This week has been the hardest of my 16 years of ministry. After officiating a beautiful and fun wedding of one parishioner, my wife and I traveled the hour and a half trip back home. About 30 minutes in I received a phone call. We received the news Connor, a twelve-year-old youth of my church, died because of suicide.
We drove straight to their house and joined in the shock, sorrow, grief, and unbelief of what was happening. I didn’t have words and still don’t. The next morning, Sunday, I stood in front of our congregation and broke the news and their hearts. We sang hymns and read scripture and just grieved.
As I prepared to lead Connor’s funeral I requested prayer and insights from every minister I knew. I deeply appreciate the support I personally received and I know the prayers lifted up on behalf of the family were felt too. People shared eulogies they did for families who lost children and ones they did for those who lost their lives to suicide.
I felt I would share what I said at Connor’s funeral. Below is my meditation. It is the longest and hardest one I have ever preached but one that was well received. I said a lot but I felt a lot was needed and must be said. I have permission to share this from the family and permission to use Connor’s name.
If this helps one person prepare to lead a similar funeral, then it is worth it. If it helps one person realize what youth go through and how suicide is not the answer, then it is worth it.
Meditation for Connor Francisco
From the moment we are born we are all heading in one direction. We are mortal creatures who have a finite time here on earth. We all will reach the same destination at some point. My grandfather had battled Alzheimer’s for many years and when he passed away it felt like death was a merciful healer. It is the same way when someone passes away with a chronic disease or has suffered for a long time with pain. For others, like my grandmother, she lived well into her 90s and her body simply gave out. Death, although still sad, seemed natural and that the timing was right. When death comes in these situations we are sad and we mourn but it makes sense.
When tragic events happen like a car accident or some sort of natural disaster, we still have an event to blame. Death may come as a “thief in the night” but we still know whom to blame. There is still a bad guy. If we had to choose, which we never want too, these are the types of deaths we would prefer.
We gather here today to surround the Francisco’s with our love and our presence for none of these reasons. We arrive here today to cry out to God today because this is not how it is supposed to be. We should not have to bury a 12-year-old boy who was full of life. This is not how Connor’s story was supposed to end.
He is a cancer survivor. He was diagnosed with stage 4 hepatoblastoma (hep-a-toe-blastoma), a rare type of liver cancer. He survived surgeries. He survived chemo treatments that were designed to bring his 2-year-old body to the brink of death to fight and kill his cancer. It did damage to his body, his brain, and set him back. He lost the ability to talk, to walk, and to think and had to relearn how to do all of that. However, he survived it all.
He learned to walk again and walked so heavy on his flat feet you could always know where he was. He learned to talk and, when he trusted you, he would love to talk your ear off about whatever was on his mind. He learned to think again and when faced with a riddle or problem in youth group, he would usually be the one who would help solve it. He survived and thrived through all of this. This is not supposed to be the end of his miracle story.
This is not the way it is supposed to be. This is not…this is not…this is not part of some major plan of God. This was not God’s plan at all. I do not want to worship a God who thinks this is some sort of way to bring people to Christ, to take a child so young. This is not a time to say God needed another angel because humans and angels are two different things in the Bible and I do not want to worship a God who pulls children away in their prime to be by his side for some demented reason. This is not the time, for any of us talking to this family to start any phrase with “at least.” If you find yourself talking to this family and you start the sentence with “at least”. Stop. Swallow your words and don’t utter another because there is nothing that follows those two words that will provide them with any comfort or peace. This is not the time for stupid platitudes and phrases that truly make us feel better but only do more damage to those who mourn. This is not the time to say things like “everything happens for a reason.” Those are truly half-truths that have nothing to do with the God who is present here in this place today.
This is not the time for me to stand here behind the pulpit and think I have any type of answer to why this happened. I truly wish I could shake the Bible and out would pop some sugarcoated pill I could give you all to swallow and make it all better. I wish there was some sort of theology I could condense into a tweet or t-shirt that would make all our pain, sorrow and grieve go away. But I can’t, because the truth is something like that doesn’t exist.
What I do know is today is a day to cry. Today is a day to let the tears flow and let the sadness sink in…because today…today…sucks. It sucks because this is not the way it is supposed to be. Today we are to mourn that Connor isn’t with us anymore. We won’t be able to see that infectious smile that would bust through those doors right there. I won’t be able to feel that smack on my back that takes my breath away. I know it came from a place of love and admiration but also it came from a happy kid who didn’t know his own strength. Today we mourn because we don’t have around us anymore a hard-working kid who thought the harder the task the more fun. We don’t have this kid who loved Camp Care and all the kids that looked and went through the things he went through. We don’t have this kid who was so proud he was taller than his mom and catching up with his dad. We don’t have a kid to play each Sunday at the nursery door and make the little kids laugh as he playfully scared them. This day…today…sucks.
This is the day when we have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. This is the day when we learn we will have to simply be okay with uncertainty and never knowing the answers to the burning questions we have. We will never…never know why. We will never truly understand and somehow we will have to go on with our lives never knowing. That is the reality of today.
Today is also a day when we need to be thankful for how Connor affected and touched our lives. Connor loved to help people. He would serve meals, drinks, and desserts at fundraiser dinners for hours. He was one of the few youths I know who wasn’t afraid of hard manual labor and he almost relished in it. He knew he was strong and so he happily would agree to carry anything and everything, even if you were fine carrying it yourself. We need to be thankful that this wonderful kid who would greet everyone in this church on a Sunday. If he were actually the greeter, he wouldn’t wait until you came inside…no. He was outside on the front steps dragging you into the church with a hug and his huge smile.
