In the Shadow of Mount Hood
Midnight, it is said, is the portal between this world and the next and is somehow in league with chaos, death, and mystery. It is the moment of dark visitations. So it was for me in December 2006. My sleep was interrupted by a phone call, and I was instantly shocked into full consciousness: My younger brother was trapped in a snow cave on Mount Hood, and an unyielding blizzard prevented rescue.
The mountain proved to be Kelly's final adventure. Losing my brother on Mount Hood has been a painful reminder of my own spiritual fragility. None of us is immune to the heartaches and sorrows that inhabit this misbegotten world. Though I am a preacher, a professor of historical theology, and the provost of a theological seminary, I have found it agonizingly difficult to come to terms with my brother's death. It is one thing to talk about death in the abstract. It is entirely another to cope with the death of someone you love very, very much. The truth of the matter is that losing a loved one hurts down to the deepest parts of your soul.
I was the first to learn the news days later. Hearing those words announcing his death was like a blow to the solar plexus knocking the breath out of me, but telling the rest of my family was more dreadful. I had known heartache before, but this transcended every previous emotion I had ever experienced. My vision blurred. My feet were heavy and seemed to resist carrying me to the next room, where my family anxiously awaited the latest news of the rescue mission on Mount Hood. Kelly's wife, Karen, the children, our mother, three brothers and a sister—they took the news hard. I have never heard weeping like I heard that night in the village at the foot of the mountain. The Bible sometimes refers to "wailing" as an especially forlorn kind of weeping. That is what I heard that night—wailing. I hope I never hear that sound again.
Death is ugly, and we cannot—indeed, should not—try to make it palatable or explain it away with pious platitudes. Death is a cruel, brutal, and fearsome trespasser into this world. It is an intruder and a thief. It has severed an irreplaceable relationship with my brother. We shared the same story, and he knew me in a way no other person did. Kelly would no longer return my calls. Never again would I hear him cheerfully mock me as "Frankie Baby." Sometimes I see him in a dream, and I reach out to grasp him—but he is not there.
We are created for life, not death. Kelly had a shameless zest for living life to the fullest. When death strikes suddenly from the shadows or claws at us until the last breath, those left behind experience numbness and disorientation. Somehow we know in our hearts that it is not supposed to be this way.
An Honest Question posed from a Broken Heart
One question haunts me: Where was God when Kelly was freezing to death on Mount Hood? For me, it is not whether I should ask such a question, but how I ask it. One can ask the question in a fit of rage, shaking one's fist at God. Many of us, if we are candid, have done that. But once the primal anger settles to a low boil, we can—and, I would submit, should—ask the question.
I am not suggesting that mere mortals can stand in judgment of God or call him to account. God does not report to me. But an honest question posed from a broken heart is to my mind a good and righteous thing.
To ask this hard question is an act of faith. It presupposes a genuine relationship in which the creature actually engages the Creator. If God is my Father, can't I humbly ask why he did not come to Kelly's rescue? For me, to not ask this question would be a failure to take God seriously.