A Mourner’s Thoughts On Sickness, Sorrow, Pain And Death
Recently, a thirteen-year-old boy in our church died tragically from a depression-related suicide. On Sunday, I delivered THIS SERMON in an attempt to help our congregation understand God’s heart on such a tragedy, as well as to invite the kind of deep lamenting and mutual support called for by such an occasion. Finally, to add to things that have already been said in recent days, I am re-posting this essay — first written in September of 2016 — to help myself (and hopefully anyone else who reads this) find permission to grieve deeply now, and to look forward in hope to the day when Jesus will return and make all things new.
The past year has been a hard one for me personally, and also for the community that I am part of.
With my dear Mom, we are in the later stages of what those familiar with Alzheimer’s call “the long goodbye.” Dad, who has been nothing short of stellar in the way he has cared for Mom, has also buried his own Mom, had two major surgeries, and, now in his mid seventies, is flat tired.
In our Nashville and Christ Presbyterian community, there are cancers and Lou Gherig’s disease and dementia and funerals—a lot of funerals—many of which feel woefully premature. Since our community’s inception, fifteen sets of parents, who were never meant to bury their own children, have reluctantly released their boys and girls into the everlasting arms of Jesus. The most recent was a middle school boy with his whole life ahead of him. He was an exceptional musician who could play Beethoven almost as well as Beethoven, ran the mile in just over six minutes, was a state champion gymnast, and a jokester who brought levity to every gathering he was part of. And, most lovely of all, this boy had a deep, authentic, and exemplary faith in the Lord.
Earlier this week, a Nashville news anchor and member of our church conducted an interview with the beloved Ben Ellis, who has been afflicted at an early age with terminal cancer. Ben might be the kindest schoolteacher that our two daughters have ever encountered, and Abby and Ellie are not alone in feeling this way about him. The interview was related to a video that went viral after Tim McGraw, a well-known Nashville musician, posted this video of 400+ high school students from Christ Presbyterian Academy worshiping God outside of Mr. Ellis’ bedroom window (worshiping God in community with others is one of Mr. Ellis’ favorite things to do). This moment of worship occurred because the school administrators and teachers decided that it was more important to show love to the Ellis family than to continue with the day’s class schedule. A day or two after the video reached over twenty million viewers and national news outlets began reporting about it, the Ellis’ former pastor, Russ Ramsey, stopped in for a visit. In their brief conversation, Ben relayed to Russ that he had been praying God would give him a few more days, to create more opportunity for the message of God’s grace and love to told to more people through Ben’s affliction. Ben’s prayers have been answered as his story has become a modern parallel to Samson, who we are told accomplished even greater things in his death than he did in his lifetime. Both Ben and Samson represent Jesus in this way, who also accomplished history’s greatest victory in a cruel, rugged, vicious and premature death.
And yet, sickness, sorrow, pain and death are still horrible things and are an assault on human dignity, human community, and human flourishing. What are we to do with it when it comes to us?
Whenever death happens or shows up as an unwelcome guest on the horizon, I am pressed to consider the only categories for death and incurable illness that prevent me from going insane—each of which is given for all who are weary and burdened—by our Creator himself. I thought I would use this space, at this time, to share some of those categories.
AN INVITATION TO LAMENT AND PROTEST
One time I was ministering for a worship service at a maximum-security jail. In this particular service, guest musicians from a comfortable suburb took the stage to lead the prisoners in a worship song. These prisoners, many of them, were serving life sentences and would never again spend a night in a room that was not behind bars. Ironically, the lyrics of the song included the words, “Jesus…in your presence, our problems disappear.”
As well-intended as the suburban musicians were in their effort to encourage the prisoners, this lyric was not only dishonest in relation to the prisoners’ experience—for their lives were filled with problems—it was (and is) also terribly unbiblical. For it was Jesus, was it not, who said that in this world we will have trouble, and that in his presence, the problems encountered by his followers would not disappear, but will only increase. Jesus promised that his followers would be persecuted, have all kinds of evil and false things said about them, and so on…not in spite of their love for Jesus, but because of it. He also said that anyone who follows him will not take up their comforts daily, but rather will take up their cross daily, in following him.
