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Jim Henry recounts personal ‘crucible’ of coping with Payne Stewart’s death

COVINGTON, Ky. (BP)–The recent death of pro golfer Payne Stewart was more than a tragic news story for Jim Henry. It was deeply personal.
Henry, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, was Stewart’s pastor and friend at First Baptist Church, Orlando, Fla.
When Henry and others received word Oct. 25 that Stewart’s plane was flying out of control on a bizarre cross-country trek, “my stomach turned a flip-flop,” Henry recalled. “We waited with baited breath and prayed, hoping against hope, until we got the sad news that the plane had gone down” in South Dakota with Stewart and five others aboard.
Recounting “the crucible I’ve been walking through the past few weeks as a pastor,” Henry told Kentucky Baptists during a message at their annual meeting, “I had seen Payne recently come to know the Lord Jesus and he was growing in the faith.”
Following news of the crash, everything “became a blur,” Henry said, as he and other ministers sought to “deal with the press, comfort the families and deal with our own grief.”
Henry was one of the first people to arrive at the Stewarts’ home following the plane crash. “We were pressed into an international situation we didn’t know if we could handle or not,” he acknowledged.
“We were praying that through the tragedy God would somehow get the glory,” Henry said. “That was our chief desire.”
Stewart’s funeral service, which was held at First Baptist, Orlando, was broadcast live on ESPN.
Professional golf’s “top 30 money winners were in our church for the memorial service and heard the gospel,” Henry noted.
With golfers in other tournaments around the globe also pausing to attend services held to remember Stewart, “in 24 hours, basically every professional golfer heard the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Henry said. “With those seeds sown, who knows what crop will come up later?”
With Stewart’s wife and children attending the worship service the following Sunday, Henry said his sermon topic was, “When We’re Wondering about Our Whys.”
Explaining that all six individuals aboard the ill-fated plane were strong Christians and that Stewart was “just beginning to blossom as a believer,” Henry said, “Out of that context and dealing with my own grief, this is the message I shared with our people and these broken families.”
First, he said, “a troubled faith is better than no faith at all.” Sharing about a family who’s athletic teenage daughter lost her leg to cancer, Henry said the father told him, “There are only two choices to make. One is to continue to be angry with God and fall into despair or let God be God. It came down to despair or God — nothing in between — and I chose God.”
Citing a father’s cry in Mark 9:24, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief,” Henry said, “It’s better to try to deal with what we don’t understand than to come from no context at all.”
Next, Henry noted, “God is not obligated to explain the unexplainable. … Some of the greatest people in the Bible were perplexed and God didn’t explain himself.
“When God is silent, the body of Christ becomes his expression of love and compassion,” he added. “We become his tongue, his arms, his tears, his embrace, his presence.”
Henry said it also is important to remember that “God is not the source of our heartaches.”
“Sometimes you feel like God has betrayed you,” he said, with such feelings often leading to bitterness, anger, disappointment and disillusionment.
“God isn’t the source of our heartaches,” he insisted. “Most of the time we are victimized by the greatest liar in the universe, Satan. The accuser and the slanderer loves to point his finger at God and have people blame God.”
In the midst of crisis, “sometimes God delivers through the fire but not always from the fire,” Henry said. “We are not exempt from calamity nor should we expect to be. … When we focus on what is left rather than what is lost, we get through the fire.”
Henry said Christians can have the confidence that “trouble rightly handled honors God.”
“People watch us,” he noted. “I’ve never been more alerted to that than in these past few weeks.” He said God is honored when his followers face crises “but we handle them because we have hope and confidence in Jesus Christ who enables us to go through to the other side.”
Henry also emphasized that “we are incredibly precious to God.”
“When Jesus came to Lazarus’ tomb, he wept. When he stood over Jerusalem, he wept. The first person to weep when that plane hit the ground was Jesus Christ. We are incredibly precious to him. … God loves you so much.”
Finally, Henry said, “faith guides and walks us through to the other side.”
“Our griefs, our sorrows, our whys have a purifying effect as God is developing our faith,” he said. “It comes down to faith in him.
“We have a Father who has big arms and he holds them out to us and we can jump,” Henry affirmed. “We still may have our question marks and the tears flow and the grief is deep, but he holds us and embraces us.
“It comes down to Who — and he’s enough,” Henry shared. “When we wonder about the whys, the empowerment comes in the Who.”

    About the Author

  • Trennis Henderson
    Trennis Henderson is the national correspondent for WMU (Woman’s Missionary Union). A Baptist journalist for more than 35 years, Henderson is a former editor of the Western Recorder of the Kentucky Baptist Convention and the Arkansas Baptist News state convention newsjournal.Read All by Trennis Henderson ›