All of us go through suffering and times of loss in our lives. There are suffering people here tonight, troubled people, worried people, uncertain people. And all of us grieve.
Tonight I want to give a testimony to God's faithfulness in times of loss. My basis for doing this is found in Paul's letter to the Corinthians, the second letter, chapter one, verse two.
"Grace be to you. 2 Corinthians 1:2. "Grace be to you and peace from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comforts, who comforts us in all our troubles, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble by the comfort with which we ourselves have been comforted by God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our comfort also abounds by Christ. And those verses make me bold to share with you some of the lessons that God has taught Mary Lou and me and our children through times of loss.
All grief and loss are the same
The first thing I want to say tonight is that loss is loss, grief is grief. What do I mean by that? Simply that the loss of a child through death is not basically different from the loss of a child who goes far from the Lord and who spiritually dies. The loss of a child through death is not basically different from the birth of a child with Down's Syndrome or a severe handicap or retardation.
The grief of a woman over a husband who dies is not basically different from the grief of a woman whose husband deserts her and her children and marries someone else, divorces her and marries someone else. The difference is that the corpse is still around. Or as one woman said to me, "I think it would have been easier to have him die because I wouldn't run into him in the supermarket with another woman.
The grief of a man who loses his job in these days, especially if he's over the age of 50the grief of a young man or woman over a broken engagementover academic failure. All grief is the same. All loss is the same. And so what I say tonight relates to your losses, whatever they may be, whatever your age.
In fact there was a study at the United States submarine base, in New London, Connecticut, a few years ago. They found that women whose husbands were going out to sea duty for several months went through the same loss characteristics as Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross had described in connection with women whose husbands die. Some of them became alcoholic for the first time. Others fell into deep depression while still others had psychotic episodes for the first time.
When I read that, I was happy because if Mary Lou and I were ever going to have an argumentno, this is a Christian grouphave a "disagreement, it's the night before I go away on a trip or when she drives me to the airport. And I realized from that study at New London, Connecticut, that it wasn't that we hated each other so much that caused us to have those arguments, but rather we loved each other so much that we hated to be separated even for a brief period of time.
I solved part of the problem by taking the limo to the airport now.
We will face many things that are inexplicable
Next thing I'd want to say is that we will not understand many things that happen to us or to those we love. If we have to understand things that happen, we are going to be stunted in our spiritual growth I believe, because in your lifetime you are going to face many things that are inexplicable. When Joe our 18 son was dying, to me it seemed absurd. Here we were losing our third son and none of our friends had even lost one child through death. And then when he had died, and friends would say to us, "Isn't it wonderful that the team at Swarthmore College heard the Gospel at his funeral service? and "What an evil world he's been spared by dying at the age of 18? it seemed to make it all the more absurd to us. Because he could have affected that evil world if he had continued to live. And his influence as a living person on those students was surely much greater than that sermon that the pastor preached at his funeral service.
And so reason is a very weak crutch. The only foundation in times of loss is faith, that God knows what he's doing when we don't know what he's doing. At times of crisis in my life, as well as at many ordinary times, I've written a poem that I've called a psalm. I'd like to read "A Psalm on the Death of an 18 Son that I wrote a couple days after our son had died.
This was incidentally at the time that the campuses were being upset and torn apart by student activists. And we had a son who was planning to serve Jesus Christ overseas, a son who had started Bible studies in a very liberal school, who was standing for Jesus Christ.
What waste, Lord,
this ointment, precious,
This treasure, great beyond my mind,
For years, until this midnight,
it was safe, contained,
awaiting careful use;
The world is poor,
it needs each drop
of such a store.
This treasure spent
might feed a multitude
for all their days
and then yield more.
This world is poor.
It's poorer now.
The treasure's lost.
I breathe its lingering fragrance.
Soon even that
What purpose served?
The act is void of reason,
Lord, madmen do such deeds,
The sane man hoards his treasure,
spends with care,
if good, to feed the poor,
or else to feed himself.
Let me alone, Lord.
You've taken from me
what I'd give your world.
I can not see such waste
that you should take
what poor men need.
You have a heaven full of treasure.
Could you not wait to exercise
your claim on this?
Oh spare me, Lord.
Forgive, that I may see beyond this world,
your sovereign plan.
Or seeing not,
may trust you,
Spoiler of my treasure.
Have mercy, Lord.
Here is my .
I think we can go in one of two directions when we can't reconcile a loss with our belief, our faith in God. Either we give up that belief in God or else we realize that he is in control and is working out a plan. Although in the darkness, we can't see what that plan is.
Mary Lou and I have found that there are many losses and other mysteries in life that we must accept unexplained. But that we still believe in God. Faith means something when it is exercised in the darkness. In fact, if I understand the meaning of Hebrews, about faith, it only means something when what we have faith about is totally absent.
Our four year old, who had leukemia, was one of those children who early in life developed and displayed a love for Jesus. Some of you have seen that in your families. That some children have a hunger for God earlier in life than other children in the same family.
This was about the time that the Auca Indians killed the missionaries. As a result of that incident, our little boy decided he wanted to be a missionary when he grew up. And then when we found that he had leukemia and he was around the hospital and the physicians, he decided he wanted to be a medical missionary. And then that changed several weeks before he died because he had a wonderful woman physician, haematologist, and he decided at that point that he wanted to be a woman medical missionary.
We had him anointed for healing, in accordance with James 5. We believed that he had been healed. We told our other children that, and we told doctors, both Christian and Christians, as well as friends that. And he was in an unusually good remission for those years, for about nine months, when he suddenly went downhill and died.
The morning that he woke up, bleeding, Mary Lou and I sat with him from about 5:30 until 8:00, then called the pediatrician who lived in the neighborhood. He came over and said, "I'd like to take him into Children's Hospital for a massive transfusion. He might live another two weeks; he might not. It's up to you to decide.
We said, "If he's going to die anyway, we'd rather have him die at home. And we sat with our little boy from that time until he died at 2:00 in the afternoon.
You know it would have given us a great deal of comfort for our little boy to have shown the love for Jesus and the desire to be with Jesus then that he had shown at other times earlier. But when we talked about heaven and his going to be with Jesus and Jesus coming for him and carrying him in his arms, he didn't want to go. He would ask us, "Will you go with me?
We had to say, "No, we'll come later but we can't go with you.
"Then I don't want to go.
What child feeling as he did would want to take a trip without his parents? And right up until the time that he died, there was no encouragement for us, no spiritual encouragement. And he died quite violently. You know the difference isn't one moment before death, but one moment after death.
And I say that I believe it by faith, even as the rest of you do who trust Jesus. If you have to have answers, you're going to be leaning on a deceptively weak crutch. But if you trust Jesus Christ in the darkness as you're trusting him in the light, he'll take you through those dark days, those unanswered questions. The interesting thing for us is something that I think many of you have discovered, and that is in spite of not having answers, you don't doubt God's love.
Mary Lou and I were never more sure of God's love for us and for our surviving children than we were when we turned from a fresh grave. I said that in a little book that I wrote. The Last Thing We Talked About, which was formerly The View from a Hearse.
One day I had a phone call from Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross, the psychiatrist who's responsible for the death awareness movement here in the United States. And she asked if I would participate with her in the leadership of a seminar for medical doctors and nurses out here in San Jose. I agreed and I took Mary Lou along. And that day there were fifteen hundred people at that seminar. I don't think I would have felt easy if I knew what she told us a couple of years later. And that was that she hated G, what she called G. And she wanted to show me up by inviting me there for that seminar because she didn't feel that anybody could have the reaction to the death of children that I had said in that little book Mary Lou and I had. She wanted to show me up to be a phony.
Well, I'm glad I took Mary Lou along because people might think I'm a phony, but they won't think my wife's a phony. Well that started a friendship with Elizabeth and I have participated in other seminars with her. And one day we were flying back from a seminar in Boulder, Colorado. Mary Lou was there and Elizabeth and I, and she said, "You know what keeps me from believing that Jesus was actually God is what happened on the cross and in the garden of Gethsemane.
I said, "What do you mean?
She said, "Well in the garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus came out of the inner part of the garden and found his disciples asleep, she said, "his reaction was almost one of that they couldn't stay awake with him. And then on the cross, when he cried out, 'My God why have you forsaken me?' she said, "that's alienation.
I said, "If you had a patient who reacted that way, when his friends deserted him in his terminal illness or felt that God, he was alienated from God, would you criticize that patient?
And she was indignant because she's a most sensitive woman. She said, "Of course not.
I said, "Why?
She said, "Because that's only human.
I said, "There's your answer. Jesus eternally was the Son of God. But by his birth to the Virgin Mary, he became, in your words, 'only human.'
