In September 1999 I set up a late-night drop-in centre in the basement of Highfields Church, Cardiff, called the Underground. It was an exciting, occasionally terrifying ministry that lasted over 3 years. In that time we ministered to some of the most messed-up and violent people I have ever worked with, yet we also saw God do incredible things. One of the most memorable things about the Underground was the team that I served alongside – a team that was predominantly made up of students and young adults. On my team were 2 wonderful students called Dan and Cat who stuck it out through thick and thin and who were a constant source of encouragement to me and became firm friends. Dan and Cat became very close, started going out and eventually got married and had 4 wonderful kids together.
Dan went on to become a much-loved member of the leadership team down at Christchurch, a church in nearby Newport that I enjoy an especially close relationship with. Consequently I have stayed in touch with him and Cat ever since our time together at Underground. So it was with great shock that I learned about him collapsing with a bleed on the brain just over a week ago, and with deep sadness to hear of his death yesterday, aged just 33. Dan’s death, and the events leading up to it, has hit me very hard. I’m an emotional bloke at the best of times, but his friendship, his age and his family situation all being so close has made it especially poignant. I can’t even begin to imagine what his wife, his precious kids and his friends at Christchurch must be feeling right now. And yet I know that there is grace. I have been aware of it, as I’m sure they have. Remarkably, almost bizarrely, in the midst of all of the emotional trauma that these last few weeks have brought, I have found myself feeling grateful. Profoundly grateful. Here’s why:
Grateful for Dan
It’s not just lip-service brought on by emotion – Dan Gaweda was one of the nicest guys I ever knew. I’m not sure if I know anyone who so clearly and so consistently displayed so much of the Fruit of the Spirit. As such, he was literally liked by everyone! I have fond memories of Dan – praying with him when the Underground was kicking off, serving alongside him at Vintage Jesus, sharing food and walking the streets of Trevethin with our families. Ever since I’ve known him Dan cared about the poor, the marginalised and the unreached, which led him and his family to settle and serve on Newport’s Bettws estate. His heart for the estate was so precious and I loved to hear him talk about his love for Bettws and his dreams for that community. Dan was a wonderful, gentle, gospel-hearted man of God and, like many others, my life is richer for having shared it with him.
Grateful for the Gospel
While I don’t begin to understand why the Lord allowed Dan to die so young, the gospel refuses to let grief turn into full-blown despair. As Pete Greasley so powerfully put it in last Sunday’s message at Christchurch, death is not the worst thing that could have happened to Dan. Dying in his sins is the worst thing that could have happened to him, and by the grace of the gospel of Jesus, he was spared that ultimate tragedy! I believe that Dan is with Jesus in glory right now, not because he was a good bloke but because God is gracious. Dan knew Jesus, loved Jesus and as his Twitter profile so boldly states, Dan knew that he was “Saved by Christ”. Outside of the gospel the death of a 33 year old husband, father and friend is an unspeakable tragedy devoid of hope. However, in light of the gospel we know that sorrow will be ultimately be turned to joy. That God will ultimately be glorified and that Dan’s funeral is not the last word. Because of the gospel we can celebrate the truth that for Dan, to live was Christ and to die truly was gain. (Phil 1:21)
Grateful for Scripture
In seeking to come to terms with all that has happened over these recent sad days, I have drawn great comfort from the Scriptures. Not just those like the one above, but especially those that remind me that I am not God. That I don’t have all wisdom, strength and all the answers. I have been clinging to God’s words in Isaiah 55v9: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” God’s Word is a treasure chest full of nuggets that do your soul good. God has been exceptionally kind in providing timely, helpful and hope-giving scriptures for me and many others to meditate on.
Grateful for Prayer
I have prayed A LOT for Dan and the family these last few weeks and I am certainly not alone in this. It’s been striking that not only have the saints of Christchurch been praying fervently, but technology and social media have ensured that Christians from all across the globe have been praying. I think we take prayer for granted too often in our ‘comfortable’ lives. However, at times of crisis and in the face of adverse circumstances that are beyond our capacity to handle alone, we rediscover the gift of prayer. When we feel helpless and frustrated that we can’t ‘do’ anything, we are given a blessed channel to be able to get actively involved in the situation. Furthermore, prayer provides a way for us to unload heavy burdens that would otherwise crush us, as Peter encourages us: “[cast] all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” (1Peter5v7) I don’t claim to know how prayer works. I just know it does and I am so grateful to God for it.
Grateful for Church
I am also profoundly grateful for the church right now! I mean, I love the church, believe in the church and am all about seeing Jesus building His church, but recent events have only served to enhance my passion for the church. The way that saints from all around the world have responded with compassion and prayerful support has been phenomenal and the way my own brothers and sisters at Hill City have encouraged me and prayed for a family that they don’t know has also been special.
However, it’s the witness of Christchurch in the midst of all this that I’ve been most impacted by. The gracious, gentle and honest way that they have handled the situation has been incredible. Knowing the men who lead Christchurch as I do, and knowing how much they loved Dan, I know that the last few weeks must have been almost unbearable for them. Yet God has given them huge grace to lead with courage and sensitivity. Pete Greasley’s message as he led the church to pray last Sunday was a poignant testimony to that grace. Naturally, my heart is so broken for Cat and the children right now and how they move on from this God only knows. (And He does know!!) But as I’ve been thinking of them, I’ve found myself rejoicing – yes rejoicing – that they are in a church family that I KNOW will look after them through it all. I have no doubt that God will give them all the grace they need, and much of that grace will be administered through the loving care that they will receive at Christchurch. The church is God’s agent of grace in a broken world – not just preached grace, but practical grace. Thank God for Christchurch. Thank God for church!
Grateful for Life
Finally, as I have reflected on Dan’s death, I have found myself grateful for the gift of life. Dan’s death has revealed how much I take my life for granted and how fragile life truly is. In reality every breath, every meal, every laugh, every sunset, every relationship, every discovery and every moment is grace. One thing that has to be said of Dan’s life is that he went for it and he didn’t let up. He didn’t limp across the finish line, he sprinted across. God knew the course that He had set out for Dan and PRAISE GOD, he finished the race! He worshipped his Saviour passionately, loved his wife faithfully, doted on his kids tenderly, served his church humbly, and cared for his community deeply. Dan lived life abundantly. I am devastated that he died so young, but his is not a story of a wasted life because it’s not how long you live but how well you live that determines whether or not your life was wasted. Dan lived his life abundantly to the very end. He lived a gospel-shaped life and for that he is my hero and a compelling example to us all.
I have no idea how long I have left on this earth, but I am more aware than ever that life is a precious gift and I intend to live in light of this. I pray that my legacy will be one of a life that was marked by grace and lived to the glory of Jesus Christ.
A life like Dan’s.