Five Years Later

1– Thoughts on Death and Why I Think About It

I never used to think about death. Not before December 22nd, 2013. Death was a ghost in my insulated, adolescent world. Absent was this ghost yet observable were the faintest whispers of its imminence. But when that cold December night came, and my mother departed this earth, much of my world fell asunder.

Just over five years later and it–Death–has become a terribly regular thought and I now am far more weary of how it is discussed (and not discussed) in the outside world.

Only a few months after the loss of my mother, in the spring of 2014, I caught word of one Brittany Maynard and her activism campaign for the so-called Right to Die [1]. I remember my heart being deeply troubled and my mind rushing for an answer. Since then, I have in earnest attempted to reconcile the essential worth of living with a meaningful philosophy and theology of suffering. This task has proven tricky.

Much of the time, I wonder about the things I could’ve said to mom had she been alive for one more day. If she had been here for one more week, what could have amounted of the added time? For a long while, that thought was blistering and omnipresent. And during this most painful moment of my life, I was beginning to notice others that would genuinely believe it is beneficial and good that a sick and dying person willingly choose to make an early exit should they deem their life meaningless and unnecessary. In my mind, I thought, How can this be?

The issues surrounding suicide and assisted death comprise a cavernous series of questions that probe the heart of one’s morality and worldview. Vitally important are the assumptions underlying the body of our moral assertions which we often fail to identify, define, and consistently adhere to. Being a Christian has meant that certain metaphysical presuppositions must be accounted for when constructing one’s ethic. This enters focus in the matter of properly and consistently responding to such a magnificent problem as death and dying.

Thinking about death itself is a lost art partly because we’ve distanced ourselves from it through technology and modern medicine though the recent discussion on right-to-die laws has I think helped recover the conversation. That said, the necessity of a comprehensive and robust account of death and suffering is fairly elusive in the thought of today’s mainstream voices, sadly including much of the Church. This is to say that I firmly believe that the right perspective on this particular issue is one that agrees with life’s innate worth, the rights of the individual, a neighbor-oriented ethic, and values transcending death and experience.

It’s interesting that my grief experience and attempting to understand its fit relative to all other cosmic experiences has seemingly juxtaposed itself with the rantings of activists for a supposed right to die on one’s own terms. But all it means is that I’m placed beside people who have differing accounts of suffering, either in essence or in function, for better or for worse.

2– Thoughts on Comfort Whilst Grieving

The greatest comfort for me after mom died was knowing that I was neither defined nor ultimately defeated by my experience, nor did my experience-driven ramblings and awkward mental circulations have any currency (a) in my salvation, and (b) in my integration with the church I attended at the time (note: I was still in school, living away from home). But all of this required a submission to an objective truth I had neither absolute certainty over and total awareness of. For God was apparently silent in certain moments though I know now he never ceased being busy at work in my life. Yet the silence that obstructed my happiness often preceded me turning my face away from His goodness. And that was a shameful sin of which I must confess. But how I know God was always active, always busy, was that the local church continually brought me back to the promises of sacred scripture which the Holy Spirit would graciously reveal to me again and again with greater and greater amplitude. What I came to know, in time, was that the content of those Biblical promises were very consistent, theocentric, and beautiful. How can I not now appreciate the intimacy with which He draws the soul in and through life’s temporal suffering?

But hearing Romans 8 and Lamentations 3 from ordinary people who are totally ignorant of your emotional state–fear, sadness, anger, regret, hunger, numbness, all in variety, all at once, all in stages–is often like being served toast soggy with butter. The thought of it is better than how it actually is.

Has someone ever told you they knew exactly what you were going through? And then proceeded to cite chapter and verse as to why one didn’t need to be sad?

What perhaps I didn’t truly know and believe at the early time of my grieving was that it was okay to be sad. Mom was a wonderful person who loved and cherished me and raised me well. She was patient, adventurous, and a creative soul. She admitted her faults and ever strove to be morally upright and to have the character of God. Her loss was and is massive. I loved her and continue to miss her every day… Of course it’s okay to be sad! Nancy Guthrie put it well, I think, when she wrote, “It makes sense that the great sorrow of losing someone we love would come out in tears. Tears are not the enemy. Tears do not reflect a lack of faith. Tears are a gift from God that help to wash away the deep pain of loss.” [2]

But the reality was that I was terribly confused about what the right reaction is to the sudden disappearance of a loved one. I was so burdened with school and various church commitments and relationships. And I was 18. It’s as if busyness had distracted me from feeling what I needed to feel at the time.