Jesus’ followers will also be afflicted by the sickness, sorrow, pain and death that is experienced by the rest of the world. And, rather than falsely singing about how in God’s presence, our problems will disappear, the proper response is faith and trust, which includes lament and protest. If Jesus would weep and get angry at the tomb of his friend Lazarus (John 11:1-27), and if the Apostle Paul would argue with death and mock it as an enemy (1 Corinthians 15:53-57), then certainly God would expect the same from us, yes? Sickness, sorrow, pain and death were not part of Eden; neither will they be part of the New Heaven and New Earth (Revelation 21:1-5). In other words, they are not natural things. They are unwelcome invaders, uninvited guests who have weaseled their ugly selves into the Garden City of God’s Delight. And so, like the body rejects a virus by vomiting and fever, so our bodies and souls viscerally reject sickness, sorrow, pain and death.
Most Bible readers are familiar with the words from Job, the sufferer who was afflicted with sores from head to toe and reeling from the grief of burying all ten of his children, who said, “Though (God) slay me, I will trust in him.” What is often left out, however, are the words that immediately follow: “…yet I will argue my ways to (God’s) face” (Job 13:15).
There are also the Psalms, which are filled with lament, protest, and complaint. David, the man after God’s own heart, says things like, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” and “I pour out my complaint before God” and “No refuge remains for me. No one cares for my soul” and “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
In the end, both Job and David interpret (and in some ways correct) their feelings on the basis of what they know about the character of God. For example David, in response to his question to his own soul, “Why so downcast, O my soul?” he preaches to himself, “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him.” And yet, rather than stuff their feelings about sickness, sorrow, pain and death, both Job and David boldly pray their feelings. They get their feelings out. They treat their anger and sorrow and tear ducts as a the release valve that God created these things to be.
In Job-like and David-like and Jesus-like fashion, there are have been other faithful lamenter/protesters since. One is Nicholas Wolterstorff, who, having lost his son Eric to a rock climbing accident, wrote these words in his heart-rending Lament for a Son:
How is faith to endure, O God, when you allow all this scraping and tearing on us? You have allowed rivers of blood to flow, mountains of suffering to pile up, sobs to become humanity’s song—all without lifting a finger that we could see. You have allowed bonds of love beyond number to be painfully snapped. If you have not abandoned us, explain yourself. We strain to hear.
Similarly, C.S. Lewis prayed his heartache and bewilderment in A Grief Observed after losing his wife, Joy, to a brutal cancer:
Meanwhile, where is God? … When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be—or so it feels—welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become…What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?
Jesus wept. Jesus got angry.
Jesus repudiated sickness, sorrow, pain and death. So should we.
WOUNDS THAT, IN TIME, TURN US INTO HEALERS
I have shared here before that I have endured seasons of anxiety and depression. One such season completely flattened me physically, spiritually and emotionally to the point where, though not suicidal, I prayed daily that God would either heal the affliction or end my life (you can read that story here). While I was going through this awful season—a season in which I could not sleep even while taking sleeping pills, lost thirty pounds, and could barely eat or get out of bed—if you had quoted Romans 8:28 to me, or referenced some other Scripture promising that God will work my situation out for good, it would have fallen on deaf ears. And yet, in retrospect (and for me, only in retrospect) I can now see the hand of God all over that horrid season.
Two years into my role as senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian, I shared the story of my anxiety and depression with our congregation. At the end of the service, a man in our congregation approached me and said:
Scott, I think you are a very gifted communicator. But…and please don’t take this the wrong way…you need to know that I am entirely unimpressed by that. But today, when you shared about your struggle with the whole church, I want you to know that today is the day that you became my pastor.
Anne Lamott has said:
It’s okay to realize you’re crazy and very damaged, because all of the best people are.
Similarly, and from the wheelchair she has been sitting in since she was a teenager, Joni Eareckson Tada said:
Sometimes God allows what he hates to accomplish what he loves.
