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Death, they say, is as much a part of life as birth. I understand this, yet in their case, there really should have been more distance between the two.
The young couple entered my office. After introductions they explained why they had come. Recently she had given birth to twins. "They were fighters," she sobbed. "They tried their best to live. They were born extremely premature, and though the medical staff exhausted all possibilities, their tiny bodies were not developed enough to survive." They lived only one day.
"Would you lead the interment service at the graveside?"
A blur of pain
In our county in Nova Scotia, burials do not take place during the winter months. A funeral service is held two or three days following a death, but the actual burial does not take place until spring.
The twins died during the winter and now it was spring. The young couple had been forced to wait months to commit the two tiny bodies to their final resting place. I assured them I would help in any way possible and invited them to share more of their story.
The couple went on to describe the tense events of the day. They told of the bittersweet excitement, the terror of premature birth. They recalled seeing the telltale signs of panic on the faces of the medical staff, the flurry of seemingly chaotic activity, the instruments and tubes, monitors, more frantic activity, unsightly images seared into their memories, the stillness of death, the calming of the room, the numbness of shock, the comfort of denial, the searing pain of acceptance, back to denial, the return to pain and truth, the flowing tears, many tears.
As I listened I sat motionless, paralyzed by my inability to utter anything remotely helpful. My mind flashed back to another experience. I recalled walking through the halls of a children's hospital when visiting a youngster from our community. We have a wonderful hospital designed especially for children. It looks as much like a gym or learning center as it does a hospital. Children's artistic creations adorn the halls, play areas, and lounges. While being impressed by the facilities, I felt a knot tighten in my stomach. Walking alone in those halls I began listening to the noises around me. I heard a baby screeching in pain. I took notice of another sobbing quietly and saw a distraught parent making a phone call.
Surprised by rage
I was surprised to feel the knot in my stomach transform into boiling rage, a rage I hadn't experienced before. Suddenly, I was livid. Livid at God for claiming to love us but then leaving us in a world in which an entire hospital for sick children is necessary. I was terrified at the uncertainty of life, even life with God. No, especially life with God. At that moment, I despised this world. In the center of my being, I longed for a different world, a world that makes sense.
Later I prayed, "Lord, why do little children get sick? Why are twins allowed to enter this world only to live for one day? No nursing, no bonding, no cuddles. Just scary noises, unfamiliar voices, and pain. Lots of pain. I am supposed to tell these folks about your love, but frankly the evidence is not in your favor right now."
Sometimes I almost have a handle on the age-old "problem of pain," but like a wet bar of soap, the tighter you grip it, the more apt it is to squirt away, leaving you emptyhanded. There I sat facing a hurting couple, emptyhanded.
I recalled a lecture I once heard attempting to reconcile the concept of a loving God with the reality of pain. What stood out to me was the question and answer time following the lecture. Someone stood up and asked with a shaking voice, "Why do you suppose my wife and I are unable to have children, while just yesterday I heard on the news of a lady who strapped her three children into the car and purposely rolled it into a lake, drowning all three?"
With tears in his eyes, the lecturer simply responded, "I don't know."
It was a moment of connection between student and teacher. A sacred moment. There is a time for more. There is a time for logic, for solid biblically supported truth, for moving the question from "why?" to "what now?"
There is a time for connection. But God, I reasoned, it seems so empty. I should pass on some truth. I should solve some problem. I should...
More than words
I realized that moment in my office was a moment for connection, not for teaching. Not for logic.
With a new energy, in the best way I knew, I tried to simply connect, to enter their pain. Instead of reaching down to them with some lofty knowledge, I reached my arms around them. We cried.
We met the next time in the cemetery around a tiny wooden casket that held the two small bodies. Family and friends gathered to pay their last respects. I said a few words about the "fighters" and the place they would always have in the hearts of the family. I acknowledged that we do not always understand God's ways. As we walked away from the graveside, the nearly deaf great grandfather yelled so loud that all could hear, "I didn't hear a word you said, but I'm sure it was good." It lightened the mood. Moments like that are priceless: a blend of laughter and tears, painful closure and hope to move on.
Driving home the words of the old man echoed in my ears: "I didn't hear a word you said, but I'm sure it was good."
I want to know. I want to understand. I want things to make sense. How is it that this man, whose senses could not pick up much at all of what was being said around him, could be so sure it was "good"? He left me a little more willing to live without knowing, to walk by faith, not by sight, to offer myself, not just knowledge.
"God, they were fighters. With their great grandfather's blood flowing in their veins, I'm sure they would have made a positive impact on this ragged old world. But you chose a different path for them. I admit that often I don't understand a thing about what you are up to, but I'm sure, somewhere deep inside, I'm sure that it is good."
Scott Penner is pastor of Truro Alliance Church in Truro, Nova Scotia.
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