown up thick as thieves, even attending pre-med and then medical school together. They were both shocked and elated when they had been selected to serve out their residency years at Grace Memorial, bringing them close to home once more. Now, they were in their final year of residency…or at least they both had been, until that horrible day when everything changed.

The wedding had been beautiful. White chairs were set up along the lawn in front of Sarah’s parent’s large, red barn. The tall arch at the center had been special-ordered, and Fern’s Flowers had woven it with white lilies. Tea lights were hung along the aisles and all around from the large oak trees, and a lone violinist played eloquent music as everyone arrived to take their seats. It really had been a beautiful night. 

The Friend remembered a few tears of joy rolling down her cheeks that night as Nick and Sarah exchanged their wedding vows. She couldn’t have been happier for her best friend. She had helped Sarah later that night as she changed into her going away outfit. They were taking a weeklong train ride up the coast, with stops along the way in many small, quaint towns. It was going to be such a romantic honeymoon for two very deserving people. 

“Remember every detail, Sarah! I want to hear about every little thing once you get back.” The friends had giggled with delight over the joy Sarah felt that night. Always the good girl, Sarah had saved herself for marriage. Both girls had been brought up to believe in the sanctity of marriage, but neither girl had continued on in her parents' religious preferences. Sarah hadn’t saved herself for any purely religious reason, but because she wanted to wait for one special person. Sarah always was the romantic. However, that night wasn’t a time The Friend felt compelled to tease Sarah about her lifestyle choices. 

“We will have to get coffee once I get back! Please keep things running smoothly at the hospital for me,” Sarah had joked. Both girls had been selected as chief residents for their chosen disciplines, Sarah in pediatrics, and The Friend in emergency medicine. They often joked that it was their duty to keep Grace Memorial performing as a leading hospital in their specialties. 

Running out to a sea of waving sparklers and the joyful sound of Natalie Cole’s “This Will Be An Everlasting Love,” Sarah and Nick had left the wedding close to midnight, ready to embark on their journey as Mr. and Mrs. Phillips.

The pastor cleared his throat, pulling The Friend’s mind back to the present. She remembered the reason she was here, and once again, sorrow enveloped her.

“March 10 will forever be a day engraved in the memory of our community. While many around the world heard of our tragedy, no one could possibly grasp the depth of our pain over our losses.” He looked around the room, making eye contact with some in the audience. His eyes turned toward The Friend, and she looked away quickly. Ever since she quit going to church, rejecting her parent’s way of life, she did not feel comfortable coming back. The pastor continued.

“Already, we have buried the Anderson family…two loving parents, their oldest son, and their youngest daughter. As you all know, only their middle daughter remains, as she had been away at our children’s camp that week. We must continue to pray for her, as she was just placed in the home of an aunt and uncle in another state. I know we’ve all also heard of the Peterson family, not connected to our church but still so desperately in need. Mr. Peterson had been away on business, and he was returning that day to his wife and four young children. But now, Mrs. Peterson finds herself raising their family on her own, without any means of financial income at this time.” The Friend had heard of their story, too. It was unimaginable.

“And of course, today we remember Sarah and Nick, a young couple who had just celebrated their honeymoon. Returning from their grand adventure, they were prepared to continue in their chosen professions of service, Sarah as chief resident of pediatrics at Grace Memorial, and Nick as an oncologist for five years at the same hospital.” The pastor paused for a moment, and everyone in the room thought over their great losses. There had been many other tragic stories, of course, but they didn’t have the time to go over all of them. No, today was about Sarah.

He cleared his throat and continued, “As we remember all of these loved ones in their deaths, I can’t help but voice the questions we all have probably asked ourselves over the last several weeks. How could God let this happen? Where was He on that day? Why would God take from us such beloved and good people? It all seems to be one grand, cosmic mistake.” 

The heaviness of a broken and tragic situation settled upon the room. The sounds of silent weeping could be heard throughout the sanctuary. Sarah looked up to see Sue’s shoulders shaking from the grief that was undoubtedly overwhelming her. The Friend listened with piqued curiosity, for the pastor’s words touched on her own grief-stricken questions as of late.

“But you see, church family, we are not without hope. We aren’t.” Looking down at Sarah’s parents and making eye contact, the pastor nodded and continued. “I spoke with Roger and Sue yesterday, and this is the message they wanted me to make clear to everyone in this room. They are burying their only daughter today, but they are not without hope.

“For years, I have joined them in praying for Sarah. For years, they have felt a hopelessness that threatened to take over their hearts, as they watched Sarah reject the Truth of the Gospel that she had grown up knowing. You see, Sarah was a good person. No one here could deny that fact. Most would even agree that Sarah was a moral person. But Sarah was, like all of us, not a perfect person. Sarah had a sin problem, and even in the midst of her many good choices, she still stood guilty before a holy God. Even in her good choices, Sarah rejected the truth of Jesus.”

The Friend felt a new anger take root in her heart as the pastor spoke. She leaned to her left, nudging her boyfriend, Joe. “Can you believe this guy?” she whispered. He rolled his eyes and shook his head, looking more annoyed by her nudge than the pastor's words.