If anyone has the right to say these kinds of things, it is Joni. God hates her wheelchair as much as she does. But God, most certainly, loves the encouragement and hope that has been brought to millions, including me when anxiety and depression had flat out flattened me—and especially including those with disabilities and/or special needs—through her story.
Another picture of God’s healing grace is Steven Curtis and Mary Beth Chapman, whose family I have the privilege of serving as pastor, who lost their daughter, Maria, in an accident in May of 2008. Steven and Mary Beth still feel the loss of their daughter deeply and still shed heart-rending parental tears at the mere mention of her beloved name. It is the energy that comes from their retrospective grief that Steven and Mary Beth, since Maria’s death, have doubled-down on their investment in and championing of Show Hope, a nonprofit adoption ministry founded by the Chapman’s that puts orphans, many with special needs and most of whom are of Chinese descent, into “forever families.” Just two summers ago, our daughter Abby got to serve in a Chinese orphanage sponsored by Show Hope that is named in Maria’s honor, Maria’s House of Hope.
There is also pastor Rick and Kay Warren, who declared in an honest, tragically beautiful statement that they “will never be the same” and that “the old Rick and Kay are gone” after losing their son, Matthew, to a tragic suicide triggered by a mental illness. The energy of their grief has, like the Chapman’s, since been poured into helping others who, like Matthew, are similarly afflicted with mental illness. And, their most profound takeaway from Matthew’s life and death is not despair, but the bold and biblical statement that “Broken trees bear fruit.”
The grief expert, Elisabeth Kubler Ross, said:
The most beautiful people…are the ones who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of those depths.
The alternative to suffering is a charmed, comfy cozy life. But the cost of a charmed, comfy cozy life is a kind of superficiality that makes us unprepared for our day of grief when it comes. Because of this, Scripture points us to the comfort of Christ in our afflictions, so that we, too, can comfort others in their affliction with the comfort that we ourselves have received from Christ (2 Corinthians 1:3-11).
I didn’t want to hear anybody “preach” 2 Corinthians 1 to me in my own hour of affliction. But 2 Corinthians 1 is what I find myself, secretly and quietly, praying for those who are in the middle of or who seem to be approaching a season of sickness, sorrow, pain or death. I pray quietly for them, yet always resisting the urge to preach to them—remembering the profoundly helpful lyric from Charlie Peacock:
Heavenly Father…silence the lips of the people with all of the answers. Gently show them that now is the time for tears…
I pray secretly and quietly that God, in his timing and in his most careful and purposeful way, would gently unfold his plans to prosper and not to harm his children…his plans to give his children—all of his children—a hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11).
A HOPE THAT PROMISES EVERYTHING SAD WILL COME UNTRUE
Also quietly and in private, I pray for my suffering and grieving friends, that the Holy Spirit would give generously to them the strength to endure their present sorrows on the basis of what is true about our shared future in Christ.
Every week, as our community at Christ Presbyterian Church prepares to approach the Lord’s Table, we recite the words, “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.” This is the same hope that the Apostle Paul passed on to believers in Corinth. In the fifteenth chapter of his first letter to them, he boldly states that if Christ has not risen bodily from the dead, then Christians are of all people to be most pitied. If Christ has not risen from the dead, then we are without hope, and, to quote Shakespeare’s despairing MacBeth:
Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.
And yet, as Paul also asserts based on his and over five hundred other eyewitness testimonies, Christ has been risen. And because Christ has been risen, we, too will rise. As Steven Curtis wrote in a song about Maria:
Beauty will rise! Beauty will rise! We will dance upon the ruins, we will see it with our own eyes!
