Two days after her seventeenth birthday, Laura Welch had a friend in her car and the wind in her hair. The world was young in 1963 - from Laura's music, school, and friends, up to the young couple in the White House, John and Jackie Kennedy. Whatever problems Laura had were minor ones, and this day was meant for driving, listening to the radio, and chatting with her girlfriend.
In the midst of the chatter, Laura made a mistake. She didn't see the stop sign, and the blur of onrushing vehicles ground to a standstill by the terrible crunching of metal. Laura and her friend were shaken up, but able to recognize the car that had been knocked through the intersection. It belonged to seventeen-year-old Michael Douglas, a popular student in Midland, Texas.
Michael was also Laura's boyfriend. He had been thrown from the car, suffering a broken neck. By the time help arrived, he was dead.
Laura knew it was her fault.
Devastating? "No words to describe it," Laura says now, nearly forty years later. As an adult and a parent, she understands now more than ever the painful consequences of that moment. It brought devastation not only to her life, but heartbreak to another family. It was without doubt the worst day of Laura's life.
It would be many years before Laura could think of dating seriously again. But romance unexpectedly flourished, and Laura married, raised her children, and took the spiritual reigns of her family. After that day in 1963, Laura found only one real strength that would not fail her, and that was her faith in God. Only her faith saw Laura through that day, and the days that followed. Never again did she carry a casual attitude about life or about her trust in God.
But Laura's marriage eventually came to a crucial intersection. Her too-rich husband started drinking more and more, and in 1986, Laura confronted him. According to news reports, she laid it on the line - he must choose between her or alcohol.
Laura's husband made a wise choice. He subdued his thirst and paid more attention to the faith his wife had shown him. He soon found that a deep, abiding faith was worth the effort, worth his investment of time and energy. And today, both Laura and her husband - President George W. Bush - look back on that entire season of struggle as the turning point for their marriage, their family, and for their political journey. Laura, however, says her life changed years before, on an ordinary day in 1963 that became the worst day of her life (Kenneth T. Walsh, "Laura's Moment: The new first lady's quiet strength keeps the president humbled and anchored," U.S. News and World Report, April 30, 2001, pg. 22).
What will you do in the wake of the worst moment of your life? At an intersection of tragedy or crisis, will that day drive you from your faith - or to a new depth of trust in God, who wants to use every moment for good?
If your faith can be proved in the wake of your worst day ever, then you've got a powerful faith. A mighty and powerful faith.
In the early days of the church, many people who witnessed the murder of Stephen felt it was the worst day of their lives. Stephen had been one of the most popular and effective men in the early church. He was godly to the core and filled with grace, and love, and the ability to do signs and wonders as he prayed in the name of Jesus. Stephen was one of a kind, and many people looked up to him. Thousands of new believers worshiped in Jerusalem, and most of them must have loved Stephen.
But a flash of violence erupted at a key intersection for the church. Without warning, the unbelievable became a reality. Stephen was arrested, charged, and executed. The enemies of the church took off their gloves and stoned Stephen, breaking his body and leaving him lifeless on the rocks of the killing place.
The killing of Stephen then opened the door for all kinds of persecution. Men, women, teen-agers, boys and girls ran for their lives. Some of them couldn't run fast enough. Some of them landed in prison. Some of them would eventually lose their lives, as Stephen had. If the early church had written a book titled "Worst Days Ever," many a chapter would have been hurriedly written around the events of Acts 8. Here's what happened in the aftermath of Stephen's murder.
I've known several "worst days." Perhaps you have, too. Or perhaps your "worst day" is just at the next intersection. When it comes to your worst day, know this: It is possible to trust God after the worst day of your life. In fact, trusting God on that day will be your only hope.
I. Remember who God is
Many of us can easily point to a day when everything went wrong. As with Laura Welch Bush, maybe it was a car accident. Perhaps it was a sudden heart attack. Or the sudden death of a soul mate. It could have come with a personal financial crisis, or the diagnosis of a medical problem.
For the early Christians, Stephen's funeral only promised more funerals; it now became open season on Christians. They escaped Jerusalem, but the persecution followed them throughout Judea. Then it followed them through Samaria. They ran toward Galilee, Asia, Egypt, and Rome, pulling up roots and trying to carry enough stuff to pay for the journey. Saul would be willing to travel more than 125 difficult miles - either on foot or on an uncomfortable donkey - to arrest Christians in Damascus. Imagine the hatred that would make a man travel that far. Imagine the fear of those who were hiding!
If life has declared open season on you, know this: It's just an unfortunate part of life. Nothing in the Bible, nothing in the nature of God suggests that bad things won't happen in the course of life. If you live long enough, some things will, in fact, nearly crush you.
