Category Archives: Suffering

Advent: Waiting With Hope

One of my favorite lines in the Psalter says “I was too troubled to speak” (Ps 77:4, NIV). It’s a line that has resonated with me for seventeen years, ever since that doctor in the emergency room pronounced Kenny dead. For I still know not the words that adequately describe losing my son.

In my lament, I ask how can it be that my son is dead? Why did God allow this child to be conceived and born only to die three days later? Where was God throughout those nine months as my wife and I prayed so fervently for the well-being of our son? Why did God not heal Kenny when the doctors were attempting to resuscitate him? Has God even heard my cries begging aloud for him to help my son? Yet God did not answer… Why?

Seventeen years later, I’ve certainly processed through these questions of lament. I seem to think I can answers them, at least in part, as abstract theological inquiries, though that offers little, if any, comfort. Perhaps I can even answer some of those questions in a pastoral manner that gets at the heart level.

Maybe.

But even then, these answers don’t assuage the grief and pain of such a loss like this. As a believer committed to following Jesus, all I am left with is the hope that one day God is making all things new. So I hope for the day of salvation when death will be no more, when the grief and pain is consumed in the fulfillment of redemption, when the tears and disappointment are gone, when the blessing of joy and peace are forever lived in the presence of the Lord, when the sting of death gives way to the victory that we will forever share in with the Lord.

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This promise of hope is one of waiting. It is to look upon a distant bright star showing forth among clouds of darkness, with an anticipation veiled by tears. This is advent hope.

For four-hundred years after being exiled into Babylonian captivity ended, Israel waited for the day of the Lord. That’s four hundred years of waiting. At the time, they weren’t sure when that period of waiting would end and that is what makes waiting with hope so difficult.

The season of Advent is upon us again. We celebrate Advent knowing that the Lord has come. God came into our world in the person of Jesus, born as a baby destined to suffer a humiliating death on the cross so that he could take his life up again in resurrection and thereby save us all from the sting of death, our sins. While we have this assurance of hope, by faith we still wait for it as the day when salvation will be fully realized. Until then, what we have is hope. So we wait with hope.

Waiting with hope isn’t so easy. It’s never so easy and the hope we have doesn’t negate the darkness of silence that we live with as we wait. So what can we do? Wait! And don’t look pass the darkness by For as the great hymn Be Still, My Soul reminds us, the mystery of our hope is known as we wait in the darkness.

Be still, my soul when dearest friends depart
And all is darkened in the vale of tears
Then shalt thou better know His love His heart
Who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears
Be still my soul the waves and winds shall know
His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below

I’m Not Renouncing My Faith

In recent weeks a couple of more popular Evangelical Christians have publicly renounced their Christian faith. In particular, I’m thinking of former pastor and author Joshua Harris as well as Hillsong Worship Leader Marty Sampson. Both seem to be struggling with the Christian faith as they understand it, though I’m not sure if that means they have completely abandoned belief in Jesus Christ or they’re just struggling with a lot of doubt right now. What I do know, based on what I have read, is that both are struggling with their faith.

iBelieve Series

My point isn’t to criticize or pass any judgment on anyone, including Joshua Harris and Marty Sampson, who struggle with doubts and even for a time may lose their faith. I’m just mentioning this to provide some context for this blog post. You see, I actually sympathize with those who struggle in their Christian faith because I have struggled in my Christian faith too. In fact there was a time during my seminary years, of all places, when I nearly walked away from this life of following Jesus because I wasn’t sure of what I believed anymore and I wasn’t even sure if it mattered.

The existential crisis for my own struggle with faith was the death of my first son, Kenny, followed by the death of my younger brother, John, a year later. Such suffering has haunted me. Not only did the death of my son and brother burden me with much grief and pain but my eyes began to see the suffering of others and the unfairness of it all. I remember well the afternoon I went to visit someone in the hospital battling cancer and walked through the pediatric oncology ward… Haunting!

The reality of suffering leaves me with many more faith questions than I have any satisfactory answers. Beyond that, as a pastoral-theologian, I know that life is much more complex than the fundamentalist Christian worldview some Evangelicals have. There are issues about creation and science, the end of time as well as God’s judgment, the nature of scripture, and so forth that I still wrestle with because some of the answers I have are not dogmatic absolutes. At least they’re not for me because the issue seem far too complex for such black and white solutions.

All that said, I still believe in Jesus. Even though there are questions for which I’m unsure of the answer, I still believe.

I still believe in the good news about Jesus, his death, burial, and resurrection, because I find the testimony about what happened to be believable. That is, I find the story of Jesus dying on the cross and being raised back to life (and bodily resurrection) to be reasonably credible. I’m not saying that this story is provable like one can prove the laws of gravity but I do think the story is credible, and therefore believable, just like the story of the American Civil War even though we weren’t alive to witness either event with our very own eyes.

