True Lights in the Darkness
Deb and I lit our lamps and started out; determined to be lights in the dark places of Mark’s and Muffy’s grief. However, when we arrived, we found ourselves surrounded by beautiful, shining lamps; the brightest of which were Mark’s and Muffy’s. As the weekend progressed, we shared our oil with others and they with us and, somehow, we all went away with lamps full and burning brighter than ever before.
We drove thru the picturesque mountains outside of Reserve, NM marveling in the peace and beauty that surrounded us. The camp entrance was welcoming and the sign said “God is Always Good”.
We had arrived just in time for the evening service in the small chapel that comprised part of the first set of buildings. We could hear the singing of hymns coming from the open doorway and were invited to come and participate. Welcomed warmly by Mark, Muffy and along with all of the smiling faces around us, we found a seat in the pew next to the Stephensons. Deb said it was a great comfort to her that Shari and Paul Salzman and their girls were already there, sitting directly behind us.
Pastor Matt Wooten gave a very moving and well communicated sermon about how Seth had not given up trying to do his best for the Lord and we should not allow Satan to tempt us to give up just because Seth was gone. We should not give up because we have a purpose, a ministry and a hope to finish. Already our lamps were being filled.
The service ended and we were surrounded by those welcoming us to the camp and ready and willing to give us any help they could getting settled. Muffy showed us to our cabin and made sure that we had clean sheets. We were able to give her the gifts the moms from Vista Hills Home School Ministries had purchased for her children and the book we had made for the family. She shed a few tears and shared with us how God had comforted her through the search and discovery of the boy’s bodies.
She told us how she had been so at peace on Wednesday morning; knowing in her heart that Seth was with the Lord and hoping for the Hooper’s sake that Noah would be found alive. He wasn’t and she became the comforter to Nadine. The Hoopers had gone home the week before and she was in prayer for them constantly having seen that their faith was being sorely tried.
We unpacked with Muffy’s help and she took us back to the campground and gave us a short tour before she headed off to make some more last minute arrangements for the services the next day. Meanwhile, we met her brothers and sister and their families and were introduced to her many friends that had come to surround their family with love.
After we had eaten what we brought in the privacy of our small cabin, we headed to the campfire behind the gym. The rest of the evening we spent in sweet fellowship with Muffy’s brother and a few of her friends. We talked and reminisced around the glowing embers, not really seeing each other’s faces but hearing the nuances in each other’s voices. Nathan came and sat in the darkness just outside the light from the fire; quietly contemplating and listening to us talk.
The next morning we were invited for breakfast. Deb hadn’t slept very well so I started walking the quarter mile to the camp from our cabin to participate in the breakfast “rush”. On my way down the road, Muffy’s dad picked me up in his bus and chatted happily about how proud he was of his children as we made our way into the campground.
Breakfast was a cheerful affair. After praying on the porch outside the dining hall, we filed in and got our trays. We were served our eggs and bacon by a trio of teens singing hymns to the line of people filing past. Coffee was available to all over 16 years old (I qualified) and mugs were hanging on the wall waiting to be used.
I was joined at my table by Muffy’s oldest and dearest friends who laughed and talked about their friendship and their kids. They shared with me about their families and their challenges with their children and how the Stephensons had blessed them throughout their association. Everywhere I looked, there were smiling faces, big hugs, lots of sign language (this is a deaf camp) and bustling activity. The ministry of the camp was going on and carrying all of us along on its rushing waves.
Toward noon the mood became somewhat subdued as more and more arrived wearing red and black. We were told that we could go and view Seth’s body in preparation for the service at 2 p.m.
We joined the quiet (but not hopeless) throng. Seth’s body did not look like his but rather like a plastic imitation. The picture hung above the pine wood casket was a beautiful smiling face with shining mischievous eyes. It was that picture that I came away remembering as I hugged a smiling Muffy with tears running down her cheeks.
Instead of sitting in the chapel, I went and sat in the vestibule with some of the others. Bethany sat next to me along with a few of her friends who were crying. She just sat quietly; her eyes wet with unshed tears and her arm around her friend. Every now and then during the afternoon, a Stephenson child came within hugging range and I hugged. I don’t know who benefited the most – me or them.
Deb, Cardina and I brought Muffy a roast beef sandwich at about 1 p.m.
after she told us she was hungry. She ate in the chapel and we went out sat on the “board walk” watching the arrival of even more people. Mark was in the midst of it all – giving orders, directing things here, seeing to an issue there.
Just before the service began, Muffy and her family were all out on the board walk together and Mark came and whispered to Muffy that Seth’s horse, Duchess, was giving the handler a bit of a problem. Even the horse knew that something unusual was happening and was uneasy.
