We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will. And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:26-28)
Brad Gaines spent Christmas this year in Russellville, Alabama. It's the same place he has spent every Christmas since 1991. His wife would rather he be in Nashville, Tennessee, with their daughters, but Brad goes every Christmas just the same. "Everyone needs to be with someone during Christmas," Brad always says by way of explanation. The person Brad goes to be with is Chucky Mullins, a man very different from Brad and someone Brad might never have known, but for a fall afternoon in 1989.
They met on a football field in Oxford, Mississippi, on October 28th, 1989, when Chucky's Ole Miss Rebels were playing Brad's Vanderbilt Commodores. Brad was the leading receiver in the Southeastern Conference; Chucky one of the conference's best defensive backs. On one particular play — as it turns out, the play that would change both men forever — Brad caught a pass in front of Chucky. Chucky did what he had done thousands of times as a college football player; he hit Gaines and knocked the ball loose. Both players went down. Gaines got up and started back to the Vanderbilt huddle. Chucky didn't get up.
Chucky never would get up normally again.
Somehow, when Chucky Mullins hit Brad Gaines he fractured 4 vertebrae in his neck. As minutes ticked by and Mullins stayed on the ground, as trainers and doctors clustered around him, and as Ole Miss players began holding hands and shaking heads, Gaines asked the referee how Chucky was. "They think he can't move," came the reply.
In fact, Chucky Mullins was paralyzed from the neck down. Brad actually spoke to Chucky for the first time in the hospital. About a hundred people were clustered outside Mullins' room when Gaines arrived. They parted without a word to let him walk in. The first words out of Chucky's mouth as Brad entered the room were, "It's not your fault."
Of course it wasn't, but Brad still carried the incident around with him. He lost all desire to play football. Even though he finished his college eligibility and played a year of pro ball in Canada, his career basically ended on that October afternoon in Mississippi.
Brad Gaines made his first trip to Russellville, Alabama, Chucky's hometown, on May 6, 1991. That was the day of Chucky's funeral. Brad, the strong and tough football player, cried like a baby beside his casket. He went on with his life, but he never forgot. And every year since then, Brad makes the drive from Nashville to Russellville three times a year: on May 6, the anniversary of Chucky's death, on October 28th, the anniversary of the game, and on Christmas. He spends a couple of hours at Chucky's grave, cleaning each letter of his headstone, pulling away grass and weeds and leaves from around his marker, and then sitting and praying and reflecting before getting back into his car and driving back to Nashville. He has not missed a visit in thirteen years. He claims he never will.
The years of reflection have given Brad a perspective on the terrible events that link him with Chucky. "It makes you appreciate life so much more," he says. "It makes you appreciate relationships. Life is so fragile. It makes you value life."
Brad speaks often to schools and church youth groups about meeting and overcoming the challenges that life brings. He always leaves them with this message: "I don't question why God does things," he said. "I just know that some good comes of it, and that He gives me the strength I need."
It takes strength to live with the memory of such a tragic event without being devastated by it. Then again, many of us have to live with such memories. Brad Gaines just understands that the strength he needs doesn't come from figuring out why his life took the turn it did. It comes from believing in a God who knows what we need even when we don't know how to ask, and who brings something good from everything that happens to us.
Maybe you know a little too well what Brad Gaines carries with him. Maybe you know what it's like to live with tragic or difficult circumstances — to think every day of a person you wish you could see or an event you never anticipated or a mistake you wish you could take back. Maybe you've made a few pilgrimages of your own. If so, I hope you realize just as clearly as Brad Gaines that your strength does not come from demanding answers, but from trusting in the God who brings good out of what seem to be irredeemable events. And even if you don't see it yet, the Cross and the empty tomb prove without a shadow of a doubt that God is not absent — not even from cemeteries. Surely you don't imagine that the God who sent his Son for you would leave you alone and helpless. He will give you the strength you need. Even if it's just a day at a time.