Death has been on my mind a lot these days. No, I’m not given to gloominess. It’s just that for whatever reason, I’m reminded of it everywhere I turn. I started this blog after the death of my father. Our prayers in Sunday School are often for the terminally ill and their families; I’ve done two memorial services in the last two months.
Recently, I’ve been following the ongoing saga of a young man who died this past week from brain cancer at the age of 34, leaving behind a wife and young daughter. He was the son of a former colleague of mine at the seminary. The wife’s blog painted achingly poignant word-pictures of the family’s ordeal: the wasted body, the inarticulate goodbyes.
Dad was nearly 94 when he died, and the timing and circumstances of his passing felt like a great mercy. But 34? It feels like cosmic chaos. When a parent has to bury a child, the universe seems to turn upside-down.
One of my mentors, Dennis Guernsey, died of brain cancer. I visited him the week before he left this life to be with his beloved Jesus. Here was a man of passion and eloquence from whom cancer had stolen the power of coherent speech. After he died, I attended his memorial service. He was not a young man, yet he was survived by his mother, who sat with her head silently bowed.
Something in me wanted to scream at the injustice of it.
Does God weep when someone’s child dies? When Herod the Great went on his paranoid campaign of murdering innocent children, did heaven tremble? There is a bit of Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov somewhere in me, as he jousts with his more faithful brother Alyosha:
I want to be there when everyone suddenly finds out what it was all for. All religions in the world are based on this desire, and I am a believer. But then there are the children, and what am I going to do with them? That is the question I cannot resolve. … Listen: if everyone must suffer, in order to buy eternal harmony with their suffering, pray tell me what have children got to do with it? … And if the suffering of children goes to make up the sum of suffering needed to buy truth, then I assert beforehand that the whole of truth is not worth such a price. (Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, pp. 244-245.)
Ivan sees more clearly than most just how upside-down, how broken, the world really is. It pushes him to the brink of apostasy. And ultimately, Alyosha’s only viable answer to Ivan’s tirade is not an intellectual discourse, but a life of faith and hope. In essence, he stakes his very existence on following the God whose own child had to suffer and die. Was that death worth the price? God seemed to think so.
This side of heaven, we will continue to be assaulted by experiences of upside-downness that can’t be reasoned away. To keep our sanity, we can try to ignore the suffering. Or we can take our stand, firmly or falteringly, on hope: God will take what is upside-down and turn it right-side-up again.
He’s doing it now. Even if we can’t see it for the tears that blind our eyes.