As we took our seats in the chapel for the service, Mark’s voice boomed over the assembly, “Move toward the wall, please. Make room for those still coming in.” By the time we were singing the opening hymn, there were very few seats left and quite a few were standing in the back and in the doorways looking on.
Pastor Craig Lang, master of ceremonies, gave instructions and said the opening prayer. Two teen girls, Janna and Jeta Jones, sang a sweet song that blessed all of us. We sang “It Is Well With My Soul” as a congregation and then listened with baited breath as Muffy and her friend, Ashley, sang a beautiful song about not understanding God’s plan but trusting Him anyway. At the last chord, we saw tears sparkling in Muffy’s eyes and in many of the eyes around us. About that time, it began to pour rain outside.
Pastor Wooten gave a short but moving sermon about Hope. We have a Hope in a Person, Hope in Place and Hope in a Promise. We don’t need to grieve as those who have no Hope – but we grieve a short time for our loss knowing that our Hope is in Christ and in seeing Seth again someday in Glory.
There were many who shared testimonies about how Seth had blessed their lives. How he had been a bright spot in the camp with his smile and had, just this past year, grown into a very responsible, hardworking horseman. Stories were told about how he had gone into the attic in the Dining Hall and fallen through the ceiling, how he had been a friend to a new counselor and brightened his stay, how he had surrendered to preach and preached a sermon just the Sunday before on “Are You Ready to Die?”. We were reminded about how even the most mundane things in our lives can be used by God to touch others.
Seth’s pine wood casket was loaded onto a cart pulled by two mules; and his horse with an empty saddle was tied to the back. It started along the road past the cabins and on up to the cemetery plot as we followed in our automobiles. The green hills and gray sky overlooked our progress as we rolled slowly in a long silver line.
We all parked in the grass under some tall pine trees and walked to the grave site. Cardina and I turned and looked back at the sea of red and black moving across the grass and through the trees toward the mound of dirt underneath the tallest pine. Duchess was whinnying and stomping off to the side as Pastor Dean Lang said a few moving words.
At the direction of Mark, several men took ropes and lowered the casket into the ground. As it settled onto the bottom, Mark jumped down into the hole and pulled the ropes out and lowered the black plastic covering over the casket. As his brothers in the Lord pulled him out of the grave, I shed the first tears I had shed all weekend.
As I walked back to my car, it began to sprinkle again and I could hear the shovels scooping the dirt into the grave. I think Mark and Muffy stood and watched until the hole was filled in.
Back at the Dining Hall, we waited for everyone to arrive so that we could pray over the potluck lunch. The Ministry had contributed Mac ‘n’ Cheese, Potato Salad and cookies to the spread which was all laid out generously on tables in the dining room. Again, we were served by teens singing hymns and smiling over the group going through the line.
We were the last to leave the hall after the meal; we were so caught up in conversations with the glowing and godly people we had met. Muffy’s mom, even though confined to a motorized wheel chair due to paralysis from the neck down, had such a sweet spirit and enthusiastic smile. Her husband took her everywhere with him and joked about how he had learned to put his wife in her place (by wheeling the chair wherever he wanted it). He told us about his ministry to bring Bibles to any who did not have one and how his wife came with him to every church he attended.
We met some of the search and rescue team who had come even though they had never met Seth because she had wanted her children to hear about this special boy who had touched so many lives. Debbie Lang, Pastor Craig’s wife, had spent the evening ministering to them and encouraging them.
Meanwhile, Muffy and her brother and Nathan sat and made faces into a cell phone camera and giggled together. I knew there was more grieving to be done, but it was good to see that Muffy was living her faith in the Hope of Christ.
That evening Deb and I sat in our little cabin and debriefed. All that had happened at the camp had really ministered to us even though we had come to minister to the Stephensons. We also felt like God had put us right in the right place because we had been able to minister to some others that God had put into our path. We had come for a funeral but felt like we had been to a celebration.
That night we all slept well in the cool night air with the ceiling fan blowing a fresh breeze over our peaceful bodies. When the moist morning came, we were ready for the trip home.
Breakfast served by the singing trio started off our day and an encouraging conversation with the Stephensons buoyed our spirits even more. The Holy Spirit was blanketing that camp with such love and such peace that we could almost taste Him in our mouths. We had caught a glimpse of Mark’s heart like we had never before. What a man ready to do God’s work! We had come to encourage and had received encouragement; we had come to minister and had received ministry; we had come to comfort and had been comforted; we had come to bring light and found ours receiving light.
To Apache Creek Deaf & Youth Camp: You are truly a light in the darkness and music in the silence. Thank you for your ministry and the hope that you communicate to all (no matter why) who come.
To the Stephensons: You exuded such Hope in the midst of sorrow and such grace in the midst of grief. Thank you for your inspiration and your example.