What makes the story of Jesus believable is the evidence we have, the testimony that has been passed on from those who did see (cf. 1 Cor 15:1-8) and the effects what happened. While it might be possible that the story of Jesus was all just a ruse or some lie perpetuated by the early Christians, that possibilities loses their probability when considering the suffering of persecution many of these Christians endured. In one-hundred years time, from AD 25 to AD 125, history went from no existence of Christianity at all to a movement so numerous that some saw Christians as a new human race (N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 359). This happened even though the believers didn’t have any legal standing and faced much opposition, including persecution and death. The only explanation is that what they believed about Jesus, his death, burial and resurrection, did really happen.

I also still believe in the good news of Jesus because of the hope that blossoms from such faith. The good news of Jesus is the story of how God overcomes sin and death, bringing about a new creation. Without that promise, our life ends in death so that all the suffering endured to that point is without any hope. Nihilism is what we are left with. As difficult as suffering is, it becomes utterly unbearable if life is nothing more than just “Life’s a bitch and then you die.”

As I said earlier, there are many questions about faith that I don’t always have satisfactory answers for but there is one thing I do know. If the story of Jesus being crucified and resurrected is true, and I believe there is credible reason for believing it is true, then it changes the course of history. The life Jesus lived, with all of his teaching, is the life that God is bringing into existence and it’s the life I want to participate in as a follower of Jesus. It’s a life lived by faith and a faith that’s big enough for and can co-exist with the questions and doubts we sometimes have.

So I’m not renouncing my faith and I pray you won’t either.

Remembering Kenny: God Spoke and Hope Emerged

After Kenny died, a dark cloud came over me that eventually appeared to snuff out any light.  Hope seemed dead and my faith in God was crumbling into ruins day by day.  There was two factors that added to this darkness.  One was another baby who had become critically ill but then became well again.  That is a good thing but for me, hearing people praise God for answering the prayers made on behalf of this baby only made me wonder all the more why God didn’t answer the prayers for Kenny.  The other factor was that a little over a year after Kenny’s death, my younger brother John also died.  He left behind a wife and two children.  It was just too much and yet, little did I know but an encounter with God was just around the corner.

This is the third part of the story: of how I discovered God again in a new way that brought a renewed faith and hope.  It is part of what makes me so passionate about the gospel of Jesus Christ and the hope it offers to a broken and hurting world.

I wish the process of healing was as linear as I am going to make it appear to be.   But that is just not how healing and renewed faith are discovered.  It tends to be a messy process that take different routes for every person.

For me, the road to healing begins with a wonderful community.  From the outset  Laura and I were surrounded by a very supportive family as well as friends from Harding University, Covenant Fellowship Church, and our Wednesday Evening Bible Study group.  I don’t know how many of those people had ever ministered to a people who had lost a child, but they were very caring and supportive in the way they treated us, listened to us, ministered to us, and so on.

I also had begun seminary at Harding School of Theology (HST).  In hind-site, I would not recommend beginning seminary right after losing a child but the community at HST also was helpful.  Over the year, as my faith continued to crumble, a couple of great things happened that kept steering me towards an encounter with God.

First, my wife and I did go through some grief counseling that was provided to us free of charge which did help my wife and I to practically help each other to grieve in more healthy ways.  Second, a friend of mine gave me a pocket knife that he had sharpened along with a story about the knife.  The story basically explained that he had bought the knife to pray for someone as he sharpened it and then God revealed to him that he was to be praying for me.  In some way, this all kept God in the picture even though God was becoming very fuzzy and frustrating.

One day I was sitting in chapel at HST and was just near the breaking point.  My brother had recently died and I was just tired.  On that particular day I heard the hymn Be Still, My Soul (see below) for the first time.  The song, which now is a favorite, eloquently expressed both the grief and pain I was reeling in as well as the hope I wanted so badly.

But hope seemed so illusive…perhaps impossible at that point.  I was tired.  I felt like a man lost in a dark cave with nothing but blackness.  I was just tired of walking in what seemed to be an endless journey of nothing but more darkness.

All I wanted to know was “Why?”  Why did my son die?  Why did God seemingly not answer the prayers?  Was he unable to or did he just not care too?  Did God even hear those prayers?  While Be Still, My Soul spoke of the hope I wanted to have, I was not even sure if there was a reason to hope in God.

As I said, I was tired and was ready to give up.  I had planned to quit seminary and even had been offered a job selling Honda cars.  But then I met John Mark Hicks, who would become both a friend and a Professor of mine.  He was speaking at HST on his own spiritual journey which included the death of his first wife and his son, Joshua, later on in life.  Despite his suffering, he spoke of a deep faith in God.  So I went up to him and asked him something about how he was able to trust in God.

