walking in wisdom: death, where is your sting?

I experienced so much this summer, and I promise I’m going to finish telling the story.  But right now, I can’t keep this in my heart. I have to share it. It’s too beautiful to keep to myself.

This summer, specifically on June 27 and July 6, my heart was broken. And it was one of the best things that I’ve ever experienced.

After two very incredible but very exhausting weeks of camp, we ventured to Eagle Eyrie Conference Center in Lynchburg, Virginia. Needless to say, our entire staff was looking forward to this trip. Eagle Eyrie meant three weeks of camp (which means no Ryder loading for a while), a conference center instead of a college campus, and our first large week of camp. When we arrived to the warm, welcoming staff at Eagle Eyrie and the hotel-style rooms and beds, we instantly felt at home.

Once we got settled in, I noticed a lot of mail had already been sent to campers who would be at camp the following week. Box after box and letter after letter were addressed to two girls: Rose and Hope Stanphill. The first thought I had was, “good heavens, those are some lucky girls.” They got more mail that week than I think I have in my entire life.

We set up everything and got ready for a huge week of camp. Some staffers from CK2 joined us that week along with our CK6 angels since the numbers were large (600+ kids) and we began registration.

Camp registration was something I looked forward to doing. I got to meet each church leader personally before the week started. I could hear the kids outside getting excited about the week. Our staff had the best night of sleep we’ve had since I think most of us were on Christmas break the night before, and the weather was beautiful.

After about half of the churches arrived, the group leader from Point Harbor Community Church in Chesapeake, VA came to registration. I recognized Point Harbor because 1.) I thought it was a cool name for a church, and 2.) The mail addressed to Rose and Hope were under “care of Point Harbor Community Church.”

The group leader from the church was a wonderful, beautiful woman named Cathy. As soon as we met, I instantly liked her. She had a large group of kids–one of the largest during the week. During the registration process of CentriKid, there is a time for group leaders to share their children’s special needs with us. “Special needs” mean anything that our staff needs to know about–family issues, food allergies, birthdays, emotional issues–anything that could hinder them from having a fantastic week of camp. Every night of registration, our staff took time to read through every single special attention card, pray for the kids, and delegate staffers to invest in those kids a little extra during the week.

As Cathy was giving us the special attention cards, she stopped and directly told us about two. Rose and Hope Stanphill.

She explained to us that Rose and Hope’s mother was battling cancer. She has been diagnosed in late February/March, and the cancer was aggressive. Through tears held back, she told us there was a chance the girls could lose their mother this week.

I was stunned. Our staff was stunned. We made it our goal to make this week of camp the best week of Rose and Hope’s summer.

Tuesday, or the “first full fabulous day of camp” as we call it, rolled around and was fantastic. Kids were having fun and were learning about the Gospel. Doesn’t get much better than that. Cathy won the honor of Gold Metal Group Leader that morning, too.

Then on Wednesday, June 27, I woke up not knowing that day would be the most emotionally and physically exhausting day of my summer.

During the end of the second hour of recreation/bible study, I got a call from one of my staffers. I had been on the recreation field and heard the phrase “Hey MC, there’s some group leaders in the conference center looking for you.”

Any other day, that would not be a surprise to me. In fact, it would be a surprise if I went a day without group leaders looking for me.  (During the second week of camp, I answered 67 phone calls from 2:30 pm – 1:00 am)

But when I heard my staffer say that, I got the sinking feeling that something was wrong.

I headed over to the conference center, walked in the door, and saw all the group leaders from Point Harbor.

My heart dropped. None of us said anything. Cathy just came over and hugged me, and then tears came.

Rose and Hope’s momma had passed away.

We spent what felt like hours in the conference center. They were reacting to not just the loss of two of their students’ mother, but also the loss of a dear friend. They were grieving the loss of someone they loved deeply.

I made a few calls to people to help come up with a plan on how to handle what was going on–how to tell the girls, how to tell the campers.

Do we send the girls home?

When do we tell them?

How do we tell them their mother is gone?

After an hour or so, we came up with a plan. We would tell the girls after track times. I let the track time leaders know to bring the girls to the conference center before hang time. Ellie and I made a trip to Wal-Mart and bought about 12 boxes of kleenex.

Soon, we were all sitting together in the conference center. I asked a few staffers who had spent time with the girls to come with us. One of the group leaders, a wonderful woman named Bonnie, with beautiful anointed words, told the girls their mother was with Jesus now.