God has lovingly carried me through thick and thin and has brought me to a place where circumstances may not be the glory of my existence but I can still be content with where I am [3]. Not only is this possible because I’m five years down the road of grief but because my joy isn’t so much situated in myself and my emotions but rather in settled, indisputable truths about God who is constant, reliable, and personal. And by those truths concerning God, I can recognize my place in His universe and have confidence that in the path he has laid for me is embedded a good purpose transcending the stumbles and hills and fires that come.

As John Piper says, “Can you think of anything (I mean anything) that is more comforting and assuring and delighting than that the Lord in his majesty is for you?” [4]

3– Thoughts on Pottery in Isaiah 45

Meaningful suffering. Meaningful suffering. This is a hard thing to read and accept. But why?

About a year ago, when I was going through some tough times, I challenged myself to read through the book of Isaiah knowing that this is one of the most important books of the Bible and one that I had only read in bits and pieces before. Reading through, a little bit every day, was a fascinating experience. Every chapter was so packed with revelatory beauty and wisdom that just opened my eyes further to who God is and what He has done. One of my favorites is chapter 45.

God reveals himself in the 45th chapter of Isaiah as someone magisterial, intentional, and personal. But it isn’t in the sort of overly romantic mode that overlays much of the contemporary descriptions of the Judaeo-Christian God. It’s much more parental, I find. And kingly. This is a chapter devoted to the supremacy of the Triune God in human history. But the God in Isaiah 45 isn’t simply parental or kingly, governing with mercy and justice. He is also a craftsman, treating his creatures with care and purpose and design, even on the level of the aesthetic.

While this isn’t a chapter necessarily dealing with theodicy or the experiential problem of pain, it is a chapter dealing with the doctrine of God and His attributes. Therefore, this is one of those explanatory passages that will lay much of the foundation for our understanding of the character and activity of God in any of life’s events.

One of the really cool motifs in this passage is that of pottery. God is portrayed as a potter and we are potsherds in His created cosmos (v. 9). Contained within the exploration of the Creator-created relationship is the difficulty of comprehending a God that has causally ordered all that is real and existing and occurring. There is no other “being” or entity that can operate in this universe, creating order or chaos, good or evil, apart from God’s permission to exist and act in time and space or in defiance of His decretal will. But to know that we have been made by a sovereign Creator-God is assurance that what is and what will be and who we are is never purely a product of accident. The things that are are components of a divine work. Splashes of acrylic on a grand canvas. Syllables in a cosmic narrative.

This is challenging but also truly beautiful. It is much more encouraging to know that God isn’t arbitrary and is purposive as opposed to a less-than-sovereign, all-too-human God incapable of accomplishing His will. And to know that His revealed will is to bring all things together for the good of His adopted sons and daughters is so, so good.

4– Borrowed Thoughts on Death and Grief

Come to me in the silence of the night;
Come in the speaking silence of a dream;
Come with soft rounded cheeks and eyes as bright
As sunlight on a stream;
Come back in tears,
O memory, hope, love of finished years.


O dream how sweet, too sweet, too bitter sweet,
Whose wakening should have been in Paradise,
Where souls brimfull of love abide and meet;
Where thirsting longing eyes
Watch the slow door
That opening, letting in, lets out no more.


Yet come to me in dreams, that I may live
My very life again though cold in death:
Come back to me in dreams, that I may give
Pulse for pulse, breath for breath:
Speak low, lean low
As long ago, my love, how long ago.

Christina Rossetti, Echo

The love of life, and consequently a reluctance to that dissolution of the intimate union between soul and body, which we call death, seems natural to man. But if there was no hereafter, no state of judgment and retribution to be expected; if there was no consciousness of guilt, no foreboding of consequences upon the mind; if we only considered death as inevitable, and had no apprehensions beyond it, death would be divested of its principal terrors.

John Newton, Triumph Over Death and the Grave

Grief eats away its heart for the loss of things which it took pleasure in desiring, because it wants to be like you, from whom nothing can be taken away.

Augustine, Confessions

Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are 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. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in our time of trouble? … Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Decieve yourself no longer.’

[…]

I once read the sentence ‘I lay awake all night with toothache, thinking about toothache and about lying awake.’ That’s true to life. Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery’s shadow or reflection: the fact that you don’t merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer. I not only live each endless day in grief, but I live each day thinking about living each day in grief.

C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

Come now, highest feast on the way to everlasting freedom,
Death. Lay waste the burdens of chains and walls
Which confine our earthly bodies and blinded souls,
That we see at last what here we could not see.
Freedom, we sought you long in discipline, action and suffering. Dying, we recognize you now in the face of God.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Stations on the Road to Freedom

Suffering causes us to scan our lives and face the fact that we
control very little. So we mourn not only our suffering but also
what it has forced us to admit about ourselves. Our loss of the illusion of control also adds to the fear that accompanies suffering.

