The Benefit of the Doubt

It’s easy for me to give others the benefit of the doubt.  

I can understand the motivation behind even the most shocking and irrational actions. I don’t excuse those things, and reasons rarely turn a wrong into a right. But I am able to look at someone’s story and explain why they did something awful. I am a life-long student of human behavior.

Sometimes I drive my husband crazy. To him, my desire to understand seems to justify wrong, just a little. He’s a black and white kind of guy. Some things are evil, and he doesn’t care why. 

Maybe this is why I have not struggled with anger against the driver who hit us and took Samuel’s life. I realize it was a mistake, even if it was a dreadful one. She was irresponsible, and her recklessness cost all of us terribly. She should be held liable for the outcome of her actions. And yet, Samuel’s death was still a mistake. If she had known that fiddling with the lid on her hot chocolate was going to take the life of a little boy, she would have stopped. She did not intend to harm us, so I have empathy for her. I expect she will stay bound emotionally to our family through guilt for the rest of her life. 

But God?

It’s hard for me to give God the benefit of the doubt.  

God doesn’t make mistakes. He doesn’t do stupid things because he’s afraid, or because he’s trying to meet unfulfilled needs. He’s never careless, and he doesn’t have accidents. Everything he does is perfect and right. 

That’s the part I don’t get. 

I’ve questioned almost everything in my life this past year. But one thing I know for sure is that God not only allowed Samuel’s death, he somehow led us to it. The accident was not haphazard. We were not in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Some friends invited us to join them at a waterpark the day after Thanksgiving. I was hesitant to accept the invitation because I wasn’t sure we would be good company for an entire day. My kids get whiny when they are tired, and two of them complain if they are splashed. We also have food allergy issues, so it’s a pain to eat out with us. I didn’t want a long day to end up stressing the friendship our families were building.

I did something unusual. I asked God for a sign. “If we should go, can they ask us again?” I can’t remember another time I’ve done that. It wasn’t an idea or a thought, it was a prayer. At the time it was insignificant, asking God for a circumstantial sign over a minor choice, made complicated by my insecurities.

Ten minutes later I heard from my friend. She really hoped we could come, and they were looking forward to spending the day with us.  

My sign. We said yes.

I prefer to spend Black Friday at home, away from the crowds.  But this year we got into the car, and headed out on a road we don’t normally drive. And while we were sitting at a red light, we were hit. And Samuel was gone.

One witness said the car that hit us had been swerving for a full mile before the crash. The witness backed off, because the situation was obviously unsafe. As they approached the red light, the witness realized a crash was imminent and pushed her OnStar button for help before it even happened. We were sitting in a long line of cars at the light, but the driver never saw us. She hit us going full speed. Her cruise control was set at 66mph.

Others saw the danger and stayed away. God could have warned us, but he did not. We were where God told us to be that morning.  

There was no mistake. Whatever it means, God took Samuel that day.

I’m having a hard time reconciling this. I accept God’s sovereignty on a grand scale in the world, but now that it has such painful implications for my family, it doesn’t make sense. I can’t blame Samuel’s death on evil or an accident. I can’t question why God allowed it to happen. Allowing something is passive, and this seems directed. I don’t have answers.

I have to believe. 

I struggle with who knows best. The old me would have found this ridiculous, entertaining the notion that I might have better ideas than God. Those were the days when faith was simple and complete. Now I wonder if God’s plan is good. Do I accept this plan that I can’t understand? I resist it, dismayed that my child is gone and that I’m inundated with anxiety and despair, battles I thought I’d won 20 years ago. I’m confused at the distance I feel from God. When everything falls apart God should be enough, so where is he? I would not choose this. Do I think I know better than God?

I’m not angry at the woman who caused the accident because she didn’t intend to harm us. 

What does God intend? 

Finally, here is the core of my struggle. Samuel’s death feels like harm no matter how I look at it. And God seems cruel.  

Boys and SticksOne of my favorite photos is of my two boys, squatting on a huge tree stump, with sticks in their hands. They are playing with ants. They poke them, fascinated at the control they feel and the chaos they create. There are a few casualties, of course. There are always casualties when boys play with sticks. Because it’s ants I don’t care much. If they were poking caterpillars I’d probably ask them to stop.

When I think of God, I think of that photo. My life feels like a game, and I wonder if God is poking at me with a stick. I wonder if I have even reached caterpillar status, or if I mean as little to him as an ant. 

It doesn’t help when people try to encourage me with the story of Job, his great loss, and his final confidence in God in spite of his suffering. I find no comfort in Job’s story. It seems Job suffered because God was showing off, or bragging. His life was totally devastated so God could prove a point. God restored him in the end, but nothing replaces the family he lost. Job was content with the answers he received from God. I must be more resistant than Job, because God’s responses don’t erase the questions in my heart. God emphasizes his control, his knowledge, his supremacy, and his greatness. He does not reassure Job with his goodness. It still seems cruel. 

I wait. I try to hang on, try to be patient until God chooses to reveal himself in my life again. Although honestly, half the time my “waiting” is really more like obstinately sitting in a corner, mad that I am not getting my way.

Will I believe, with every piece of my broken and stubborn heart, that God is good, wise, and always loving? Will I give my silent God the benefit of my doubt? 

God in the Good and Bad Times

I wonder if we set ourselves up to be disappointed with God.  

A friend’s son was in a car accident last weekend. His car rolled down a hill, and amazingly, he was not seriously hurt. The car was destroyed. They are shaken, and will be for a long time. It was terrible.  

I don’t begrudge their miracle. I am rejoicing with them, sincerely. Every life saved on the road is a good thing. And I like to think that God’s angels held his head as that car rolled, guarding him the whole way. 

Everyone is saying that God is good, because he didn’t get hurt.

We praise God for being good and protecting us when we get what we want. We thank him when the disease is cured and when the relationship is restored. An awful accident, the loss of a car, these things are put in perspective because the most important, the people we love, are safe.  

What about God when the worst happens? If God doesn’t protect a life, if God doesn’t rescue us in our situation in the way we think we desperately need, what then? Is God good then?  

My friend will be socially “allowed” to talk about her sons accident. We like to hear dramatic stories when they have good endings. Years from now they can bring it up with friends, at work, even to strangers. No one will shift uncomfortably or change the subject. They can tell the story again and again, how God spared his life in that frightening crash. They have an opportunity to share God’s faithfulness. That is a good thing.

But the accident involving my family makes people squirm, because my son died. Thinking about it is frightening in too many ways. It’s overwhelming to hear the details, and some people think I should be moving on by now.  

The way we react to these things as a culture takes away our examples of faith in hard times. If we are afraid to talk about the worst heartache, how can we learn from each other? On a personal level, I’ve never closely watched someone walk through a valley of profound suffering, wrestling with why’s and doubts, and seen them deepen in their faith. I’ve read books about such people, but I don’t have any examples in my life. The thing is, I know people who have gone through tragedy, and I’m sure some of them have a stronger faith and confidence in God’s goodness because of it. We keep these things private, especially when we’re in the middle of the messy parts. In some circles it’s criticized as less spiritual to struggle. We are left to learn about suffering from books, the occasional testimony, and a few honest, questioning Psalms.  

“God is good” doesn’t come easily after the world falls apart, the way it does when we see desirable things happen. Sometimes it takes battle to get there. We have to change the way we see life, the way we see ourselves, and even the way we see God. Suffering rips us out of life’s comfortable boxes, and we realize God doesn’t fit in the convenient spot we had for him either.  

I wonder what this would look like if we were open about suffering. What if we discussed doubts without shame, and exposed the struggles of our hearts? What would we learn if we could look at grief without cringing, without the urge to cover it over and quickly make it feel better? How would it stretch us to face raw fears, and then share the process with each other? Not just the “God is good” outcome, but the long, hard journey of getting there? And not just talk about it when it’s resolved and we know the ending, but vulnerability in those times when we still can’t see?  

I imagine we would have a better foundation to stand on when suffering hits. Our understanding of God’s trustworthiness would be bigger than circumstances, and our faith would be deeper than wishful thinking. Still in need of refining, for sure, but growing beyond theory through the things we have witnessed in each other. Shame wouldn’t build walls around our hearts and keep us separated. We would be less likely to feel disappointed with God, because we know, we’ve seen, God’s mysterious ways where there are no happy endings.  

It only takes a little light to see when our eyes are used to the dark.

Reaching the Bottom of the Barrel

Shortly after Samuel died I began to struggle with my faith.  It showed itself slowly.  I didn’t feel God’s presence or strength after the accident, even though I publicly said that I did.  In those first few weeks I felt shock and numbness that I labeled peace.   As that faded, and the pain surged, I relied on faith.  God is good, I can trust him.  God loves us, God will help us through this.  I didn’t see it or feel it, but I had faith stored away like food for a long winter.  We let everyone know we still trusted God’s mysterious ways even in the middle of tragedy.

Maybe it was the questions that started to consume my faith.  Or maybe it was anger.  I watched the world leave the funeral and go straight into celebrating the Christmas season.  My head understood this, but my heart felt it as injustice, as insincerity.  It could have been the loneliness.  Maybe I needed someone to hold my arms up like Moses, and without help, my heart grew discouraged. Maybe it’s just difficult to avoid doubt in deep grief.  Whatever it was, God’s silence continued, and my faith diminished.

It’s hard to pray when it feels like God isn’t listening.  It’s hard to read the Bible when it feels strangely feigned.  Without faith, a verse about God answering my calls for help seemed about as reliable as Disney lyrics that tell me to wish upon a star so my dreams will come true.  Sweet, yes, but fantasy.  Music, always my joy and expression of hope, was a roulette of bad feelings.  My head was filled with despair, not songs of praise.  And certainly not songs of surrendering to God.  Surrender?  God wants to take more? Hadn’t I given enough for at least a year or two?

This should be my place of peace.  I should find comfort and strength in God.  

God is not my comfort.

It is an awful thing to lose a child.  It might be a worse thing to lose God.

Some days I hold on.  I find a crumb of faith and start breathing again, desperate because I don’t want to lose this most important thing.  Crumbs don’t last long.  The floor is picked-over.  Was that the last one, or is God preparing a feast?