The once-crucified and abandoned Jesus, who is exceedingly able to sympathize with our weaknesses, who submitted to sickness, sorrow, pain and death voluntarily, rose from death. His resurrection assures us that we, too, along with our other friends and loved ones in Christ, will rise in victory over death. So will the young middle school gymnast to whom we recently said a temporary farewell. We will hear him play Beethoven again, but this time even better than Beethoven himself. Ben Ellis and his friends and loved ones will rise also, and, like little Maria Chapman, will dance upon the ruins and see it with their own eyes. Mom will no longer be afflicted with the evil that is Alzheimer’s, but will be as lucid and witty and kind as she ever was, but even more so. C.S. Lewis will be reunited to his dear Joy, and Nicholas Wolterstorff to his dear Eric, for the dead in Christ will rise and live, all together and before the face of the Risen One himself, forevermore. It made my day today to reflect on this reality with about twenty grandmas and great grandmas—some of whom are widows and all of whom are aware of their own and each others’ mortality—that we grieve and we grieve deeply, but we do not grieve without hope, for all who are dead in Christ will rise (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
God sees our every tear. And yet, he does not merely see our tears; he shares them (Jesus wept), and he stores them in a sacred bottle as his treasure (Psalm 56:8). God, of all Beings, knows what it is like to be separated from a loved one by death. God, of all Beings, knows first hand the gut wrenching nature of what it means to bury his boy.
This horrible thing called death, it is not the end…not for God and not for us. All those “happily ever after” fairy tales we have come to love…where Beauty kisses the Beast and the Beast becomes Royalty, where Cinderella gets the glass slipper and marries the handsome Prince, where Little Red Riding Hood is safe from the lying, deceiving Wolf, and where the Big Bad Wolf is cast into the outer darkness, never to huff or puff or blow a house down again…these happily ever after stories, far from being fairy tales, are stories that ring true because they remind us of The Happily Ever After Story that is true.
When Christ Presbyterian Academy headmaster, Nate Morrow, asked Ben Ellis if there was a message he wanted relayed to the students worshiping God on his front lawn and outside his bedroom window, Mr. Ellis’ response was, “Tell them that it’s all true.”
Tell them. It’s all true.
We are now caught, but only temporarily, within the broken, middle chapters of The Story. This Story, though it may carry us through many dangers, toils and snares, includes a final chapter that has already been written but has yet to be lived. That final chapter is different than the rest, because unlike the earlier chapters which are temporary, the final chapter is everlasting. Unlike the earlier chapters which are filled with tragedy and turmoil and tear-our-guts out separations, the final chapter is one in which sickness, sorrow, pain and death will be felt and feared no more, because we are bound, we are bound, we are bound…
…for the Promised Land.
The happily ever stories aren’t there to help us escape reality. No, not at all. Rather, they are there to help us re-enter the Reality that we so easily forget in our frail, fearful, fearfully and wonderfully made condition. The Story that we are living inside of, with its many dangers, toils and snares along the way, is The Happily Ever After Story. Jesus, our Teacher who went away for just little while, has passed on a message through his friend, the Apostle John. And that message is to tell them that it’s all true.
My fellow mourners, come and mourn with me awhile. Let’s weep and wail and lament and protest together, as far as the curse is found. But let’s not do so as those who are without hope, but rather as those who know how The Story ends…or, more truthfully said, who know how the last chapter—the everlasting chapter—begins:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’
And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ And he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son (Revelation 21:1-7).’
Dear friends, we can take heart. For C.S. Lewis couldn’t have been more truthful than he was when he said in The Great Divorce—and that’s what death and separation feel like—a great and terrible divorce:
That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of temporal suffering, ‘no future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.
The rending and the rupture of our living nightmares is not the end of The Story, but rather, it is the ultimate setup for that day when we will wake up, once and for all and forever, from every living nightmare.
No chilling winds nor poisonous breath
can reach that healthful shore;
Sickness, sorrow, pain and death,
are felt and feared no more.
I am bound, I am bound, I am bound
for the Promised Land.
– Samuel Stennett (1727-1795)
Even when we struggle to believe them, these words remain trustworthy and true.
September, 2016 — and every day since.
Click here to receive Scott’s weekly post in your email inbox.
Click here to pre-order Scott’s newest book (releasing January, 2019), called Irresistible Faith.
Click here for info about Scott’s other books, plus free chapter downloads.
Click here to subscribe to Scott’s sermons on iTunes.
Connect with Scott on social media — Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.