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The God Who Gives Strength as Needed: An Interview with Terry Stauffer

On September 28, 2008, I was shocked to read these words on the blog of Terry Stauffer, a man I had met at a couple of conferences and who has long been a reader and commenter at my blog: “Last night at about 4:45 our precious 14 year-old daughter Emily was attacked and killed as she was out for a walk. We don’t know a lot of details, but we know that two young men came upon the scene right away, but it was too late for Emily. I will write more as more details come available. Please pray for us, for our church family who are meeting without us right now, and for family that is travelling. We are realizing from the inside the value of good, Gospel theology right now. “

Terry is pastor of Edson Baptist Church in the small town of Edson, Alberta. Emily’s murder shocked this small town of less than 10,000 people–the kind of town where this crime is unheard of. I continued to follow Terry’s blog as he dealt with the aftermath–Emily’s funeral, national media attention, the arrest of a suspect and life following the loss of a child. Through it all, Terry’s faith strengthened me from afar. I recently asked Terry if he would be kind enough to participate in an interview and I am grateful that he was willing and able to do so. I offer this interview in the hope that it encourages you in the Lord who promises (and delivers) strength as strength is needed.

In a short note you posted on your blog the day after Emily’s death you wrote this: “We are realizing from the inside the value of good, Gospel theology right now.” Tell me about the value of that good, gospel theology as you began to grapple with the reality of what had happened.
In recent years, my wife and I have been learning that the gospel puts everything else into perspective. Reading good theology books, listening to gospel-centered messages and reading our Bibles with Christ at the center has become a real passion for us. God was preparing us in many ways for Emily’s death. In the past couple of years, we have been growing in our understanding of sin and grace. Submitting to what God says about our sin is essential to understanding the good news.

Perhaps the greatest power of a gospel perspective the understanding that death is not the worst thing that can happen to a person – not even the death of a child. The worst thing for anyone is to face the wrath of a holy God in his or her sinful condition. We are by nature children of wrath. Christ absorbed that wrath for us on the cross to bring us reconciliation with God. Of course, the hope of Emily’s resurrection (and ours) because of Christ’s bodily resurrection cannot be overstated – this is our sure hope and it keeps us going.

On a more personal level, on the first morning after Emily’s death, I was overwhelmed with thoughts about what her last minutes must have been like. In the middle of that desperation, I remembered, “Christ was forsaken so that Emily didn’t have to be.” In fact, I wrote that “good gospel theology” line only a few minutes after this realization. Emily’s Saviour brought her to Himself, and Emily is safe and secure, full of joy inexpressible and full of glory. That is a great comfort for us.

As you began to plan for Emily’s funeral you wrote, “The funeral for Emily will not be a celebration of her life, though she will be appropriately honoured. We desire this service to be Gospel-saturated and glorifying to Christ our Redeemer. I can honestly say that’s the way Emily would have wanted it.” How did you use the occasion of her funeral to bring glory to Christ?
We had a sense that Emily’s funeral would be well attended by the community and it was. Her murder rocked our small town – things like this just don’t happen in Edson. We knew that there would be many non-Christians there and we wanted them to hear about Christ and the life that He alone gives.

For ourselves, we just had to major on the gospel. We began the service with the song, In Christ Alone. That gave Juanita and me the strength to make it through the service. The beauty of the gospel is that it fits every need and every occasion. We were in a sense selfish in that we did what we needed to do for our own souls, that is, worship God and cling to the Gospel. But that’s just what everyone else needs, too, even if they aren’t aware of it. If someone doesn’t believe, they need to hear the gospel. If a person is a Christian, they will long for the refuge and hope of the gospel.

We did speak about Emily, we did honour her by sharing memories and a projected slide-show of her life. In her testimony, Juanita said, “I could talk a lot about Emily.” However, we needed to confess God’s glory more than anything that day.

The funeral was widely covered by the media. What kind of reaction was there to this gospel-saturated funeral?
We braced for the media’s spin, or sensationalism, but we were pleased with how respectfully they treated us and relayed the gospel message. I would have liked to have seen more, but compared to our expectations, we were relieved.

We’re still waiting to see what God is going to do in the lives of some people that we were able to talk to. We have heard stories from all over the place about how people have turned to or turned back to the Lord, and for that we are very thankful. We’re still praying for several people that need to come to Christ and hope to hear more stories of grace as time passes.

We could relay several testimonies that we’ve heard about. We’ve been brought to tears several times when we’ve heard stories of how God has used Emily’s death to point people to Christ.

During Emily’s funeral you said, “When Emily’s death was confirmed on Saturday night, I was shocked and bewildered. All I could pray was, ‘O Lord, Help! Help! Help!’ As I was on my knees, a thought came to me: ‘If all my talk about the Gospel and God’s goodness is not true now, then it was never true.’” Tell me about that, if you would. How did these words sustain you through such pain?
In moments of despair – that first night was just one of them – it was almost as if God put His hand on my shoulder and said, “Courage, now. Go back to the truth – trust me.” I easily spiral down into my own thoughts and feelings, but God is gracious to remind me of His presence and His Word. These times of despair (sometimes they felt like panic attacks) were very humbling, but God kept bringing His Word to mind (sometimes through a song or a hymn), or He drew me to read the Psalms.

In those early days, some people would say, “You’re so strong!” I would suppress a chuckle because I knew the truth. I have never felt so weak and helpless in my life. We said – and say -that God is carrying us. That is so true, and it is deeply humbling. Though I have believed and treasured the gospel for many years, God’s truth has never seemed so utterly true!

