Thursday, December 6, 2012
“There was another life I might have had, but I am having this one.”
It’s been nearly five years since Rachel was killed. Shortly afterwards, Jill and I had dinner with a couple who had lost their son nearly ten years earlier. I knew they knew how we felt because already the man had asked me questions I hadn’t told anybody were on my mind. The burning question, I think, for both me and Jill the night we had dinner was: “Will we ever get over this?”
From my current vantage point, I can see the foolishness of the question. Then, we hadn’t yet fully absorbed the reality of what we were facing: the rest of our lives without our daughter. We were desperate for hope from someone who had walked the road ahead of us. The couple answered our question as compassionately and honestly as they could. Ten years after his death, they told us, they still weren’t over the loss of their son. For as long as they walked this earth, they never expected they would be. The going get easier, but it never gets easy; the hurt gets better, but it never goes away. We should have known. They had learned to live without him, as harsh as that may sound. In Life of Pi, Yann Martel says, “You can get used to anything...isn’t that what all survivors say?” And while getting accustomed to the loss of a child seems at first unimaginable, undesirable, heartless even, it ends up, after all, to be sadly, horrifically...possible. Perhaps even necessary. Our hearts sank there at the table as we imagined the road ahead. We didn’t want to drink this cup, but drink it we would, together. A bitter communion.
The man we had dinner with occasionally attended and preached at our church. He had formerly been an elder. I took his place on the board. The couple had ceased attending before Jill and I began. I don’t think we had met the woman before the night of our dinner. Though I never knew exactly why she quit going to church with her husband, it is reasonable to assume she had spiritual difficulties in the aftermath of her son’s death that made it impossible for her. They may have had some understandable and all too common marital problems. I detected some uncharitable attitudes about her and the choices they had made...
In the days before Rachel’s death I thought of the man as a tragic and somewhat heroic figure. I admired him, but, of course, I did not envy him. I remember being always aware of his loss, even when it wasn’t explicitly mentioned or acknowledged. Like talking to someone behind glass. You can have a normal enough conversation, but there’s always that between you. Content to just admire and pity him from a distance, I never wanted to know how this man had managed to survive. Like most, I didn’t think I could. I recognized it could have been me in his shoes, but I was so shamefully relieved I didn’t have to wear them that I never wanted to tempt fate by getting too close.
I recently heard a radio broadcast of a Jewish mother who had lost her son to a Palestinian sniper. She said that those who manage to survive the loss of a child must choose to live. Is that what happened? Did I choose to survive? I don’t remember, not consciously, anyway. Many nights I would have been content to close my eyes on this world and wake up in the next… But there is always something that must be done in the morning.
Predictably, Jill and I quit attending church. We made a valiant attempt to hang in there; we really did. But after some developments that required further commitment and demanded more involvement, we finally had a long talk in the hot tub and confessed to each other that we simply no longer had the heart for it. Though I still cannot articulate why, church had become more hurtful than helpful for both of us, and we couldn't stand pretending otherwise any more. We realized that we weren’t serving anyone, least of all ourselves, by staying there when we lacked any true desire. We haven’t been back to the last church we attended as an intact family since the end of last December. It turned out to be almost like an unintentional New Year’s resolution - except that we have uncharacteristically nearly perfectly kept it. Our year without Jesus…
After writing that last sentence, I Googled it to see if anyone had written on that topic, and I found this blog post: https://rivercityrevolution.wordpress.com/2009/03/12/a-year-without-jesus/ The author speculates about the antithesis of a popular book from a few years back called, My Jesus Year. He qualifies his blog entry as merely “a thought experiment”, confesses how easy it would be to fall into the (bad, selfish, lazy) habits of “pretend atheism” and cautions people against actually trying the experiment for themselves at home. I have to admit, it’s scary how easy it is has been to drop the routine of a lifetime.
It would be an exaggeration, though, to say that Jill and I have lived like atheists for the last year. Practical agnostics, maybe. The truth is, God is still a central figure in our lives, even though we are less certain than we have ever been about who He is, what He is like, and what we can expect from a relationship with Him.
God and church are two distinctly different things. The Bible asserts that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Jesus, Immanuel - God with us - made an unqualified promise that he would never leave us nor forsake us. I learned from Oswald Chambers that because we lose our old idea of God does not mean we have thereby lost God, and the loss of our former form of belief and the birth of a realization more closely approximating the truth is perhaps always and necessarily painful and traumatic. Did we really believe the truth could be cheaply and painlessly acquired? Doubt is as undeniable and inevitable in this life as pain, loss, confusion, and disappointment. Christ felt abandoned on the cross, but I don’t believe even he ever really lost God. I don’t think that is possible. I hope not. When walk out of church, God inhabits the world we encounter outside the door. I really believe God is always with us, as near to and indistinguishable from our very breath and being.
Dan Haseltine, the lead singer of Jars of Clay, recently blogged about his break with the traditional evangelical church. He said, “I have to believe that God is in our story.” It isn’t good enough for him or for me anymore to be told what to believe about God. We each have our own experience that has brought us to the place where we now find, or have lost, ourselves. Through no fault of our own we have fallen out of step with the rest of the parade. It wasn’t our plan. I was content teaching Sunday School every Sunday, preaching, serving as an elder. I would happily have remained in that place if I hadn’t been removed by forces beyond my control. Sometimes, surrender is the only viable course of action. Maya Angelou said, “...life...taught me undeniably that surrender, in its place, (is) as honorable as resistance, especially if one (has) no choice.”
If God is in our story, and our story takes where we do not want to go, then it is an act of faith to surrender and trust that God has something vital to teach us along the way. Nothing else makes any sense to me. Right now it’s the only faith I have. In Life of Pi, the main character tells the inquiring writer that he will tell him a story that will make him believe in God. It is his story, of course. How else could he know? Martin Luther, the original Reformer, said, “God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also in the trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.” I would add, he also writes it in our hearts and with our lives. How else could we believe?