What John Mark Hicks pointed me to was Romans 8:28 which says, “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.”  At first, I was sort of disappointed because far too many people had used this verse just to dismiss my grief and struggle without even taking the time to understand.  But I gave him the benefit of the doubt since he understood what I was going through.  John Mark Hicks told me to go home and read, to learn what that “good” is about.  So that night after Laura went to bed, I pulled out my Bible and began reading through Romans, reading again through Romans, and reading, and…

At some point God spoke.  Not in audible words but nevertheless I heard God speak and he said, “Rex, my good is your redemption and if you’ll trust me, I will see that good to the end even if you don’t understand how I work that all out.”  And just like that the light began to break through the darkness, hope began to emerge.  It was like a thousand pounds being lifted from my shoulders.  I no longer needed to understand or have an answer to the question of “why?” to all my questions and yet, I found myself able to trust God again.

Ten years later I am a person full of hope.  I believe God is redeeming the world in Jesus Christ, making all things new (cf. Rev 21:5) and that includes us…you…me.  I don’t understand everything about how that is happening and there are things about God which are remain mystery.  I’m ok with that.  I wish Kenny was still alive and would give almost anything to hold him just one more time.  I cannot contemplate the thought of embracing Kenny in the new heaven and new earth without some tears of joy.  Further more, as terrible as it has been to lose a son, God has used this journey to give me a faith and hope that I did not have before.  For that, I am thankful.

Thank you for reading this story, a story about Kenny and I.  But most importantly, a story about God.

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The following video is of the choral group Libera singing the hymn Be Still, My Soul set to a video with images of the Holocaust.

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See also part 1 and 2 of this “Remembering Kenny” trilogy:

Remembering Kenny: God, Where Were You?

In yesterday’s post, The Joy of My Son’s Life, I recalled the life that Kenny did live, sharing some of the great memories I have of his life.  With this post I want to share the dark and difficult part of the story, Kenny’s death.

The day was Friday, August 2, 2002.  Laura and I brought Kenny home believing he was as healthy as a healthy baby could be.  Obviously that was not the case.  About an hour later Kenny suddenly stopped breathing.  911 was called and EMS came, taking Kenny immediately to a local trauma center.  Laura and I quickly followed and were eventually joined at the trauma center by many friends, who all were praying for Kenny.

Then, about an hour later, after exhausting every means to resuscitate Kenny with no avail, out came the doctor.  His words were shattering.  I remember them like they were yesterday.  “I’m sorry, we have pronounced your son dead.”

And with those eight simple words, a darkness came over me that would remain for nearly a year and a half.

The doctors did allow Laura and I to come in and hold our son, or his body, one last time.  Laura did not stay long but I couldn’t leave.  My son was gone.  And all of those prayers…where did they go.  Where was God when my son was dying?  How can this be happening?  Is this really happening?

I never doubted the existence of God and as strange as it may sound, seeing my son’s lifeless body only enhance my belief in God’s existence.  You see, life is not simply a matter of biology.  While all people are physical specimens, we all have an “image” which makes us uniquely human with all of our beauty and goodness as God’s creation.  That was gone, missing from my son’s lifeless body.  Did that just appear by accident or was it the image of God, created by God?

I was convinced that Kenny’s life – from the miracle of his birth (all births are miracles, are they not?) to the beauty that made him uniquely Kenny, that gave him glory and honor (cf. Ps 8:5) – was evidence of God’s existence.  But where was God when we needed him the most, when Kenny needed him the most?

That first night after Kenny’s death, I was awakened from my sleep due to my crying.  The anguish was so great that my stomach began to crap up as though it was being tied into knots and I had trouble catching my breath.  I remember asking “why?” when my son was so innocent…he didn’t deserve this.

The question of why began haunting me.  What happened to all of those prayer’s for Kenny that Laura and I and many other had prayed?  Did God hear them?  Did they matter to God?  Such questions crippled my faith because I could not resolve the tension that these unanswered questions left with all of my grief and pain.

It was difficult to carry on while trying to believe that there was any reason to have hope.  Yet to remain in that place of such darkness was to accept that life was hopeless and that seemed even more unbearable.

In tomorrow’s post I will share how discovered hope and had my faith renewed.  But for now, I want to recognize the importance of this place in the journey.  It has been ten years since Kenny’s death and I still do not have the answer to many of my “why” questions.  That is, I don’t know why Kenny died, just as I don’t know why suffering exists (and I’m skeptical of those who so easily claim to know).  However, when people endure such tragedies, this stepping into the darkness with the deep questions of faith is so necessary and acceptable if we are to discover faith and hope again.  For in between that Friday when Jesus was crucified and that Easter Sunday when he was resurrected is a very long and dark  Saturday, when the prayer of “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps 22:1; Mk 15:34) is met with the silence of God.

In that moment, I had to step forward in trying to find God in all of this.  I was scared as I did not want to lose my faith and yet I felt like I had very little faith. Even worse, the more I stepped forward the more the haunting the darkness seemed as the questions came with me.  However, in looking back ten years afterwards, I can say that when in darkness , if we will have the faith to step into that darkness then we will reach that place where the darkness gives way to The Light.

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This video is of the song “Can You Here Me?” by Mark Schultz.  Although the song was written about a mother and father who’s child was sick with cancer, the song captures exactly how I felt after Kenny’s death.

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See also part 1 and 3 of this “Remembering Kenny” trilogy: