Update: March 11, 2016
Today marks a month since Connie was laid to rest at Mountain View Cemetery. It was a poignant moment when, sitting by her grave, my kids and I were enveloped by your singing: “my hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness . . . on Christ, the solid rock I stand”. Those words and that moment will live on in my memory. That day, February 11, marked the conclusion of an agonizing ten months for all of us.
This will be my final and concluding “update”. These began as a hurried email in April to inform you of our crisis. As you responded and interacted, these posts have become more than information. They’ve provided a means for me to process what was happening to both Connie and me. They became a virtual podium where I’ve bared my soul with you while reflecting on our circumstances. I’ve tried to not be sensational, but to invite you into my honest grappling with our reality. Thank you for reading and engaging. While this update ends this accidental blog, I’m hoping to continue writing on topics of consequence to you, our church, as they ruminate in my mind. Stay tuned!
Some of you have asked if I’ve experienced any doubts during Connie’s illness and death. The answer is yes. Two doubts have wandered through my mind. The first is a question about the justice of God. It appears unjust, from where I sit, that God would take Connie so soon when she had so much to live for. Beyond our children and grandchildren, there were growing numbers of people being impacted by her life and her teaching. At 60 she was reaching new heights of profound ministry in our church and beyond. In my judgment, there are others who seem to be coasting to their finish line, making less kingdom impact than she. That’s where the question of justice arises. How could God take her when she is contributing so much? Why would he take her when there are others he could have taken who appear less committed?
A satisfactory answer escapes me. However I was recently reminded of the prophet Habakkuk. Reading that obscure text again it’s apparent that the last chapter has yet to be written on justice, both in the world and in our lives. Surrounded by real injustice, Habakkuk chose to trust the sovereign God, even if he does not see justice in his lifetime. “Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us. Though the fig tree does not bud . . . though the olive crop fails . . . though there are no sheep in the pen . . . yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior.” Pam Ukrainetz also spoke to this in her funeral message, “just because it is not your plan doesn’t mean there is no plan.” And so I choose to believe that God is just, even though my questions persist. By faith I trust God who is incomprehensible. Elizabeth Elliot wrote profoundly: “If God were small enough to be understood he would not be big enough to be worshipped.” In the absence of a better answer to apparent injustice I choose to trust God’s justice in his time.
There is a second doubt that meanders through the hallways of my mind. Is there really life after death? Is Connie really in the presence of Christ as we proclaim, or is that just wishful thinking? After Connie breathed her last I chose to remain present and silently watched as the morticians moved her lifeless body from the bed that was her home for months. Having been her caregiver for the duration, it felt like I was participating a final act of care. It was apparent that life had left her body. Her frame had become a shadow of what she was. With tears flowing, I continued to watch until the hearse left our driveway, knowing she would never return. During those moments these questions gnawed at my mind. Is she really with Christ? How do we know? Can we be certain?
A few years ago I heard a pastor at a graveside service opine, “I’m absolutely certain, beyond any doubt, that (the deceased) is with Jesus today.” I’m left uneasy by those over confident statements that seem so certain about matters of faith. I worry that strong assertions like that may create skepticism in some people rather than build faith.
I expect you’re wondering how I processed the doubt. A debate raged inside me. The words of C. S. Lewis came to mind: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” In other words Christian belief provides the best way to understand the whole of reality. Then I recalled 2 Corinthians 4:16-18: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” Indeed I’d watched the cruel effect of cancer wasting away her body. At some point in that debate in my mind I pondered the historical resurrection of Jesus, and the evidence for it. Just as the very Jesus who died was resurrected, the Bible promises that the same will occur for all who trust Christ. It seems to me that in times of doubt the Holy Spirit uses the things I’ve read or heard to build my faith. And so, I choose to believe that Jesus’ words to the dying thief is true, “this day you will be with me in paradise.”
Volumes are written on both of those doubts and so my answers may seem superficial. But I share them in the interest of honesty. Doubts are real, and they can be daunting. The hymn we sang at the grave continues: “When darkness veils his lovely face, I rest on his unchanging grace; in every high and stormy gale, my anchor holds within the veil.” There will be storms in our lives. There will be times when God seems absent, or at least silent. In the darkness I choose to trust him – “we walk by faith, not by sight.” And so rather than use language of certainty I prefer say “I believe that . . .” or “by faith I trust that . . .” Yes, all other ground is sinking sand. By faith I choose to believe that it was God’s design to take Connie now, and he doesn’t owe me an explanation. Without proclaiming absolute certainty, I make regular and recurring choices to believe with eyes of faith. We live in the land of choice and conviction and faith, not of certainty.
While most of us Christians experience doubt, I hope we can allow it to build faith rather than undermine it. Let’s not ignore our doubts. Rather, like Thomas, let’s face them head on. Thomas was not embarrassed to express his doubts about the resurrection, nor did Jesus condemn him. If our faith is too weak to be challenged, then it’s too weak to be believed. When I look back over these days, I wonder if it was the very doubts themselves, and the wrestling, that leads me to a deeper and more robust faith. I choose these things in the dark because of what I’ve seen in the light.
Choosing to believe,
These words sung by Kristyn Getty have become my prayer:
Jesus, draw me ever nearer
As I labor through the storm;
You have called me to this passage,
And I’ll follow, though I’m worn.
May this journey bring a blessing,
May I rise on wings of faith;
And at the end of my heart’s testing,
With Your likeness let me wake.
Jesus guide me through the tempest;
Keep my spirit staid and sure.
When the midnight meets the morning,
Let me love You even more.
Let the treasures of the trial
Form within me as I go –
And at the end of this long passage,
Let me leave them at Your throne.
Here’s a link if wish to hear Kristyn’s Celtic voice, with husband Keith at the piano:
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