What happened next continues to leave me in shock.

When the girls heard that, the first thing they did was smile.

They smiled. 

They smiled because their mother was with Jesus. She was free from her suffering.

That was the first reaction from a third grader and a fifth grader.

Of course, the tears came. We sat together and cried. One of my staffers, Michael, prayed because none of us adults were capable of speaking. After a few minutes of sorrow, joy came in one of the most unexpected ways.

The group leaders offered to take the girls out to eat away from camp (which is a BIG DEAL when you’re a camper) to celebrate their mom’s life. I left the girls with Michael and Aaron and went with Cathy to tell the rest of Point Harbor about their mom’s passing.

I was so incredibly relieved at how telling the girls went. My stomach had been in knots about it for hours. As we made our way to their cabin, I wasn’t expecting this part of the day to be very hard.

But I was wrong.

Cathy, with beautiful words like Bonnie, explained to the kids what happened. Hope and Roses’ mom died today.

The kids were devastated. They had lost a mentor, a teacher, and an active role in their ministry. They were heartbroken. I had no idea the impact Rose and Hope’s mom had on the children of this church. The kids mourned in their own ways. I found myself in the middle of a cabin filled with sorrow and love for Hope and Rose.

I returned to the conference center, what seemed like years later, to find Rose and Michel in an epic discussion of Pokemon. They were laughing and talking together.

I was stunned.

God used something like a mutual obsession of Pokemon to ease the pain of one of the worst feelings one can feel. Aaron managed to pop a bag of chips in his backpack that had us all in stitches while the girls left for dinner.

We discussed with the church group that worship might be very difficult for the kids that night. We decided Hope and Rose shouldn’t attend, but they had none of it. After their dinner, they insisted on attending worship.

The theme for that night’s worship was “Take a Stand.” Daniel, our camp pastor (and a dear friend of mine), would tell the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s refusal to bow to the false god King Nebuchadnezzar demanded they worship. Daniel 3:18 was a key verse.

“Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

Our God is able to deliver…but if He doesn’t deliver us, we will still not serve another god.

Wow.

In the time before worship, I sat in my room and cried. I cried until I physically couldn’t produce any more tears.

I thought about how Rose and Hope’s lives changed forever today.

I thought about the pain they’d face when they went home.

I thought about what their father was feeling.

I thought about how God delivered their mother from disease.

I thought about loss the Point Harbor group leaders were feeling, and how they had to be strong for the broken kids.

While I was pulling myself together, I got a phone call. A camper fell down some rocks and we think she dislocated her knee. Minutes before worship started.

Seriously? Right now? You’re telling me that just happened?

Remember how I said in my previous post that spiritual warfare is real? It’s real.

Two ambulances showed up during worship that night. A worship service with a hurting church and two girls who lost their mother hours earlier. The potential distraction made me physically sick. I probably would have thrown up if I had been able to eat anything that day.

I waited at the end of the road with Ellie to tell the ambulance to turn their lights off, and arrived to see Amanda Kate, our rec leader (and a dear friend) literally holding this child’s kneecap. She was taken to the ER and treated, and was back the next day. Worship happened in spite of the distractions.

The next day finally came, and to my surprise, the girls wanted to stay at camp.

They wanted to stay at CentriKid. They wanted to play OMC. Rose was in the variety show that night.

Again, I was stunned.

That Thursday was arguably the best day of camp I’ve ever experienced. In the sorrow, there was joy. Cathy shared with me she was absolutely convinced their mother knew what she was doing. She didn’t want her girls to see her go. She held off until she knew they were at camp.

The day before she died, one of the group leaders had texted the girl’s father with an update about how much fun they were having at camp. Their dad read the message to their mom, and in her coma, she smiled. She died the next morning.

Apparently, I still had some tears left in my body.

Thursday night was the variety show for the campers who were in performance track times. Until the moment it happened, it never occurred to me that Rose was in sign language.

I watched in complete astonishment as Rose beautifully signed “Christ is Risen” by Matt Maher.

Oh, death, where is your sting?
Oh, hell, where is your victory?
Oh, church, come stand in the light
Our God is not dead. He’s alive. He’s alive!

Rose was on stage signing these words the day after her mother died.

Death, where is your sting?

I was, you guessed it, stunned.

The next day was closing. Actually, it was “clopening” for us. Closing and opening. We had a weekend camp following this week of camp.

