LIVING WITH ETERNAL PERSPECTIVE

A young lady named Lea from Long Island University (Greenvale, New York) walked into our church several years ago. She is fun, outgoing, and energetic. At the time, she was a talented student-athlete. Lea was in church every Sunday when she did not have a game or an extra practice scheduled. Even though we were 20+ years apart in age we became friends and then eventually, family. I became her extra dad to her while she was at college. As I now look back and reflect, I never would have imagined the impact of her decision to walk through our church doors until two years later.

In December 2017 our church started making plans to host our first ever Night To Shine – a prom for those with special needs – in partnership with the Tim Tebow Foundation. Lea heard the announcement and thought, “We should open this up to the student athletes at Long Island University.” She approached us with excitement and we said, “Absolutely.” Within a few weeks, Lea had recruited over 30 student-athletes to volunteer at this event. Football, lacrosse, field hockey, and basketball all represented. They all came unified and served like champions.

At that event, I was able to connect with several of the football players, but one young man really stood out to me, Tim. You could see that he was a natural born leader. That proved to be true when I discovered he was the captain of the team. Over time, Tim and I became friends. We stayed connected and since then, several football players have made our church their home during the off season. Tim led that effort.

Over the summer of 2018, our family was headed to Orlando for a vacation. Since Tim was in Florida, one of my first thoughts was, “I should reach out to Tim.” I did. We met at the amusement park, chatted for a bit, and met his parents and girlfriend. We continued to stay in touch for the next month through texts and calls. I am not sure when it was, but I remember Tim telling me, “I want to make a difference. I want my Senior year to count” (We had no idea what those words would really mean). The idea came up about doing a Bible Study for any of the football players that would be interested. There was a lot of behind the scenes that Tim had to do to make this happen. He spoke to his coach and started talking with his team to find a time that worked. I remember Tim calling me and saying, “Hey Pastor, I think Sunday at 3:00 pm will work for the majority of us.” In my mind I thought: “Ok, I am gonna preach 3 sermons on a Sunday and then drive 35 minutes to host a Bible Study.” But something in me said, “Todd, you have to do this.”

Before you knew it, the Bible Study was up and running. At the first Bible Study we had 5 players show up. When I gave the players an opportunity to start or restart a relationship with Jesus four of them responded immediately. But I knew that there was one more. I watched him wrestle physically with this decision, but after I said, I believe there is one more. A blonde, bushy haired young man with a beanie responded to the message. This young man, who I nicknamed ‘Tennessee,’ immediately became a great friend. Tim and I were so excited! But this was just the beginning. For the next 10 weeks, we held Bible Studies on Sundays and before every home game. It truly became one of the highlights of my week. I also started sending out a “Verse of The Week” text, every Monday to encourage them. Then it became individual messages to players, phone calls, and ultimately friendship. Tim’s decision to make a difference his senior year was starting to take shape.

Our Bible Study that started with 5 players grew to 20-25 players who would participate by the end of the season. Each week, players would come in with ice on their shoulders, knees, or elbows. Some guys rolled in on strollers because they tore their ACL. Quarterbacks, runnings backs, defensivebacks, linemen, and wide receivers all came together for a one hour Bible Study after a three hour practice to grow in their faith. To me, seeing that was so refreshing. I would get home and my wife, Mary, would ask me, “How did it go?” And I would tell her about each player and brag on them. I began to adopt them as part of my family! Every player became a special part of my week.

My friendship with Tim, spiraled into becoming close with so many other team members. ‘Tennessee’ was one of them! I gave him the nickname, ‘Tennessee,’ because he was from Nashville, TN. We texted, talked, and had several conversations that happened after the Bible Study. He asked tough questions, but he always did it with a huge smile. I had come to find out his brother played for the San Francisco 49ers – and I was and am a huge lifelong 49er fan. So we would place some friendly non-cash bets on scores in the games. When he had shoulder surgery I prayed with him before he went in for the procedure. After the surgery I checked in to make sure he was good and to see if he needed anything.