But know something else: The worst day of your life does not change the nature of God, or the nature of God's love for you. The worst day of your life is just that - the worst day of your life. It doesn't negate your existence, doesn't change your love for others around you. Remember who God is, and you've begun the survival process.
II. Remember what God can do
Laura Bush looks back on that terrible accident as the day she became serious about life. There would be no more childish pursuits, no more laughing through the days as if life would last forever, and no more casual attitude toward the things of God. The next time she went to church, she went with a passion that would mold her - and mold her - until she was a woman whose faith was strong enough to help mold a president. Because of her faith, his faith became stronger. Because of the president's faith, on September 11, 2001, following the worst attack of terrorism in American history, America saw a leader with solid spiritual footing.
Could God have been at work throughout all of Laura's life, at work after the worst day of her life so long ago, helping her help us through one of our nation's worst days? Producing fruit from worst days seems to be a pattern with God. Consider this verse from Acts:
Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. (Acts 8:4)
That's it. Just a little sentence that represents an incredible movement of God's people. They spread word about Jesus in Joppa. They planted churches in Cyprus. They started a Bible study in Alexandria. They baptized new believers in Ephesus. They wrote letters, recorded the Gospel in writing, and took the message of Jesus to every corner of the world. Thanks to the persecution of God's people, thanks to the worst days of those lives, the message of Christ became a world-wide phenomenon.
Why did good come out of bad, after the worst day in so many lives? Only because people remember what God could do. It might not have taken long before they saw the good coming out of bad.
Before Stephen's death shook it to its very foundation, the church was a happy place, a perfect place even, a group of people with almost no troubles or fears. When trouble had come, the miracles had come, too. No hardship had been able to win against these new believers. With a church like that, who would have wanted to leave Jerusalem?
Suddenly, however, the honeymoon was over, and the church realized life would never be the same. It must have been mystifying, discouraging to the point of depression for those new believers. They must have asked in a daze, "What happened?"
Why had God let them down? Why hadn't God rescued Stephen? If God had allowed Stephen a glimpse of heaven has he died, why hadn't God simply shown those rock-throwing unbelievers who was Boss?
In the aftermath of the disaster, many of those Christians must have asked, "Where was God? How could God have done this? How could a good God have allowed this to happen?"
Maybe they reflected on a teaching that said God could bring good out of every situation. Maybe they wondered, as you may have at some crises, how could any good come from all this bad? From their vantage point - the death of a good man, families running like refugees - events didn't look like a good work of God.
But for us, the entire process was a wonderful thing. If Stephen hadn't died, and if the church hadn't scattered, Christianity might have stayed in Jerusalem forever. God wanted the message in Asia, so he allowed the persecution. God wanted the message in Africa, so he allowed a terrible thing to happen. God wanted the message of grace to land in Europe, so he allowed messengers of death to follow on the same roads as the refugees. God wanted you to have a home in heaven, so he took away the homes of countless Christians in Jerusalem. In a sense, God used persecution to chase the gospel to every corner of the world.
Yes, as it turned out, God was at work in a difficult situation. Although it must have taken years for those Christians to realize it, turns out God was working all the time. Some of them never saw how God was at work, but he was working just the same.
God could be working in a difficult situation in your life right now. It could be that it'll be years before you understand the "why" of a tough time, or the underlying reason behind a crisis, and it could be that you'll never know the answers. Faith, then, is believing that God is at work during the worst day of your life, even when you can't see how he is working. Trust God on this one. He can bring good out of the worst day of your life. God is the only one, in fact, who can bring good out of such a day. God is in control, and God is good.
III. Allow God to keep working through you
The most important part of the story about Stephen's death and the persecution of the believers may be contained in a simple phrase from verse 5: "Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ there."
At first glance, these few words may not impress you, but consider: It's believed this Philip is the same as mentioned in Acts 6:5, one of the seven deacons selected to serve the church. Philip, too, is the very first deacon listed after Stephen. Were they close friends? Very likely. Did Philip hurt to see Stephen murdered? It must have crushed him. It must have broken his heart to hold his friend, to see him wrapped in a grave sheet, to lay him to rest in a Frankb, to know he would never see the flash of his buddy's smile again.
But Philip did something we all must do if we'll ever see good come out of the worst day of our lives. Philip kept breathing, kept moving, and kept living. When he got his breath, when he made plans for the next day of life, he kept his faith. He did not turn away from his God, he did not leave the family of faith, he did not lose his trust in Christ.
If you had read verse 5 out of context, you'd have no idea that Philip had just lost his best friend. You'd have no idea that his church had just suffered through a nightmare, the brutal murder of their most loved servant leader. No, if you only read verse 5, you'd think that Philip was going about business as usual, preaching as he'd done before Stephen's death, going to new places just like Jesus had asked him to - living life as he did before his heart had been cut in two.