Connor had a great eye for construction. Whether it was cultivated from Bob the Builder or simply because he loved working with his hands, he had a gift. The chicken coop he built is beautiful and so are the other wood projects he worked on with Sam, like the rifle he made Matthew for Christmas.
Connor loved the groups he was apart of. He would tell me all about Camp Care and camping trips he went on with boy scouts. I was looking forward to asking him how his hike went last weekend and how he outlasted older Scouts of his troop with a 40lb pack on his back the whole time. He loved this youth group and although he was the only boy most nights, he still knew he was accepted and loved. Just because the games we played were against girls, it didn’t stop his level of competition. Oh, and when he laughed…that belly laugh was infectious and could be heard for miles around. We witnessed that laugh a month ago at our last Youth Sunday. He won the Family Feud for the neighbor’s team and when he did; he raised his hands in triumph as the congregation all clapped and cheered. He was the king of marshmallow towers, pumpkin baseball, and waterslide kickball.
However, you know Connor, you could see a boy who simply wanted to be loved and truly was by so many people. The amount of love that has been poured out on the Francisco’s this week is simply a small testimony to the love we all have for Connor and all of them. The love we have for Connor is wonderful but it is nothing compared to the love his family has for him and the love God has for him. When I see Diane, David, and Matthew, I see people who were willing to sacrifice everything for him. You all have been the example of what unconditional love looks like. You all gave so much to Connor and he gave so much back to you as well.
Hold on to those memories, those moments, and the time love was shared because that is how Connor will continue to live on and affect so many more people in this world. I know you all are proud of him and the journey he has taken. Two years ago, when the youth did a youth Sunday focused on Disney movies, Diane left the church in tears. This was the first time Connor spoke in front of people. He did an amazing job. Her tears were tears of joy and pride in her son because of how far he came from a five-year-old who couldn’t say a word. Hold on to these memories and tell his miracle story.
Connor was one of my three confirmands this year. Confirmation in the United Methodist Church is when youth take their faith seriously for themselves. They profess their faith in God in front of the church and then welcomed as full members of our congregation. Connor attended every night and worked hard with his mentor, Andy, to discover God’s love for him and the grace God offers through his Son Jesus Christ. This past Easter Connor stood up here, about where he is now, and professed his faith in Christ. I know, without a shadow of a doubt, he loved God and understood God loved him. I know that God surrounded Connor his entire life and loved him.
But here is another hard part…the other hard question I know many are asking…where was God on Saturday? I firmly believe God was right there with Connor and God’s heart was the first to break when Connor died. I also know, without a doubt, that God has made sure Saturday is not the end of Connor’s story. Connor’s story continues and it doesn’t end in darkness and in grief. Jesus says in Matthew 19:14, “Allow the children to come to me. Don’t forbid them, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to people like these children.” The Romans text says, “I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.” It is because of death and resurrection of God’s Son that Connor’s story continues in the light and in the grace of God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
As I talked with the family this week there was something that truly stuck with me. As Connor would help Diane or David with things around the house when he was done getting something from the top shelf or moving something heavy he would look at them and say, “Aren’t you glad you got me.” “Aren’t you glad I’m here.” Although this is not the way his life was supposed to end, I’m glad, I’m sure you all are glad, Connor was here for the almost 13 years. I’m glad he was here and I got to know him because I am different because of Connor. This was a very safe place for Connor and as we witnessed that change in him, going from a wallflower to the life of the party, we all understood what the church is truly supposed to be. As Elizabeth, one of our wise youth, said this week, “Connor felt this was more than a church because we became his church family.” We are better because of Connor. He has taught us so much in the short time he was here and I’m glad I got him for as long as I did, I’m glad he was here. And I know all of you would agree with that.
There is one more piece of scripture I want to read today. It comes out of the Gospel of John and it is a selection of verses in the 14th chapter. Hear now the word of God…
In this scripture Jesus is telling his disciples and us, he never leaves us alone. God doesn’t leave anyone behind.
Connor always wanted to help. When Madison was cold he took off his jacket and gave it to her. When someone needed a refill on their drink, he would pop up and get it for them. Connor had a servant’s heart and was always willing to help. This is what Jesus was able to do for Connor. Connor had to be in some dark place, a place he didn’t know how to get himself out of. But after he slipped from this world to the next Connor wasn’t in darkness anymore; instead, he was surrounded by light. This light doesn’t leave him alone, it doesn’t abandon him or leave him behind. It keeps coming because that is what Jesus does. Jesus keeps seeking us, surrounding us and never leaving our side. Connor now is at rest. He is made whole. He doesn’t have to fear cancer returning. His fears and anxieties are now gone because he is basking in the presence of God and is surrounded by the light of Jesus Christ.
Please know that no matter how dark your world is or gets in the future. Know you are always surrounded by the light and grace of God. God is right there with you in your mourning. God is right there in the darkness offering an inextinguishable light. There is nothing you can do to separate yourself from God’s love and God is always with you…always.
Today we mourn. Today we cry. Today we remember. This is not the way it was supposed to end. As God cried because Connor’s life was cut short, God still welcomed him in with loving arms. I can picture Connor looking up into the eyes of Jesus and asking, “what can I do to help?” Then, after a full day of working in God’s glorious kingdom, asking Christ, “Aren’t you glad I’m here? Aren’t you glad you got me.” And Jesus, looking into Connor’s eyes and his big smile, replying, “Well done good and faithful servant, the kingdom of heaven belongs to children like you. Yes, I’m glad you are here. Yes, I’m glad I got you. I have always had you and I always will.”
May the peace and love of our God, the creator, the redeemer and the sustainer be felt in your heart today and always.