I didn’t want Point Harbor to leave. I didn’t want the girls to face what was in their near future. Rose and I connected Thursday night over ice cream and a mutual admiration for Star Trek (caveat: Rose is literally the coolest kid on the face of the earth). I wanted them to stay at camp.

But alas, they left, and we began our turnaround. We had a very smooth registration with awesome adults.

That night, while Ellie and I were getting a head start on filling up water balloons for the next day’s OMC, the sky turned black and the power went out. It didn’t come back on for a very long time.

A derecho came that night. I woke up at 5:30 in the morning after we spent the night on the floor of the conference center (it seriously sounded and felt like a tornado) and walked outside. I saw debris everywhere. Trees were down. Power lines were down.

This was bad.

This was very bad.

Remember what I said about spiritual warfare?

With the power out, there was nothing to do except go on. We ran the next (and only full day) of camp completely without power. No lights, no music, no sound, no videos, no air conditioning. The amazing people at Eagle Eyrie did everything they could possibly do to help us out.

The kids loved it. We moved chairs to the rec field and had worship outside, lit by the light of our van headlights. We still had running cold water. The weekend was a great week of camp. Churches who had never attended camp before told us they can’t wait to come back next summer.

Wow.

Since the power was out, we made an impromptu trip to Washington, D.C. for the Fourth of July. We ended up having to cancel the next week of camp because of the power outage. I was so happy to see my staff’s reaction–they were sad. They didn’t want camp to be cancelled. They thought I was kidding when I had to tell them. That was a proud moment for me as a director.

So in light of the darkness, we ventured to Hampton, VA to the home of Amanda Kate. We spent a few days with her incredible family and wonderful neighbors. We took showers, washed our clothes, and charged our cell phones. The people in her community completely showered us in love. It was a fantastic weekend.

It also just so happened that the Friday we were there was the day of Helen Stanphill’s funeral, which would be held at Point Harbor Community Church. Twenty minutes from where we were staying.

Myself and the ones who were close with the church that week attended the funeral. We saw the girls, the group leaders, and the wonderful kids from the church.

Her funeral was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I dare you to read her obituary and not be floored, crying, and/or both.  It’s a good thing I had a few days to replenish tears, because I cried during the entire service. The celebration of her life was incredible. Cathy spoke about CentriKid and how, through the death of Rose and Hope’s mom, twelve of their students came to know Christ for the first time.

Wow. 

The next day, we attended Point Harbor’s night service. We went out to eat together. We had fellowship, laughter, joy, and wonderful memories in spite of the heart-wrenching circumstances.

For the rest of the summer, Daniel told Hope and Rose’s story on Wednesday night of worship. Hundreds of children came to know God through the death of Helen Stanphill at CentriKid.

I wish I had a way to sum up this experience, but I’m at a total loss for words. The power did come back on, and I will resume in the stories of our adventures (first, backtracking to Campbell week), but I wanted to share this experience with you all. It changed my life. I think about it every single day.

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5 thoughts on “walking in wisdom: death, where is your sting?

  1. God knows what He’s doing. He ordained every moment perfectly. He just overwhelms me.

    “Life us so precious,
    So unpredictable,
    So sacred,
    And so beautiful,
    We barely stop to think that it could be taken from the world so quickly.
    In fact, we often forget
    That the bird you hear singing in your backyard,
    Or the dog barking across the fence
    is so delicately made
    And unique,
    Because there’s not a creature exactly like it in the whole universe.”

    Untitled Poem by: Rose Taylor Stanphill
    May 27th, 2012
    In memory of Helen Jones Stanphill
    November 27th, 1968- June 27th, 2012

  2. I am extremely grateful to my entire Church Family which includes all of you. Your story once again brought me to tears. Those tears are due in part by knowing that my decision to allow the girls to go to camp was the right call. That was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made in my life. The tears I shed as the girls drove off “to” camp were because I was unsure what to do. The same Holy Spirit that was with you at camp, enabled me to let them go. I can’t really explain that, but I believe God knew how hard that was so He just took the reins at that moment. Looking back, I see that the girls were exactly where they needed to be, not just for themselves, but for the staff and other campers. God knew that. And Helen knew that, her smile told me so.

  3. Thank you — I am Helen’s Dad and her Mom and I believe that being at Camp helped Rose & Hope deal with the trauma at this most difficult time in their lives…and we know that Helen wanted them to be at Camp… we miss our dear daughter so much but are so Blessed that she & Steve have given us these wonderful girls to love and cherish… the Power of the Holy Spirit is declared so well by your narrative…

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