Sunrise

20161201_063521Sunrise from Jana’s hospital window

I’ve watched many sunrises in the past few months. Even though they mean another long and weary day is starting, I look forward to them.  The house is still quiet, and the coffee maker is about to turn on.  I’ve been awake for a while, reading, writing, crying, or just sitting in the dark.  Each sunrise is different, but they are always silent and somehow calm the anxiety in my soul.  Some of the sunrises are incredible, with vivid color splashed all over the sky.  You can’t turn away from them.   They are so brilliant it seems that you could close your eyes and still feel the changes in the sky reflected on your face.  These are the mornings that people stop on the side of the road and take pictures.  Others are more subtle.  Pink and pale gold creep in, pushing away the darkness.  And sometimes the sky is thick with clouds and you can’t see the sunrise at all. It still gets light, dim and gray, but light. 

Every time I see the sun rise I think of Lamentations 3:22-23.  “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning, great is your faithfulness.”  Since Samuel died, Bible verses of hope and love leave me feeling angry, because I can’t see how they are true.  But these verses, in front of the sunrise, do not.  Maybe because the sunrise itself feels peaceful.  If I start thinking about the rest of Lamentations, I get confused and angry again.  So I have this one sentence.  I’m not even sure what it means or if I believe it.  I can just hear it without resentment.  That’s not much, but it’s something.

I wonder if God’s mercy is like the sunrise.  Sometimes it overwhelms and it’s gorgeous. You can’t turn away, everyone notices.  God writes his compassion and presence in bold, obvious ways.  Other times God’s mercy is like the subtle sunrise.  His peace steals in quietly, privately, calm and comforting.  And then there are the gray days.  Mercy might still be there, moving in the background.  But you won’t notice unless you try and look for it:  God’s mercy in a friend who drops dinner off at your door, or in an email from someone reminding that they are thinking of your family.  An apology.  A knowing look between you and your spouse.  A spontaneous kiss from your kids. 

Is God’s mercy is like the sunrise on a stormy day too?  Not the gray mornings, but days where the little light that makes it through the thunderheads does less to cheer and more to reveal the branches and leaves and shingles littered across the backyard.  In the dark you can hear the storm on the house, but morning reveals it’s true danger.  You can see it battering the trees, threatening to tear them over.  Rain weighs everything down, storm drains overflow, and the toys the kids left in the grass are swept down the hill and lost in the woods.  It is frightening, and you wonder if you will survive the storm or if a tree is going to land on your roof.  You cannot see the sun.  You believe it’s there only because you trust the pattern you’ve seen all the other days of your life.

I guess most of the time we make it through the stormy days.  The winds calm, the clouds thin, and the light becomes pleasant again.  We go outside and clean up the damage. 

The storms of life, well, not everyone survives those.  I don’t think we are promised an end to all storms, either.  Will God’s love be new to us again?  Will we see it when we figure out how to live in this storm?

Dying in Plain Sight

The aftermath of Samuel’s death is harder than I thought.  Losing Samuel has been all the pain you would imagine…crushing sadness, emptiness in every corner of the house, missing him all the time.  But I’ve been caught off guard by how an ugly change has curled it’s fingers into every other area of our family.  We haven’t just lost Samuel, we’ve lost the rest of our lives as well. 

I feel as if I have died too, only I’m still here, occupying space, and people still expect things of me.  I have a hard time engaging Jeremy and the kids.  I just don’t have the mental energy to listen to them, to play, to laugh.  I am tired, so tired.  I catch myself sitting at the table and staring, while everyone else eats and talks.  The world feels so heavy it’s literally hard to smile.  And my mothering tasks suffer too.  We’ve had days where we’ve eaten cereal for all three meals.  When the kids can’t find clean clothes I tell them to pick something off the floor.  I don’t want them to be in therapy someday talking about when their little brother died and their mom disappeared into an unending pit of sadness.

I have two kinds of days.  Some are plain sad days, just sadness.  I miss Samuel and I cry half the day.  On these days I have some grace to extend to others.  I recognize that people don’t engage us because they don’t know what to do.   Or I know that people care, but understand their need to not to get overwhelmed by our sadness.  They need to move on with their lives, that’s good.  This is our fate, not anyone else’s. 

The other days are more dark.  I’m angry, hopeless, confused, guilty, but mostly angry.  And on those days it’s hard to see that we are anything but alone.  People cared when the accident happened, of course.  There was some sort of morbid allure, people were appalled, thankful that it wasn’t them, grieved for us.  But then the funeral was over and everyone quickly moved on to get away from the impossibleness of it.  And we were left alone.  And I’m furious.  I don’t know where God is, I don’t know why he did this, I’m mad that I’m supposed to trust him and turn to him for comfort when he’s the one who is breaking us.  That doesn’t make sense. 

But I’m also ashamed of my anger, because it’s unfair to ask anyone to feel this with us.  It’s so deep and overwhelming. 

I’m trapped here. Surprised that at the end of each day, I’m still somehow breathing. 

Untouchable, alone.