• Kurt J. Kolka

From death to life, an amazing change!

(Photo courtesy of MLive)


By Kurt J. Kolka


It has been 11 years now since the tragedy of the Whitney Cerak-Laura VanRyn medical mix-up which pronounced the wrong Taylor University student dead and another alive.


Whitney Cerak is a graduate of Gaylord High School, the daughter of a youth pastor and teacher here. And back in 2006, there was a terrible accident when a semi crashed into a van full of Taylor University students on an Indiana highway which took the lives of most on board. Whitney was a survivor of the crash, but for weeks later was misidentified as another student in the van, Laura VanRyn. A funeral was held for Whitney and her family said good-bye.


When the mistake was discovered weeks afterward, it caused a media frenzy where Gaylord and the Cerak family suddenly were thrown into the national spotlight. Everyone wanted to know what happen. What affect was this case of mistaken identity having on the families involved? How could such a mistake have been made? What about the VanRyn family who was now suddenly left without a daughter?


The hearts of people across the country and even the world went out to them. People were caught up in the emotion of the moment.


Despite all the media attention the case received, there was one obvious question left out. Where was God in all this? What was His plan?


Last year, Whitney Cerak Wheeler, now married with two children, gave a speech at her alma mater, Taylor University, during a chapel service. She talked of how the accident changed her life by giving her a whole new perspective.


“Everything I thought I knew about myself had flown out the window,” said Whitney during her speech. “Everything before the accident was no longer.”


She had watched her own funeral on video tape and what she learned from those who spoke made her question who she was now. She questioned why she was the one to survive. The others had accomplished so much for God, in her thinking, and she had done nothing.


She was also angry about being in the public eye after the accident, when she didn’t want to be. She just wanted to be left alone as she recovered to sorted everything out that had happened while she had been in a coma.


At one point, she asked her dad, “Why me? Why did I survive?”


Her father responded, “Whit, why not you? Those people have brought glory to God through their lives. Now you get to bring glory to God too.”


A few months later, back at Taylor, Whitney was still feeling broken. A group of students came and prayed for totally healing over her. At that moment, Whitney says, she felt like she received it.


“The doctors told my parents I would never be the same because of everything that happened. And, you know what? I haven’t been the same. For long time, I was known as the girl from the accident.”


After graduating college, she went and worked in Kenya with her sister helping street orphans. While there, she read a book called “Crazy Love,” which asked the tough question, “If Christ weren’t in your life, would your life look the same?”


This made her question, “had Christ fully grabbed a hold of my heart yet?” While she felt she was a good person, came from a Christian family, attended a Christian college and had done all the right things, she hadn’t really fixed her eyes on Jesus Christ.


“It was at that moment, I decided to follow God with all of my heart. I decided instead of finding my identity in who I used to be, I decided to find my identity in Christ alone.”


Whitney’s story echoes many others from the Bible. You will remember most of the disciples fled after Jesus was captured by Roman guards. It wasn’t until after the tragedy of Jesus death and His startling resurrection that their lives were truly changed. God’s Holy Spirit opened their eyes and gave them courage to go on. He turned cowards into courageous men of faith. Sometimes, as in the case of Paul, God even changed the person’s name to reflect the change in them.


In my own life, I have come to realize the changing power of God as well. He has used tragedy many times to draw me closer to Him, to ask the right questions.


Those of us who claim to be believers in Christ must all eventually ask ourselves the same question, “Does Christ fully have my heart? Am I following Him or my own wants?”


This Easter, take a look at the tomb. Are you still looking at its comforting emptiness? Or are you looking the new life outside which will change you forever?


Happy Easter!




Between the Pines Ministries

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