One of the earliest lessons I shared with the football team was, “No matter what, God is good.” When the team was 0-5 I reminded them, “No matter, what God is good.” When the team finished the season 0-10 I still reminded them, “God is good.” This devotional would become an anthem for what we were about to face.

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On Monday, December 16th I got a message from Clay, “I’ve got some 49er gear for u been waiting over a week and haven’t got it in yet but when its in i’ll let u know.” I was like, “Seriously??? That’s so awesome.” On Wednesday, December 18th, Clay texted me, “Any place and time i can meet up with u before i leave tmro and give you some stuff?” I called Tennessee right back. We just could not coordinate a time to meet that day. So he was gonna give the box to one of his other teammates to give to me at church on Sunday. I texted him back that night, “Tenn, Really means a lot that you got me some SF gear. Can’t wait to see it! You rock!!!” His response, “Yesssirrrr! Anytime its not crazy but its something hope you like it. thanks for everything see u when im back.” I gave it the heart emoji.

 

In the middle of spending time investing in a local university football team, I was also preparing for our annual Christmas services. We were doing a production that we had been practicing for weeks. Saturday, December 21st was our final all day practice. I was in the middle of the production when my phone started lighting up from players, “PT, call me it’s an emergency.” When I finally saw the messages I slipped into the lobby and I was able to get Joe. He told me, “PT, Clay is dead. He was murdered last night.” In the lobby of my church I fell to me knees, overcome by the instant grief. I could not believe it. I immediately cried, walked back into our rehearsal, stopped everything, and we prayed for the family & football team. Our production rehearsal continued, but I was in a fog, still receiving messages!

Then it hit the news. This story went national due to many of Clay’s family members notoriety. His grandfather is Bobby Beathard – NFL Hall of Fame, his father is Casey Beathard- legendary country music songwriter, one of his brothers – CJ Beathard – plays for the San Francisco 49ers, and his other brother, Tucker – country music star. Our local tv stations carried the news, but it was also on CNN, Fox News, and ESPN. For the next several days I was walking multiple players through this tragic loss. Players that were part of the Bible Study and players that were not. It was difficult for all of us! I messaged Clay’s parents, Casey and Susan, my thoughts and prayers. We exchanged numbers and have established a lifelong bond.

The family set a date for the memorial service. Saturday, December 27th. Several football players reached out asking if I was going to the memorial service. There was not a doubt in my mind. I had to go. This was Clay. He was more than just a football player at our Bible Study – he was my friend! So, I rented a 15-passenger van, and planned to bring as many players as I could squeeze in that vehicle.

 

Plans were underway as Christmas morning approached. I received a text from Clay’s dad, Casey. He wanted to speak with me. I texted him back that I was opening gifts with my kids, but would call him back. He graciously said that would be fine. You see, Clay was raised in a Christian home in Franklin, TN. I knew this from the many conversations we had about faith and life. He had a million questions. He was searching for a deeper faith. I remember Clay telling me that he had been struggling, but that Bible Study woke up his faith. When I called Casey, we spoke for a long time. Clay’s dad was going through what every parent who has ever lost a child or any person who has ever lost a loved one goes through – the big question – “Did they know Jesus?” They want assurance. They need it. I shared with Casey the day that Clay raised his hand to confirm his faith in Christ, October 13, 2019. Dad cried. I cried. We spoke for about 30 minutes and at the end of the conversation I said, “I will see you on Saturday at the Celebration of Life service for Clay.” Moments later I received a text from Casey, “We were talking and were wondering if you could prayerfully consider speaking during the service/celebration. Zero offense taken if you’d rather not.” I was stunned, honored, and speechless. What words could I ever share to capture 22 years of life? I wrestled with this most humble invitation, but I knew I just had to.

Well, my friend, Sebastian, and I loaded up a van and drove a bunch of football players down to Tennessee. 16 1⁄2 hours in a van filled with guys was a smelly experience. Most of them slept, while Sebastian and I drove. We arrived on Friday night in Franklin, TN, and met up with several other players who came down from other parts of the country. Our first stop was the village square where the town held a prayer vigil. Hundreds gathered the evening before, but only two dozen football players gathered that night. We gathered in front of the old courthouse, I shared a scripture, we had a moment of silence,

and then we prayed. It was a surreal moment. The players went out to eat, but Sebastian and I went to sleep.

