Many who have known me long have heard me talk or write at some point about my roommate and close friend in college who died in a car accident my senior year. Her name was Sarah Warren, and she was hit head-on in her car while driving back to NAU from her hometown of Albuquerque. She was hit by a drunk driver who entered I-40 going the wrong way just outside of Winslow, AZ. She died instantly. Her family was shocked, grieved, devastated, yet hopeful...and we, her friends at NAU suddenly grew up in measures as we had to notify her work, her classmates, her friends. Our friends made meals for us in their dorm kitchens and our InterVarsity staff worker/mentor brought veggie and cracker trays over, gently instructing us that we would be receiving visitors and she wanted us to have something to offer them when they came. The woman I was student teaching under gave us cookie dough--so we could fill our apartment with a good and comforting smell as we baked them. Friends came and cleaned for us and we couldn't bring ourselves to erase the last message Sarah had written in her own hand on our roommate whiteboard in the kitchen. We read Sarah's journals as we packed up her belongings before her aunt came to get them...and in the journals, we had great conformation of Sarah's love for us and her faith in Jesus, who she trusted more than anyone I had ever met. Her character was not without fault, yet her faith and purity of purpose were clear and sweet and more mature than her 21 years. We wrestled with how God could be in this tragedy, and resisted the temptation to tie it up neatly in a little box with platitudes and empty consolation. Yet in the midst of our tears and falling on the floor in sobs and lack of sleep there was a peace and a deep-down awakening. Many of us who professed a faith in Jesus grew stronger as we saw proof in Sarah's belief taken from the Bible that "to live is Christ and to die is gain." It was a significant time in my life, a pivotal cementing of the hope that I had in a God whose purposes are greater than ours and who offers inexplicable deep-rich-heartbreaking joy in the midst of suffering.
Sarah died in October of 1999. Fast-forward to September 2012, when I am living a new life that has been harder than I imagined. I still trust the God I came to know so intimately in 1999, but I am beginning to doubt his personal nature. I mean, I still believe he has all of time and history in his hands and he knows the end from the beginning and all that, but I am beginning to question whether he remembers little old me or whether he still has a plan for me and my family. The night of my birthday, a long-time friend (who has an uncanny connection to Sarah Warren's parents through a friend she met in Canada years ago) asked me if I had gotten the email from Sarah's father. I said no, and she sent it to me the next day. Can you imagine my reaction when I read the following story? I think you might be able to imagine it if you read it for yourself:
September 10, 2012
Dear Family and Friends,
“God is able to do far more abundantly than all that we can ever ask or think.” This is made clear in a recent development in the ongoing story of the legacy of our daughter Sarah, who went home to the Lord almost 13 years ago. I was asked to document the following story in the hope that others might find it interesting and encouraging.
Last week I received a call from our pastor Edwin regarding a call he had received from a man named Otto. While I didn’t remember the name, Otto and I (John) had spoken briefly a couple of times in the days following the DWI incident in 1999 that took Sarah from us. Otto was the investigating officer with the Arizona Highway Patrol. At that time I requested details about the accident, mainly whether Sarah had died instantly, which Otto confirmed she had. He had informed me that he had charged the other driver with 2nd degree murder but that he had died on route to the hospital. The driver’s widow survived the crash. As I recall, Otto was noticeably shaken and I informed him that we’d pray for him. I told him that we knew Sarah was in heaven and we’d see her again and then asked him for the other family’s information so we could let them know that we had forgiven them and so that Sarah’s friends in Flagstaff could visit and comfort his widow.
Last week Otto contacted Edwin regarding getting in touch with us. In my initial conversation by phone last week with Otto, he told me that Sarah had “led him to the Lord”, that he had surrendered his life to Christ a few months after the incident and that he credited his salvation to Sarah because of that fateful night in October, 1999. I told him I was eager to meet him (albeit with some trepidation) to both hear more and share more of Sarah’s legacy. The following is his story which I learned during a two hour lunch with him last week near the Arizona/New Mexico border.
He told me that when he arrived at the scene shortly after the collision he realized that Sarah had died instantly. But, he said, although he had investigated hundreds of accidents before and since, there was something uniquely different about this one, a difference that would change his life. He said, and these are his words, the presence of God was very evident at the scene. He related that there was a striking sense of peace and serenity at the scene, in spite of the violence of the collision. And he sensed that Sarah was surrounded by unseen angels who were watching over the scene.
Otto was not a believer at the time but this whole experience made such a deep impression on him that he could not get it out of his mind. His two conversations with me the day following Sarah’s death confirmed to him that there was something different and unique about Sarah. He said he could not put it into words (though I thought he did a very good job of it) but that he wanted to convey, after all these years, that it was because of Sarah and the peace he felt at the scene that he was led to surrender his life to Christ. We know that the peace of God that he sensed that night could only flow from the fact that Sarah had experienced peace with God through her faith in the finished work of Jesus.
I asked Otto why he hadn’t contacted us sooner. He said he struggled these many years because he knew it might be painful for us to talk with him. Recently however, having been asked to become a deacon at his church and needing to share his conversion experience with the church; and on the frequent urging by another older deacon that Sarah’s parents would want to know this story, he felt he had to seek us out in order to tell us his story. We are very grateful.
I could not thank him enough for his persistence in finding us and for relating this remarkable story. As I said, we talked for over two hours and I felt as if I had heard the most amazing chapter yet in the ongoing legacy of Sarah. I told him of some of the other chapters and of the realization that DJ and I have come to, that Sarah’s death perhaps has had more impact than her life. As some of you know, other chapters have been written around the globe in countries that have received short-term youth missions paid for in part by funds raised in Sarah’s memory. We may never hear most of those stories but we know that the angels in heaven rejoice over every soul that surrenders to and receives Jesus. I related that Sarah’s home church (Christ’s Church of Flagstaff) also has an ongoing mission program in her memory. I told him also of the many couples we have had the privilege of encouraging, and being encouraged by, over these last 13 years who have gone through similar pain but who are now living in hope.
The legacy of Sarah is living evidence of what Jesus said in John 12: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Sarah’s life, having been surrendered to Christ, and her death continue to bear much fruit for the kingdom of God. Our prayer is that this story might encourage or perhaps challenge you regarding the claims of Christ on your life. We also want to let you know that you are free to pass this on to others in your circle of friends and family who may find it helpful or interesting as well.
Yours in Him,
John and DJ Warren
I think that's all I need to say, because Mr. Warren said it best.
P.S. Jeremy and I were some of the young people that were supported by Sarah's memorial fund, so we are firsthand witnesses of the ripple effect of one young woman's life across the globe and through the years. How humbling and how wonderful!