And that's the point. When the worst day of your life comes, you'll have to either abandon your faith as useless, or keep your faith as the only thing of value in your life. There's no middle ground. If you can make the courageous decision to keep putting one foot in front of the other, if you can make the important faith step of turning to God alone for your strength, you'll discover a wonderful reality - God can use the worst day of your life to take your faith into new areas of strength, to work miracles in the wake of tragedy, to bring good out of something that is no good at all.
That's power. That's the kind of power you'll find only under the care of the Holy Spirit.
So when you wake up on the morning after the worst day, read your Bible. When you get over the shock, pray. When you gather your wits about you, spend time in praise of God, and thanksgiving to God, and in worshiping Holy God. When Sunday comes, be in church. Be around those Christians that God has given you. These are all faith steps, or steps of trust. Take them. Keep taking those steps, no matter how small they are. Just keep walking.
It's true, the walking is hard. When the worst day of your life comes, the pain is beyond unbearable, and it will hurt forever. We are designed to hurt, to grieve, to cry, to panic, to scream, to fall on the ground and admit that we can't take the pain. That's the way we're made.
And it's true, too, that if you open your Bible on the day after, if you pray on the morning after, if you go back to church the Sunday after, the pain will still be there. It takes time for the grief process to work its course, and we grieve after any loss. It takes time for the smile to return, for the laughter to shake our bellies again. It just takes time and a working through of the process.
But if you manage to read your Bible, to pray, to thank God for his goodness, and to be around your church family in the wake of your worst day, then you are exercising your faith, and - in time - that exercise of faith will bear wonderful fruit.
When Philip allowed God to walk with him after the worst day of his life, great things happened quickly.
Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said. With shrieks, evil spirits came out of many, and many paralytics and cripples were healed. So there was great joy in that city. (Acts 8:5-8)
Philip responded to the worst day of his life with the obedience to faith that had already set him apart from so many other Christians.
While in Samaria, Philip did the kinds of things Stephen had done, things that had marked the ministry of Jesus. Demons took off running, and miracles happened. Philip found power for living that he had never known before. He must have been physically exhausted and spiritually energized.
At the end of the passage above, it says , "There was great joy in that city." It was "mega-joy," to translate the original Greek. We have "mega" things today - "mega-sized" soft drinks and French fries, "bigger-and-better" mega-sized products on store shelves, the biggest of the big. And that's what that city had. They had giant overwhelming joy, the best-days-of-your-life kind of joy, all introduced to them through Philip, who was still reeling from the worst day of his life.
Frank's worst day came far too suddenly. Never had a community seen a man so passionately devoted to his wife. She was the light of his life, the diamond of his existence. He was a hopeless romantic, and their marriage was on display for their church and their community. She died without warning, a broken blood vessel taking her life before she could say good-bye.
Frank lost weight, he lost interest in his work, and he lost his laughter. But he never - never - lost his faith in God. He knew that somehow he had to put one foot in front of the other. It was as if the only thing he had to lean on was his faith.
Frank had built a foundation on a rock, as Jesus would put it, and when the storms came, his foundation held secure. Slowly, over the course of many months, the laughter reappeared. Slowly, he regained interest in his work and in his hobbies. For a while, he couldn't even sing the hymns of faith in church. When he tried, he simply cried. So he just stood there silently, letting his fellow believers sing the songs of faith for him. Then one day he, too, sang the songs. One day, he picked up a grandchild and saw a familiar light in her eyes. One night, he laid down to sleep and realized that he had honestly enjoyed life that day, all day long.
What Frank couldn't see that night was what the rest of the community had seen for months - the way his daughter and her family watched him, the image he had created for his grandchildren, a few of them already in the first days of their marriages. For two years they had all watched this man recover from the worst day of his life. They had seen the pages of his Bible become more worn, more tattered, more stained with tears. They had seen him pray so earnestly in a church pew, and they knew his praying wasn't reserved for hours inside churches. They had seen the way he encouraged others, the way he was ready to help the slightest need, the way he poured himself into service. And they had also seen the way God had lifted him up from the worst day of his life and restored to him the joy of his walk, the laughter of his soul.
If we were to drop in on Frank's church next Sunday, you'd see many people who've drawn strength from his quiet leadership. They can't help but be drawn to his joy, a super-sized, mega-sized joy that can't be contained. We could find many members of his family in that church, singing the songs of faith together. And if we could somehow see the future, we'd see the day when crisis arrives again, when family and friends all around this man will face the worst day of their lives. In that day, however, they'll be able to draw on something more than the Bible's message. They'll remember what faith looks like after devastation strikes, because they've seen it lived out in one man's life.