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We woke up the next morning, which was only a few hours, to take a group of guys to the place and space where their friend was savagely murdered. When the guys asked me to take them – I was not sure if it was the right move. So we gave the players the option, no pressure. They all wanted to go. So, we went to the Dogwood Bar and Grill in Franklin, TN. When we walked onto the property, you could feel the pain in every athlete. Sebastian and I were able to talk to the staff at the Dogwood. They showed us the place where Clay was stabbed and then ultimately the place where he breathed his last breath. All of us were emotional! We were there for an hour. Jake, a Senior, came up to me and asked me to say something. In the middle of the parking lot, on the sacred ground of loss, I shared about the pain Jesus felt when he was at the grave of Lazarus. We circled together and prayed. And then when I opened my eyes and there was an older guy with a guitar in his hands in front of us! I had no idea where he came from. He just seemed to be there. Some of the guys remember seeing him walk into our prayer moment, but most of that weekend is still a fog. The man said, “Ill sing ya a song. C’mon I ain’t begging for money, I’m working for it.” Then he said, “How ‘bout Skynyrd?” Before you knew it he was playing ‘Freebird.’ We all gasped. That was one of Clay’s favorite songs. Out of all the songs ever created! Then he asked about another song and said, “C’mon, Trigger, my guitar, and me can play anything.” Trigger! Crazy, this was Clay’s dogs name!

As we were walking away a couple of the players asked, “Pastor, that was weird. What was that all about?” I shared how Hebrews 13 teaches us to be good to strangers because they could be angels in disguise. We walked about 75 yards. We looked back. No one was there! “Could it be,” I thought to myself, Hebrews 13 playing out in our lives? I may never really know, but it sure felt like God sent an angel to give these young men a message – “I am here with you.”

 

It was now time for the memorial service. Thousands gathered at Grace Chapel in Franklin. It was the most people I have ever seen at a Celebration of Life service. It was moving. Two of us from Long Island University were asked to share – Jake Bofshever and me. Jake and I went to the green room. It was filled with family and close friends. I hugged on his family and there was just an instant bond, that felt like a lifelong friendship.

The service began and I was nervous. I wanted to honor Clay. I wanted to share his story of finding his faith again. Pastor Steve Berger opened the service in prayer. He introduced me and I walked up to the podium. My heart was racing, but as soon as I opened my mouth, I was at ease. I spoke from the heart. Jake spoke next. Then Clay’s siblings spoke – CJ, Tucker, Charly, & Tatum – incredibly moving. But when mom and dad shared, I saw a strength that I have never seen before. Their faith was visible in every word. Pastor Berger finished the service with a simple, but powerful message. At the end of that service he invited anyone who wanted to start or rededicate their life to Jesus to stand to their feet. Hundreds of people throughout the auditorium and overflow stood up. I was in tears. I saw God in a way that I have never seen Him before.

The service ended, I talked with the family and hugged all of them. Then we jumped back into our rented van. 16 1⁄2 hours ahead of us. The drive home was pretty quiet except for the times when the guys wanted to play Eminem – I can’t unhear that! We got back to the university and dropped off the guys. As soon as Sebastian and I left the campus I started crying. When you need to be the pastor for others, you hold things in and feel the weight of being strong for everyone else. But finally, at this moment, I just could not hold it any more. Grief is tough. To be honest, I am still grieving, but I have seen God do so much in so many lives through this tragedy. The final chapter of this story has not been written yet!