Tell me about the role of the church, and especially the local church, in the days following Emily’s death.
We thought we knew what a great church we have, but we really had no idea. Emily’s murder was a terrible shock for everyone, and people were so helpful and so gracious. We needed the church so much, and they came through.

The first Sunday we were back at church was two days after Emily’s funeral. People were surprised that we were back so soon, but we needed to be there. I was amazed at the tender strength of everyone involved. The songs, scripture readings and sermon faced death head on. There was no equivocating – they saw the enemy and confronted it with the power of the cross. Though we shed a lot of tears that morning, we were significantly encouraged.

People from all the churches in town served us so well, as did many from the community. We were overwhelmed by these expressions of love. Though it was hard to be on the receiving end of so much kindness, we came to realize that these people wanted to do something because they were grieving too – even people that didn’t know Emily personally.

Practical ways we have been served:

  • Meals for over a month
  • The loan of a house so we could get away to Edmonton for a couple of days in the week following the funeral
  • Housecleaning
  • Gifts for the children – money, stuffed animals, journals and books and a family swimming pass were only a few of the ways they were encouraged
  • Friends who completed a scrapbook of Emily’s life for the funeral (it was mostly done but needed about 20 layouts to complete it)
  • Friends who put together a PowerPoint presentation for the funeral
  • A friend who coordinated the mounting and presentation of some of Emily’s photography for the funeral
  • The freedom for Terry not to preach for over a month
  • Cards from all over the world – from people we know personally to complete strangers
  • Encouragements and small gifts from online friends that have been sent over the months since Emily’s death
  • Two quilts made especially for our family
  • Friends who ask “how are you really doing?”
  • Gifts of encouraging books and journals
  • Prayers of God’s people – still continuing on

Scripture tells us that one of God’s purposes in suffering is to bring both the person suffering and other believers to greater maturity. Have you seen evidence of a growth in maturity in your life, your wife’s life, and the lives of other Christians?
First the short answer, yes, yes and yes.

For me, the biggest thing is that God seems much bigger and I seem much smaller. I think I take life more seriously, and I am more conscious of my sin. If I’m honest, I think I have withdrawn a bit as well; I’m not following up with people like I know I should. Knowing my weakness is a good thing. Submitting to my weakness is sinful, considering what I’ve been given in Christ.

I am amazed at the maturity of my wife, Juanita – and very thankful. She has pressed into God even more since Emily’s death, though her devotional reading was deeper and more consistent than mine before that. I see a growing sense of sensitivity to others as a fruit of this suffering in her life, among other things.

We see fruit of gospel perspective in the lives of several people. Thanks to this question, I’m reminded that I need to follow-up on this and express thankfulness for these evidences of grace to some of these people.

Has Emily’s death given you a different perspective on heaven and eternity? Has it made heaven seem that much nearer? That much more precious?
Absolutely. This has been one of the greatest lessons and benefits of Emily’s death.

One related story: During the last three weeks of August 2008, I preached a mini-series on Revelation 21-22. This led to a great conversation with Emily in early September as we drove to Edmonton (two hours away). That conversation on Heaven and future things is such a precious memory now.

A Spurgeon quote:

“Dear friend, have you found that trouble cuts the cords that tie you to earth? When the Lord takes a child, there is one less cord to fasten you to this world and another band to draw you toward heaven. When money vanishes and business goes wrong, we frequent the prayer meeting, the prayer closet and the Bible. Trials drive us from earth. If all went well, we would begin to say, “Soul, relax”. But when things go amiss, we want to be gone. When the tree shakes, the bird flies away. Happy is the trouble that loosens our grip of earth.” – From Beside Still Waters

Did you ever wrestle with questions of “why?” Do you still?
On a horizontal level, I find myself thinking, “What a waste.” Emily was so talented, growing spiritually, so alive that her death does elicit the question, “Why?” Her murder was so random – broad daylight on a busy path in a small town. It is still hard to process sometimes.

However, God brings me back to the truth of His goodness and sovereignty. We know that Emily’s death was not outside His will and plan for good.

There is a song, So I Will Trust You, from Sovereign Grace Ministries, Come Weary Saints that helps me get back to a healthy perspective at these, “Why?” times. God made me, He saved me, I know He loves me – so I will trust Him. I sang along with that song through gritted teeth a few times early on, but I’m thankful that as I confessed those words, my heart was encouraged.

How is the police investigation proceeding? Have they arrested a suspect and determined a motive?
The police arrested a suspect a few weeks after Emily’s murder, but as for motive, I have no idea. The case is before the courts now. It will be a long process.

Would you like to speak to the man who killed your daughter? If so, what would you wish to tell him?
Perhaps some day. We’re processing what forgiveness looks like in this case. From the day we were told of the arrest, we’ve been talking about honoring God in this whole process. I just preached a message on David and Bathsheba on Sunday and concluded by saying that God can forgive anyone from any sin, even if this forgiveness offends our sense of justice.

Repentance and forgiveness can be a complicated issue. We were given a copy of Chris Braun’s Unpacking Forgiveness and have found that helpful.

In this case, we don’t want to interfere with what is happening in the courts. We’ll take things one step at a time and keep praying for wisdom and courage to do what is right. We have certainly surrendered any sense of vengeance to God, and we are thankful for God’s grace in that.

One concluding thought:

We’re learning that God gives strength as we need it. When people say, “I could never be as strong as you,” I always think – and sometimes say – “I couldn’t either.” There’s no way either Juanita or I could have been prepared for the loss of Emily, or for the attention that we have received since her murder. God gives grace and strength step-by-step as it’s needed.

Emily and Terry Stauffer

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