Now the other part of that is if Jesus reacted in that way, if as the writer of Hebrews says that he cried tears unto God at the time of his death that he might be delivered from that God, he felt alienated from God. If he depended upon his friends and felt when they deserted him at the end, certainly it's not sinful for us to cry and to express our feelings and to expect something from our friends, even perhaps to feel bitter toward God when some of these losses come to us.
God shows his love through his people at times of crisis and loss
The next thing that I'd like to say by way of personal testimony is that God shows his love through his people at times of crisis and loss. Mary Lou and I have had the opportunity to see that again and again. This is one great thing about being related to a group of Christian people in a church. Also we've seen his love through medical doctors, not all of them Christian.
If you ask Mary Lou what was the kindest thing anybody ever did for you, I think that she would probably say, "Lorraine Blazebrook, a schoolteacher who was approaching retirement age. And after our little Danny came home from the hospital, she came in one of the first nights, looked around, sized up the situation. And then for weeks and even months, she came in every night about 6:30, spoke to us, but headed for the kitchen to do the dishes and clean up the pots and pans so that our children, our older children wouldn't have to do it and so we as a family could be together for family B and prayer and for fellowship. Isn't that great?
Listen. Don't tell people, "Let me know if there's anything I can do. Those people usually have unlisted phone numbers. Find something to do! Write a note. Make a phone call. Take the laundry home to do. Take food in. I'm sure in a church such as this, you have plans for moving in to situations of sudden catastrophe and loss, but at times let God speak to you about getting involved rather than just leaving it to some group.
I was in Pittsburgh for a conference with Christian physicians a few months ago and I met a pediatric neurosurgeon. Now that's a most unusual specialty. There are probably only a half dozen in the United States that specialize in that. Surgery on the brain and so forth, and for children, infants.
That man and his wife, who themselves had two little children, had decided not to move out to the suburbs, but rather when they moved to Pittsburgh where he took that position as chief of pediatric neurosurgery, they got a house within a block of Children's Hospital. Why did they do that? It was also within a block of Pittsburgh's ghetto. High crime area. Why did they do that?
So that they could have in their home the parents, and especially the mothers, who come from different parts of the state and the country, for this type of surgery on their children, have the mothers, the fathers too if they came, in their home as guests during the time before surgery, during surgery and after surgery. That is Christian love. That is Christian love: to continue to be involved after you leave work in such life and death issues of people because you know Jesus Christ and you want to show the love of Jesus Christ to these dear people who are going through times of uncertainty and loss
God wants us to be honest in our reactions to suffering or loss
The next thing God wants us to be honest in our reactions to suffering or loss, not to say what people expect us to say. Some people get a resigned smile and it hides a bitterness within. Or on the other hand the smile may hide a tearing apart within, that perhaps should be revealed to God and certainly to God and perhaps to other people. This is a psalm of today:
"This is the day the Lord has made.
The Lord. Today. Yesterday, perhaps, could claim your craft, or hopefully tomorrow, but not today, this disappointing day so filled with problems, needs, despair and doubt. This is the day the Lord has made and making it, he'll give me strength and hope to take me through. This is the day the Lord has made so I'll be glad and I'll rejoice in it.
Do you ever get up in the morning and say, "Can God possibly have made this day? do you ever?
Some of you got up this morning with that thought. Some of you will get up tomorrow morning with that thought. And you know God I think is big enough to take care of himself. If there's one conviction that's come to me as I've gotten older, it's that God is big enough to take care of himself. In the Old Testament, you have Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and Abraham and others crying out to God and asking him their deepest questions, Job, and God didn't strike them dead, and he won't strike you or me dead either.
Next I believe, and perhaps this is the most profound conviction that's come to Mary Lou and me, we believe that God's primary work for us and for our children is not to shield us from suffering, treat us like spoiled children that you never allow to get into any difficulty; God's purpose isn't to shield us from suffering but rather to conform us to the image of Christ, to make us like Jesus. And like him, as we're told in the New Testament, we learn obedience through the things that we suffer.
When our Danny was ill, we had a letter from Elisabeth Elliot, whose husband had been killed by the Auca Indians, a friend of ours. And in this letter, she wrote these words, "My morning reading yesterday fell on Hebrews 12. Verse 10 came with fresh force in the RSV. 'He disciplines us for our good that we may share his holiness.' At times I am tempted to say, 'Not that, Lord,' but I am willing to accept even the loss of Jim if I may share his holiness. But I will have nothing less.