“These last few weeks, we have all prayed together for Sarah’s life. She laid on that burn unit floor in a medicated coma, and we begged God that she might emerge from her coma with another chance to live, with another opportunity to choose Him.

"But God gave us hope in a different way, for last week, as Sarah’s earthly body gave in to the injuries she had sustained, we heard the testimony of one man who survived that tragic accident.” The Friend had heard this guy’s story on the news conference late last week. While she couldn’t imagine what he’d lived through, his story brought her little comfort over the loss of her best friend. Apparently it did the opposite for Sarah’s family. 

“Had Sarah not met the Anderson family in her final moments of that train ride, we would be having a very different service right now. But God, in His grace, provided Sarah and all the other occupants in that passenger car with one last chance to call on Him in repentance and for salvation. The Man described a scene in which Laura Anderson sat next to Sarah and Nick while cradling her youngest daughter, and she passionately told them of the love of Jesus. According to this man's testimony, Sarah and Nick both prayed in confession and repentance, making Jesus Lord of their lives.

“We have hope because we know that Sarah and Nick both are with Jesus now. Praise God for the faithfulness of His saints! Praise God that the Anderson family shared in those final moments the full Truth of the Gospel!” 

Several amens could be heard throughout the room, but The Friend didn’t care. Although she felt a slight stirring in her spirit at the words of this pastor, she hardened her heart and shook her head in outrage. How dare he call her best friend good but not perfect! He did not know her. He had no right to judge her! This is the reason I left this hokey church so long ago, The Friend thought. These people and their judgmental attitudes. 

The service continued on, but The Friend hardly noticed what was said or done. She sat there stewing in her anger over the loss of her best friend. She was very angry…at God, at the driver of that train, at anyone she could possibly blame for this horrid situation. And she was definitely angry at this insensitive pastor, who dared to say that her friend was not deserving because “she was a sinner.” 

The service neared its end, and the pastor returned to the pulpit for one final announcement.

“Before we conclude today, Roger and Sue have asked me to do one more thing. Our church is taking up a collection to help the Peterson family. As I mentioned earlier, Mrs. Peterson was a stay-at-home mom, caring for their four children. It is our understanding that Mr. Peterson had no life insurance, and Mrs. Peterson now must figure out how to manage the care of her four children as she enters the work force. We want to help meet needs for her as she navigates this difficult time. There will be men at the doors as you exit the sanctuary, and you can place any contribution in their buckets.”

The Friend glanced down to watch her parents, who were sitting just on the other side of Joe. Just as she had assumed, her dad reached into his coat pocket and retrieved his checkbook. She rolled her eyes when her dad filled out the check with a generous amount of money. Always giving to others, but never taking care of his own, she thought, looking at the outdated clothes her mother and father wore. This is why I’m becoming a doctor! I will never force my kids to wear hand-me-downs. They will have the latest toys, the coolest cars. They will never want for anything!

The Friend made her way to the reception area after the service. The family had requested a private graveside service, which The Friend had of course been invited to attend. She was thankful she would have one final opportunity to say goodbye before they laid Sarah’s body to rest.

Light snacks were served, but The Friend had not really been hungry in weeks. She waited off to the side while Joe filled his small plate. Joe, her live-in boyfriend of two years, always had an appetite. Lost in her own thoughts, she did not see the pastor approach. He startled her when he spoke.

“Hello, I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Pastor Greg.” He offered his hand to her.

Still reeling from his message, The Friend ignored his hand that dangled before her and answered him curtly. “My parents are Pete and Shannon Wilson,”  she replied, nodding in the direction of her parents. They were pillars in this church, just as Sarah’s parents were. 

“Oh yes!” Pastor Greg said with understanding, completely missing, or at least ignoring, The Friend’s cues that she did not want to talk with him. “So you are their youngest, the one in medical school. I’m sorry, your name has escaped me…” He paused, leaving her another opportunity to give him her name. But she was not interested in small talk.

“Dr. Wilson. I’m chief resident in emergency medicine at Grace Memorial.” she replied coolly, and she watched his surprised expression. He recovered quickly with an awkward laugh.

“Of course, Dr. Wilson. I’m so sorry for your loss. Your parents have told me of the special friendship you and Sarah shared.”

Not willing to be pulled into a vulnerable conversation about her private feelings, The Friend hardened her heart toward him once more. “Yes, Sarah was my best friend. And she wasn’t just a good person, as you mentioned in your message. She was a great person! She was the most giving, the most kindhearted person you would ever meet! She wasn’t lacking in any way, as you implied in your message earlier.” 

The Friend couldn’t help herself as the bitter words poured out of her mouth, unbridled and uncensored. She knew this display of emotion wasn’t very professional, either, but her anger overtook her in the moment. “You church people are all the same! So caught up in your Jesus rhetoric, that you miss the goodness of others in front of you. How dare you judge her. You think that you are better than everyone else, but you’re not! Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go speak with Sarah’s parents.”

The Friend stormed off before Pastor Greg had even a moment to respond. She left him behind, speechless and completely caught off guard by her anger. 

Who cares, she thought. I’ll never see that man again.