Early this semester, North Central University experienced the loss of beloved student Micah Pennington, a 22-year-old senior on the brink of graduating and earning his undergraduate degree in Fine Arts and Church Leadership. Micah was—and is—adored by many students here on campus, and thus his passing has left behind a lot of grieving hearts.
I have also been grieving, and his loss has reminded me of the other losses in my life. In fact, in my first semester here at North Central in the spring of 2017, I lost my youngest brother to suicide. At the time, I was working in North Central’s housekeeping department and Micah was training me in. The following Monday when I returned to campus, I decided to share the news of my brother’s death to Micah as we walked from Miller Hall to Mensing in the melting snow and sunshine.
It was a long time before I told anyone else on campus. I felt I had no real friends I could tell, anyway. But Micah had always shown me an unflinching kindness that caused me to consider him an ally in a place where I otherwise felt very alone.
Later that semester I opened my campus mailbox to find an envelope with nothing but my first name scribbled on it. Confused, I opened it up to find a purple card ornamented with a butterfly and the words, “Thinking of you.” Inside, I discovered several hand-written notes of condolences; one from Micah and the rest from other members of the housekeeping department.
I was so overwhelmed with emotion in that moment that I broke down in tears, and I have treasured the moment ever since. But when I received the news that a student had passed away on campus—and that it was Micah—I knew right away that I wanted to give his family the card Micah had given me. And by the grace of God, I was given that opportunity the following Wednesday at the chapel service dedicated to Micah.
The service was a difficult one for me. As I watched his parents courageously face a crowd of students mostly unknown to them, I was reminded of my brother’s funeral. The Penningtons expressed how overwhelmed they were by the support they were receiving from North Central, and I knew exactly what they meant—my own family had received similar support after the loss of my brother, including being given his middle school diploma and having his name called at his 8th grade graduation. As much as I tried to hold back tears, I couldn’t contain myself when President Hagan presented Micah’s parents with his own cap and gown and diploma.
Micah’s loss has also reminded me of the passing of my father in July of 2019. My father and brother were not related and I am unsure they ever met one another, and yet they both happened to pass in the same way. The day I received the news, my initial reaction was, of course, shock. But this time instead of a straight pivot in God’s direction as I did with the passing of my brother, my shock was followed by a great amount of anger that turned me away from him. I thought “how could God put me through this again?” and for the first time in my life I really questioned his goodness and intentions for my life.
In the six months that have passed, I have expressed my broken heart in a lot of unhealthy ways (I don’t even want to know how much money has been spent on takeout since then) and done much to avoid God. Yet, the entire time that I have avoided God, he has shown me a profound grace I have never known before. I have felt him come to my side as a patient friend, counselor, father and redeemer. His Word has been an anchor even when I have wanted to hide it away on a bookshelf to let it collect dust.
The truth is, I have done little to change myself or heal. I’ve probably spent more time in my bed wallowing than anything else. Yet in my hiding and my bitterness, it has been the Holy Spirit that has beckoned me to meet with him in prayer, worship and in his Word. And it has been he that is mending my broken heart, repeatedly reminding me that he is a safe place to take my feelings–even the anger. I have also learned what it means to “be still” in wait for God, because it is he who strengthens my heart and holds me in my pain.
So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”Isaiah 41:10
I have found through all the pain that I have experienced that our God does not abandon us in our distress. Psalm 147:3 tells us the Lord “is close to the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds.” What’s more, the Lord has shown me that we have a God who is able to empathize with how we feel, and in Isaiah 53 the Messiah is referred to as “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” Jesus knew the experience of being human, including the sucker-punch that is the news of a loved one’s passing. Jesus wept over Lazarus. Our feelings do not surprise him!
When death strikes, it leaves us in a state of injury. And injuries hurt—they’re supposed to. That’s how we know something is not right. I believe we are meant to lament so that we may more earnestly desire God and his kingdom. We are meant to long for eternal life because that is what is good. That is the ultimate plan that God has for us—to be eternally alive in and with Christ. As paradoxical as it seems, the sting of death can be one way in which God further inclines our hearts away from sin and this fallen world, and toward him and his righteous instead.
For all who are in mourning over Micah Pennington, I highly encourage you to draw near to the Lord, no matter how you feel. To keep an open hand even if that openness does not match your emotions. It’s been painful—oh, so painful—as I have been learning how to surrender my life and my will to Jesus. Not long after my brother passed, I went into his bedroom where he died, and sat at his piano to worship the Lord. What poured out of me was a song of ultimate surrender—I basically said to the Lord that I believed in his sovereignty and was choosing to accept that even in this tragedy, he is in charge and his plans are good. That evening I handed over my desire to understand, to hold on to anguish or bitterness, and to disengage from what I’d been called to do. To believe that “surely the goodness and love [of God] shall follow me all the days of my life” (Psalm 23:6).
To Micah’s loved ones and all of North Central: my sincerest prayers are with you. The grace that God has shown me in the losses of my brother and father has been perhaps the very thing that has most revealed to me the majesty and wonder of the gospel. I pray that together as a community—as the church—we shall be so very convinced of God’s goodness, that we shall know the true weight and glory of the gospel of Christ, and that God’s comfort and healing shall surround us in abundance. May the grace of God in our Lord Jesus Christ be with all of us in our mourning.
The Student Success Center is available to students seeking counseling for grief. To set up an appointment with counselor Maddie Larud, call (612) 343-5000 or stop by Miller Hall 227 during the hours of 8:30–10:30 a.m. and 1–4:30 p.m. Monday–Friday.