Transformed by Tragedy. written by Dr. Thomas Lane Butts, Pastor Emeritus, Monroeville First United Methodist Church
When Tammy Faye Bakker Messner died, Larry King did a program on her life. Larry King seems to have had a strange fascination with Tammy Faye. He had her former husband, the Rev. Jim Bakker as one of the guests. Jim Bakker was toppled from his position as a nationally known televangelist several years ago. He did time in prison for his financial misdeeds and is now rebuilding his life as a minister. Larry King asked Bakker a question about how he felt about his tragic experience. His answer was a shock to many. He said that it was the best thing that ever happened to him, and that if he had the power to change what happened he would not change it at all. Ordinarily, I would have either been shocked or would have thought he was not being truthful; but I have had some experiences with people who have had life-altering tragedies that made me believe the man was telling the truth.
There are people for whom tragedy becomes a transforming experience in which you might say they were "born again." This is certainly not universally true with tragedy. More often than not a tragedy, whether physical, emotional, or financial results in a brokenness from which a person never recovers, and from which they experience no benefit at all. But there are people who are so radically changed for the better by a tragedy that they would not change what happened to them even if they could. This is an anomaly to be sure, but it happens.
It is not unusual to hear someone speak of something being "a blessing in disguise." I have noticed, however, that people who offer up this casual assessment of an unfortunate event are usually speaking of something that has happened to someone else, or if it is about themselves, it is in reference to something far short of a true tragedy. When people are transformed, born again, as the result of some tragic event in their lives it is usually a blessing that was disguised to be sure, but it is more than that. There is something deeply mysterious about what has happened when someone is truly transformed by an actual tragedy, and the transformation is such that the person says they are glad that it happened and that if they had the power to change the event they would not change it. It is not just mysterious, it is even holy!
After more than 57 years in the ministry, I am no stranger to tragedy. I have seen tragedy destroy individuals and families. I have presided over more tragedies than I would like to remember. But every now and then I have seen people who were saved, transformed, born again by a tragedy from which I never dreamed any good could come. Don’t ask me to explain the mechanics of how or why. I do not know. I only know that it happens. Life-threatening accidents or illnesses often cause people to re-examine the very premises upon which they have based their lives.
Let me give you an example, and I have to be very careful here. It is a delicate matter for a minister to speak publically or write about a tragedy in someone’s life without their permission.
About two years ago I met a vibrant, beautiful young woman in a social setting in which I was involved. Her spirit of joy and sense of peace with herself was palpable. She was absolutely charming! I thought to myself: "Now, here is a young person who has it all together! She knows who she is and is happy with her life." In what began as a casual conversation I learned that when she was in her late teens she was in a terrible automobile accident in which almost every bone in her body was broken. Everyone thought she was dead, or would soon die, but by some miracle she recovered completely. I offered what I thought was an empathetic comment by saying: "What a terrible thing to happen to someone." As quick as a flash, and with an obvious sincerity that defied doubt, she said: "Oh, no, it was the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me. I would not exchange it for anything in the world!" She went on to explain how in this tragedy she found herself. She was transformed and (my words, not her’s) born again. Now that is more than "a blessing in disguise." There is something holy about that kind of alchemy.
It happens! Not every time, but it happens!
AN ENCOURAGING WORD for August 16, 2007 - written by Dr. Thomas Lane Butts, Pastor Emeritus, Monroeville First United Methodist Church