The months of September and October 2019 were tough. And if I’m honest, most months since then have been tough. Two young children whom I taught and spent time with often during the day – aged six and four – died. Separate accidents, different families… but families I’ve been close to.
Then a week ago, a close friend of mine was knocked over outside his house by a speeding vehicle. He died, and leaves behind a wife and three teenage children. Yesterday was his memorial. It has been hard to say goodbye.
I have so many unanswered questions, God. I wasn’t even sure whether to write this blog. Part of me feels like killing it with neglect would help. It hasn’t. The questions and the issues of faith, for me, don’t go away. And I think it’s worth a conversation.
As I look at photos of those bright-eyed children, all I see is goodness in them. They were much-loved, and they loved much. I can’t help but think that the planet would have continued to benefit from them being around.
As I think of my friend and the influence he had on so many, I am equally confused as to why his time on earth was cut short. Yes, I understand that we all have free will, and we live in a fallen world, and that sometimes these things happen. Other people make stupid decisions and that affects lives.
But couldn’t God do anything about it? More on that in a minute.
There’s a scripture in Isaiah 57:1 which says: “Good people pass away; the godly often die before their time. But no one seems to care or wonder why. No one seems to understand that God is protecting them from the evil to come.” Some people throw this scripture around as a handle which is meant to be helpful, to try and make sense of the world and God and our time here on earth. For me, it merely raises questions.
As I look at the parents of those children, I am undone. They are among the most committed and involved parents I know. So why did these parents have to say goodbye to their children? I suppose my blueprint has been, and still is, that no parent should have to eulogize their own child.
I’d be lying if I said I’m not angry. I am. As a believer, I suppose I look to the Creator who I believe to give life and take it away, and I think: why them? And why now?
I find it helpful to be open with my Creator about my anger, rather than ignore what’s going on in my heart. We do ourselves and everyone around us absolutely no favours by being detached from ourselves and our emotions.
It helps also to hear the stories of others who have dealt with grief and sorrow. I’ve read some things over the past few months. For example, “The Best Argument for Atheism: Where Is God When Our Children Die?“
William Sloane Coffin, a preacher who eulogized his son, went head-on against assertions from well-meaning friends that God had a hand in his son Alex’s death:
“The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is ‘It is the will of God.’ Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die … God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”
I suppose the crux of the matter, for me at this time, is ultimately this: God is not detached from these difficult moments. As TobyMac said after his own son’s death, he is the God of the mountain tops and the he is the God of the valleys.
The realisation for me that, according to the Bible, God lost his own Son… has raised further questions. Perhaps the central issue for me is that it makes the whole ordeal a lot less full of what one author calls “saccharine platitudes” and a lot more personal. I mean, God lost a child. And according to scripture, he came alive again. What does this mean?
The day after the young boy’s accident (where he was burned), I took my son with me to visit him. He was heavily sedated and in isolation for risk of infection. His skin was bubbling and swollen, and he was clearly in a bad way. Then, months later, my son, upon hearing the news that his friend had died, burst out sobbing. It was painful to see and hear a boy so young expressing such raw lament for his friend…
…and then, almost in the same gasps, he said: “I’m glad that he has new skin, dad.“
That statement helped me. Tough as it is, we either believe that we live eternally, or we don’t. We either believe in life after death – where we get new bodies, as scripture says – or we don’t.
When my grandfather died, the preacher at his funeral implored us as a family to “practice the resurrection”. Profound. However, I think this is easier said than done.
As Nicholas Wolterstorff confessed when grieving his young son who died in a climbing accident:
I cannot fit it all together by saying, “[God] did it,” but neither can I do so by saying, “There was nothing he could do about it.” I cannot fit it together at all. I can only, with Job, endure. I do not know why God did not prevent Eric’s death. To live without the answer is precarious.
Precarious, but honest. The reality of the memories and the frailty of our short time on earth is juxtaposed, for me at least, with the reality of living each day void of the company of those we love and cherish. How does a person actually function? It’s not easy, of that I am sure.
As my friend spoke to a packed auditorium at his daughter’s funeral, his response to no longer having her here on earth – no more hugs, or kisses – was perhaps the most brutal realization that despite our finite time here on earth, each day is agonizingly tough. And yet, he gave me incredible hope with his own words: “Heaven has become more real to me than it’s ever been. We’re all going to die. And now each day I wake up, I know that I’m one day closer to being with Jesus, as well as my daughter.”
I got home last night, exhausted. The week and the events leading up to my friend’s memorial, the memorial itself, left me… well, buggered.
However, as is so often the case, God speaks to me in these places of my soul. We sat down as a family to watch a documentary on birds. Not the kind of thing I would ordinarily choose. All I can say is it was absolutely enthralling. My kids were completely entranced too. And together, the eyes of our hearts were opened to a Creator who’s message to humanity in the book of Matthew is to “look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds.” (The Message)