Paul David Tripp, Suffering

5– Thoughts on Her Motherly Guidance

My mother taught me many things concerning the way that we ought to approach our fellow man. Three that I can think of immediately… Firstly, be prepared to give the benefit of the doubt to others especially since this is often what we assume to be other people’s basic duty to us.

Secondly, be prepared to serve and to serve with excellence. I’m still learning this. Her particular example to me was deeply problematic when I wanted to avoid having to do volunteering or do my chores. But it was something like a medal when school friends would come to me saying I had the “best mom” or the “nicest mom”. Indeed, she was the best.

Thirdly, she taught me that to suffer loss of repute is often more favorable than moral compromise. Mom was a very well-liked person and a lot of that was cemented by her own practice of “serving with excellence”. However, her insistence of certain truths being absolutely true and relevant led her to actively share those things with others, sometimes for its novelty and other times out of urgency. One of the matters she dealt with during her lifetime, a matter of extreme urgency to her, was abortion. She was active in speaking out about its immorality. I remember that she would convene with other pro-life women to pray for abortion clinics and the women there. I remember her even being given the opportunity to speak at a local gathering of Conservative Party members in our riding. This willingness to speak sometimes would, on occasion, backfire with criticism, slander, and, I suspect, eye-rolls from complacent Christians and conservatives. Regardless of reception, she held to what she believed and practiced what she preached. Compromise was not an option.

6– Final Thoughts on Life and Fear

Thinking back on what God has mercifully given to me and taken away [5], things have begun to settle and unravel in my mind pertaining to the heart of God for His people. This isn’t to say I’m the expert on all suffering and grief and, if you call now, I will give your the answer you need!–no.

I’ve often perceived there to be a great, dark space between me and God and scripture is often like a little note rolled up in a bottle floating in the void for me to reach. But the truth is that God has entered time and space for me to know Him in far more tangible ways. Suffering as a result of loss has strangely facilitated some of the most stimulating conversations I’ve had with God, in prayer, in weeping, in rejoicing, in studying His word, by expressing my heart to others and having communion with the church.

Knowing what the Lord has done and communicated to my heart has relieved a lot of the pressure in my mind to deny my emotions and my doubts. When I had that sudden moment of total awareness, of knowing I was going to lose my mom to cancer, I was overwhelmed by a feeling involving deep, deep sadness and fear. I suspect many have had this experience. Now, having given far more thought to God’s work and my emotions, instead of hoarding and concealing what’s inside, I feel more at liberty to disclose my heart’s deepest questions.

At first, I described death like a ghost and for a reason. While it certainly brings up feelings of sadness and remorse, I think of death also as this elusive, insoluble thing that is frightening to contemplate due to its elusiveness and insolubility. It’s a disruptive thought to have. Why would you talk about death when you’re trying to live a casual, peaceful life?! Why be interrupted by something like that?! So, to preserve the calm of the present tense, we often evade the hauntings of our final tomorrow.

But for the Christian, our final tomorrow isn’t final at all. The ghost is all but exposed, trapped behind in the grave, deep beneath the earth, where Christ once lay. The only truly valid fear in life now is that of no longer conversing with Christ but with the counterfeit deities of the age in a prolonged earthly existence.

Sources:

[1] See: https://people.com/celebrity/terminally-ill-29-year-old-woman-why-im-choosing-to-die-on-my-own-terms/ … This was the article that basically got me to think more about the ethics of assisted dying and, eventually, abortion as well.

[2] See: https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/what-grieving-people-wish-you-knew-at-christmas

[3] Philippians 4:11-13

[4] See: https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/when-the-potter-is-for-us

[5] Job 1:21

2 Comments

  1. Hi Nate. There are remarkable similarities in our spiritual journeys, both losing our dearly loved mothers to cancer at a young age. Maybe that’s why God has put us in touch with one another. Our beliefs may differ is certain areas, but I can still empathise with you and I always take great interest in what you write. Thanks for sharing this heartfelt post and I’m sure your mum would be very proud of your work in bioethics and your desire to end abortion. Peace and blessings, friend.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hey Steven,

      Thank you so much. I think God has most definitely brought us together and for a certain purpose. You’re blog and consistent feedback has been really encouraging to me over the last little while. I can only hope to have done the same for you. And it’s always comforting to talk to people that have gone through similar circumstances. I hope your journey has been relatively light .

      God bless. Hope you’re doing well.

      P.s. Sorry for the late reply 😦 Been super busy this week. No excuses though.

      Liked by 2 people

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