And if Jesus Christ learned obedience through his sufferings, I think that's God intention for you and me.
At one time we had a little family businessI had a publishing house that published one book. And unfortunately the book wasn't of the magnitude of our friend Ken Taylor with Living Bible. But one day while I was packing books, I wrote this, because we were in financial difficulties and I realized I had to make a change. There were other problems at that time. This is a psalm while packing books.
This cardboard box, Lord,
see it says,
"Bursting limit: 200 pounds per square inch.
The boxmaker knew how much strain
the box would take,
what weight would crush it.
You are wiser than the boxmaker,
Maker of my spirit, my mind, my body.
Does the box know when pressure increases
close to the limit?
No, it knows nothing.
But I know when my breaking point is near.
And so I pray,
Maker of my soul,
Determiner of the pressure,
within, upon me,
Stop it, lest I be broken. Or else change the pressure rating
of this fragile container
of your grace
so that I may bear more.
When his Holy Spirit works in us, I think it's to make us holy people. And another word for a holy people is morally tough people. We need morally tough people today, people who are true to their commitments, whether that commitment is to church, whether that commitment is to marriage, whatever the commitment is to. And that's what the Holy Spirit is trying to do in us.
There's an Old Testament verse that means a lot at times of suffering and loss. It's this, "In all their affliction, he was afflicted.
We don't go through our sorrows, our losses, our sufferings alone. Jesus Christ was afflicted and is afflicted in our losses. Isaiah 53, "He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows. And it's true!
We can take these words and they almost become clich's to us. Consider Jesus Christ, consider him bearing your griefs and carrying your sorrows tonight. Because that's what we're told that he does for us. This is the message of the Gospel.
Do you know him? Have you trusted him?
When our one son was about four years old, one Sunday afternoon, the family took a walk. We lived in Philadelphia at the time. It was springtime. The family walked about two miles, but Timmy walked about four miles because he'd run ahead and then run back. Run ahead and then run back. When we turned around to go back home, he was just dragging. I thought that he couldn't make it so I said, "Timmy, let me carry you.
And he said, "Oh, yes, Daddy.
He came up to my arms and all the time that he was running ahead, he'd been picking a grubby little bunch of dandelions. And I could feel that arm over my shoulder and those dandelions against my back. We went about a half block and then he said, "Daddy he got rigid. He said, "Daddy, put me down.
I said, "Timmy let me carry you home. You're tired. I'll put you on the couch. You won't even have to go to your room for your nap.
"No Daddy, put me down.
I said, "Why, Timmy?
He said, "I want to carry my own dandelions.
And as I watched him plod along, plod along the rest of the way home, almost not making it, I thought, "That's the way I am. I know that Jesus Christ is carrying me, that he's promised to carry me in his arms. And then along comes the problem, a little one, a big one, that's about as significant to him as those dandelions were to me, in terms of added weight to a . And knowing that he can carry me, I say, "I'll carry my own dandelions.
Look, Christ came into the world to bear our griefs and carry our sorrows. We may not understand, but we ought to cast our cares upon him.
Let me read you a psalm I wrote at Children's Hospital. The other child of ours who died was, died in infancy, shortly after birth, had surgery at 24 hours and died several weeks later, complications of the surgery. And then later we had another child who was born with exactly the same condition and required the same surgery. This is a psalm at Children's Hospital when that other child's life could have gone either way.
I find it hard, Lord,
to stand here, looking through the glass,
at this my infant son.
What suffering is in this world
to go through pain of birth
and then through pain of knife
within the day?
What suffering is in the world
this pain parade
from birth to death?
He moves a bit,
How could an infant stuffed with tubes,
cut, sewed and bandaged,
move more than that?
he'll shout and run a race,
roll down a grassy hill,
ice skate on frosty night like this.
He'll sing and laugh.
I know he will, Lord.
But if not,
if you should take him home to your home,
help me then remember
how your son suffered
and you stood by watching,
to bring all suffering to an end
on a day yet to be.
I must go now.
Thank you for staying nearer
than dripping plasma
to my son.
Please be that near
and to me.
And you will appreciate our joy that that son graduates from college this spring and will be in seminary in the fall, the Lord willing. God is good. Praise his name. Amen.
Joseph Bayly was a columnist for Eternity magazine. He authored numerous books including: Heaven, I Love to Tell the Story, and The Last Thing We Talk About.