Grief comes to us in many forms. Many have said that the worst kind of grief is the kind that is experienced suddenly, without warning, without any time to prepare for it, or even brace for it.
This is the how we experienced it on the fourth of September as sharp, sudden grief took us by surprise. There was shock and denial. “No, God, no, not now.” “Please, Lord, this can’t be.” “I can’t believe it.” There was anger. “How did this happen?” And with all grief, there has been guilt: things we wished we said; things we wished we could have taken back.
And here we are, almost two weeks later, and some may still be having a difficult time accepting it.
We are perhaps having a difficult time accepting it, because Johnny was such a good, fun-loving, people-loving, life-loving person. He has been described this week by the people that he did business with in Tallequah as “a hoot to be around.”
I am not sure if anything actually made him this way, or he was just born with it. For even as a little boy, he he sounded like he was sort of a hoot. His sister Virginia fondly remember their mother taking Johnny with them and some girls in the neighborhood to her Tap, Ballet dance lessons. Because Johnny always had a strong thing for the opposite sex, Johnny didn’t mind going. But then, Johnny must have thought, if I have to go along with them to these lessons, I might as well dance too. So the instructor recruited a few other boys and created a ballet with baseball players and clowns.
That experience may have had something to do with him enjoying ball room dancing later as an adult. Or it could have been that he never did outgrow his affection for the opposite sex!
Johnny loved the arts, loved formal dancing and the type of music that soothes the senses. He appreciated nature, a beautiful landscape: the grandeur of the plains and the majesty of the mountains. But he also loved sports and driving a truck and working on a farm, especially during the harvest.
Johnny loved Cajun food. And Johnny loved Mexican food. Johnny loved food with flavor. But of course, to Johnny, life itself was smorgasbord of spice.
Johnny loved family. His sisters remember him saying and saying often that his children had no idea how much he loved them. Johnny loved family gatherings, for they reminded him of the love he had for grandparents.
There wasn’t anything Johnny would not do for any member of his family. When his sister Virginia was diagnosed with spinal stenosis, had neck surgery, couldn’t walk, like he did when his mother was sick, Johnny dropped everything he was doing and drove to Colorado to stay with Virginia, not for a couple of days, or for a couple of weeks, not even for 2 months, but for 2 years.
And it wasn’t only his family that he would do anything for. He loved to do whatever he could to help anyone he could. His sisters said every time it snowed, he wished he owned a tractor with a plow so he could clear as many driveways and sidewalks. Johnny simply loved people and loved to help people.
I believe Johnny would have loved to know that on the day that his life was celebrated, Heather and Ben ran in this morning’s Great Land Run, pushing a child with exceptional needs, including them in their first 10k race.
Johnny was also very proud of his service to his country, giving four years of his life during the Vietnam War in the United States Air Force.
So when sudden grief came to us on September 4th, we grieved hard. “No, God, no, not now. Please Lord, this cannot be!” And even, today, almost two weeks later, we are still having those thoughts.
It grieved me when Joyce told me that Johnny enjoyed worshipping at our church and looked forward to coming back. It grieved me because Johnny is the type of person that pastors love to have in their congregation. A group of ministers were having a conversation one day about how many active church members they had.
One minister said, “How many active church members do I have? Probably about half of them.” They all chuckled, for they knew that was the sad truth. However, one minister spoke up and said that all of his members were active.
“What?” Asked the others. How can that be?”
He said, “Half act one way, and the other half act another way.”
Johnny would most definitely fall into the category of “the way we want our church members to act: Fun loving, people loving, life loving.”
I believe that is because Johnny truly understood that all of life is but grace. This mystery we call life is all unearned, undeserved. And Johnny lived a life of profound gratitude for it all.
I believe this is the way that he was able to get through the divorce of marriages and not be bitter. Johnny would probably say, “I didn’t deserve to be married to one woman, and I had three.” Instead of being bitter about what he did not have, or what he lost, Johnny was grateful for what he did have.
And people who get that, get that all of life is but grace, are generally good, people loving, life-loving people. This is why I believe Johnny especially loved Disciples of Christ Churches. He loved the openness of our church, our welcome and love for all people.
And people who don’t get that, that all of life is grace, people who believe life or the world owes them something, that they somehow have earned it, are generally not the type of people that we pastors, especially Disciples of Christ pastors, like to have in our churches.
When Johnny was nineteen years old, he would drive the church bus full of high school youth to out-of-town football games. One night they were on their way back from a game in Stillwater. It was raining cats and dogs. They were heading west and approached a stop sign at a “T-intersection.: With all of the water on the road that night, the brakes failed, and the bus went through the stop sign and ended up sideways, miraculously without rolling over into a ditch. Johnny somehow managed to steer the bus in that ditch another 100 yards before it came to a stop with every on board safe and sound.
Now, I am not sure what was going through Johnny’s mind when the brakes failed on the bus that day. But it might have been something like:
“No, God, no, not now.” “Please Lord, this cannot be.” I am only 19. Never had a chance to marry, have a son and a daughter. Love a son and a daughter more than they will ever know. Become a grandfather to three boys. No, God, no, not now. I have yet to be able to serve my country in the Air Force. Please, Lord, this cannot be. I still have many more ballgames to watch, more spicy food to enjoy! There’s still so many people I want to help. I want to be there for my family and neighbors. I want do what I can for a few more years to make this world a better place. I want to see so much more of the beauty of this world.”
Now, that being said, I am also not sure what was going through Johnny’s mind on September 4 when before his vehicle crossed the center line to crash head on into another car. But it might have been something like:
“O God, please protect those in the other car. Please keep them safe. But as for me…Thank you. Thank you for the grace. Thank you for my life. Thank you for my family. My children and grandchildren. Thank you for the grandeur of the plains and majesty of the mountains. Thank you for music and dancing and food with lots of flavor. Thank you for allowing me to serve my country. Thank you for the grace of it all.
Instead of being bitter about what he was losing, I believe Johnny was grateful for what for all that he had received.
I am certain that the first thing that he learned in eternity was that not one of the three children or the four adults were seriously injured that car accident.
And this, my friends, is how I believe we can all get through the sharp, sudden grief we are still experiencing today. By being grateful for the grace of it all.
Garth Brooks once sang a song entitled “the Dance.” One line of that song goes, I could have missed the pain, but I’d a had to miss the dance.”
The only way to miss the pain we are feeling today is to have never loved Johnny and to have never been loved by Johnny. We grieve today, because we were given a gift of God’s grace named Johnny Matthews. Johnny was himself grace, unearned, undeserved.
And when we can understand that, the sheer grace of it, instead of being bitter for what we have lost, I believe God will give us hearts, souls and minds, as God gave to Johnny, to be somehow be grateful for what we had.
Until that day comes when we will surely see Johnny again, face to face, as we will meet the Giver of all Graces face to face. Amen.