 

As I have walked countless people through this heartbreak I can’t help but think: “What if Lea never asked about inviting the student-athletes at LIU to help with our Night To Shine event? What if Tim did not want to make a difference his senior year? What if I did not say yes to leading this Bible Study?” Everything happens on purpose and for a purpose. I don’t always like what happens or how things happen, but I do know that God can make beauty out of the ashes! I don’t ask God “Why?” ever! I refuse to ask myself questions I will never know the answer to on this side of Heaven, but I do ask “What’s next?” Meaning, I know God you are going to use this, just show me how! And I can tell you that God has used this tragedy in ways I could never capture with 26 letters of the alphabet rhymatically arranged to create words, sentences, and paragraphs. God showed up! He always does. He is fully present and never wastes a hurt.

I have had a personal mission statement for 25 years of pastoring: “At the end of the long days and late nights did anybody hear about Jesus?” It drives me to say yes to a Bible Study after preaching 3 times on a Sunday. It compels me to spend time with student-athletes, texting them, and even inviting them to my home. It pushes me to share God’s love with everyone, everywhere whether convenient or not. Living with an eternal perspective is not a sermon slogan or cute cliche – it ought to be the thing that motivates every part of our lives.

Walking through this has not been easy. It has been difficult. People look at pastors as though they are superhuman with a huge “S” tattooed on their chest, but we are just human. We hurt. We bleed. We feel pain, but we often hide it. We smile on Sundays and cry on Mondays. But no matter how great the loss, or pain, I still believe “God causes everything to work together for God.” It never says “everything is good,” but that it “works for good.” God is opening up more doors at Long Island University and other universities as a result of what the Beathard family and this team have walked through. I wish the process was different! I wish Clay was still with us! But just like one of those early Bible Studies, “No matter what, God is good.” Always. Life is not always good, but God is!

 

Jim Elliot, a missionary to the Auca Indians in Ecuador, was murdered at the age of 28, by those he was called to reach. One statement he wrote has always stayed with me: “I seek not a long life, but a full one, like you Lord Jesus.” It is not about what we emass or accumulate. It is truly about living our life for heaven’s purpose. It should always be about using every gift, talent, and ability to love people to life!

Paul wrote to the church in Colossians: “Fill your thoughts with heavenly realities, and not with the distractions of the natural realm” (Colossians 3:1 – TPT). So many things can fill our thoughts: Success, failure, education, fun, sports, relationships, money, and more. Paul is teaching us to live with an eternal perspective because you never know whose life will depend on your focus. Heaven should fill our minds, focus on priorities, and flood our decisions. Everything we do should be seen through the lens of eternity!

This tragedy has taught me four things about living with an eternal perspective. First, ​walk through divine doors​. It can seem totally inconvenient, but inconvenient doors lead to unimaginable opportunities. Never in my life did I ever imagine after 25 years of ministry that I would be part of a college campus ministry, walking student-athletes through an unthinkable tragedy, but I am. It is a door that Lea and Tim opened! Second, ​live untied to this life.​ It is okay to enjoy the things of this life, but we cannot be tied down to them. They will not help us reach our destiny, they will keep us from it. I say this often, “It’s okay to have stuff, but it is not okay for stuff to have you.” Live life untied. Third, ​guard your focus.​ Life can be so distracting. Walking through this tragedy I have been reminded that our time on earth is limited and I should use it for eternal purpose. I have a renewed focus that what I do matters. I am not just pastor or holding a bible study. I am shaping eternity. I am shifting the atmosphere! That must be my focus. Finally, ​reflect God’s glory​. We don’t represent ourselves- we represent God. It is our mission to point people to God. “At the end of the long days and late nights …” should drive each and every one of us.

 

The million dollar question is: “Are you living for the eternal or the earthly?” I know my answer. It is loud and clear. I will never forget October 13, 2019. It was the day God had me wait to see if another football player wanted to sure up their faith. Clay was that person. God put me on Long Island University “for such a time as this.” It was no accident. God put Lea in our church, Tim in my life, and Clay in that Bible Study. I choose to live for eternal purpose! It made all the difference in the world to my young friend, Clay! And to me!

Who is your Clay? They stand all around us at work, high schools, malls, supermarkets, universities, and even churches! Don’t walk by the opportunities that God puts in front of you! Every moment matters and every second significant. You just never know how you will influence someone’s eternity!

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