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.

To My Friends Who Hope

A few days ago, I came across a letter. It was written by a woman to her friend who had just buried a baby.

It was gentle and caring. She spoke of hope through the pain, and how the soul grows through loss. It was lovely.

It frustrated me.  

Because I’m not there yet.  

We all grieve differently. There are some who walk through the early days of child loss aware of the refining process happening under their pain. Maybe this young mother needed to be reminded of the truth in that frightening place, right after her loss. Or maybe she will, like me, hide the letter away for a later day.

I just miss my son. And that missing knocks me down and I can’t breathe. I press my hands to my chest because the emotional pain is so physical it threatens to rupture my heart. My hair won’t stop falling out and half of my toenails peeled, then flaked completely off. Yes, grief can actually do that.

When the loss belongs to someone else, it’s easier to hope. My friends feel my pain, they are horrified and hurt by Samuel’s death. They are frightened by how easily the future in his eyes was turned off. They are trying to make sense of it, wrestling with why’s, knocking persistently at the doors of heaven for me. As the days go on, they begin to discover peace. They see God at work. They are comforted and confident that a good God can do something, well, redeeming, with all of this.  

It’s good that my friends get to these places before me. I am deeply grateful. We’d be in trouble if we all carried the same weighty burden. But they are there before me. My eyes are still clouded by hurt. If they tell me too soon or too often, that my pain is a good process, I assume they don’t get it. It’s hard to listen to what they have to say. And eventually, I need to hear what they have to say.

To my friends, please keep working these things out with me. Keep hoping, keep praying, keep fighting for my heart. Search for the answers. Not the kind that make it all OK. Those look like answers but they are counterfeit. Find the real answers, the kind we have to content with in a broken world. The ones that don’t satisfy on the surface, but stretch our faith and make us dig deeper into life. I’m searching too, I’m just slower.  

But if I’m crying so hard I can’t even hear your voice, maybe you should wait before you share. The only words I can hear on the worst days are a hand on my shoulder, a hug, or the tears in your own eyes.

 

“…don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”  C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

 

The Duet

There is a faint line of hope in my heart today.

I’m afraid of it.  Hope means expectations.  Expectations mean disappointment.  Disappointment means anger and hurt.

But there it is.  It’s been there since last night, which is a long time for me.  Lately my glimmers of hope last for 10 minutes to an hour or two, but no more.  Then the discouragement settles back in, feeling heavier than it did before.

I’ve had a low tolerance for music since the accident.  But music is how I discover, how I pray and worship, and how I love.  Losing music starves my soul like not being able to swallow would starve my stomach.  I found some music I can listen to this week.  They are songs about pain.  Although the hope woven into them is very, very small, it is more hope than I feel.  But today I can imagine hope like that in my life.  That’s no small thing.  Listening to these songs is replacing some of the despair in my head with stillness.

So today my grief has tried a duet with hope.  Maybe God’s silence isn’t abandonment, but a pause.  A holy tear as God sits, listening, before he speaks to me.  Waiting for me to be quiet, so he can continue the song that he’s always sung over me.  Maybe God is still there and I’ll find him again.  That would be good.  I need something good.

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?

Unhappy Becoming

How is it that life can change so completely in a fraction of a second?

There was no warning that things were about to change, there were no screeching brakes. Just impact. And suddenly there were ambulances and helicopters, and we were frantic because all three kids needed help but there were only two of us, and we couldn’t even get them out of the car. And a week later we carried Jana out of the hospital because she could hardly walk. Her eye was swollen shut and she had surgery scars along with the injuries from the accident. We couldn’t hug her close because we were afraid to hurt her fractured skull, and besides, she was so mad she pushed us away. We comforted Michael, whose only visible injury was a scratch on his chin. Somehow that little scratch scarred into a thin red line, and he is proud of it. He doesn’t want it to go away. He can sense how deeply the accident has changed the identity of our family, and it helps him be a part of it. It says “see, I was in the accident too, I was there.” And I stood next to a casket that was way too small, staring at blue bunny tucked next to Samuel’s still face. His face looked funny, they didn’t do a good job with his funeral make up. I could see it in streaks on his cheek. I should have touched him, mother’s touch their children, but I couldn’t. And my world fell apart.

God was gone in an instant. The last thing I prayed was for God to heal Samuel, and I really, really believed he would. There was nothing the doctors could do? That won’t stop us, God has brought this child through so much, it can’t possibly end here. God is bigger than any doctor, we aren’t worried. But nothing happened. He never woke up. And God had nothing to say about it. In three months I can count the times I’ve prayed on one hand. I’ve started to pray a few times, and stopped myself. Why am I engaging God about this, when it doesn’t make any difference, when he clearly doesn’t care? I’ve yelled at God, doubted His goodness, and given him the silent treatment. I’ve pulled out my Bible to read it, and ended up more mad than when I started. The words are hollow, the reassurances are clearly meant for someone else. Or maybe they are empty for everyone, and I’ve been fooled for all these years.

I’m angry that I’m stretched so thin I can’t manage the little bumps that happen in every day. That I cry when I see mothers with wiggling kids at the store. That I get annoyed with my children for normal things, and that I can’t seem to put away laundry. That simple decisions overwhelm me and bring me to tears. That I can’t remember what shampoo we use. I wonder which awkwardness I’d rather face, to wear sunglasses in the store so I can hide my eyes, or cry in the shampoo aisle.

But mostly, it’s about God. Where is he, why has he left us? And I’m ashamed, because I would have told you last year that suffering is part of this sinful world, and it’s only pampered American Christians who think that God protects us from ever suffering (and of course, I was not pampered). But now that I’m in the middle of it, I doubt. And rage. And hate what I’ve become. A empty-armed mother who cries when I drop just two kids off at school every morning. Hyper-sensitive to every questionable driver on the road, sometimes screaming and cursing at them in my car. Angry at the people who have sacrificed and cared for us the most. How small of me, how selfish. I don’t know who I am anymore. I don’t know if the accident has exposed ugliness in my heart or helped create it, but it’s there.

And where, where is God? If God is there…no…if God cares, then He will be there again some day, right? Maybe? How long do I have to wait? I need Him now. Why would he disappear when we need him most? I’m told, kindly, by several people I respect, that in the end I have to choose to trust God in this. If answers don’t come, I still have a choice. Acceptance. Surrender. Trust. And I think they mean I have to trust God about the accident and Samuel. But I know in my heart it’s bigger than that. If I trust, it’s everything. If God was right and just and loving to take Samuel, then he is right and just and loving no matter what he does the next time. He can take Michael and Jana, he can take Jeremy. He can wound us, take anything we have. He can teach us any lesson. And I’m fearful, I see ways every day that God could take the rest of my family. What if that’s his plan, will I submit to that? What if he hides his face forever? Can I surrender everything, absolutely everything? This is dying all over again. I’m frightened and I can’t let go of what I have left.

I try to remember Samuel’s face smiling and warm, instead of his face motionless in the casket. I try to remember his name as he would write it proudly and crooked on his paper, instead of carved perfectly onto a stone. I try to remember the firetrucks he loved to draw with red crayon instead of the ones that responded to his dying. But the unyielding face in the casket and the unyielding name in the stone are most often with me. I sit in the wet grass in front of his grave and trace my finger over his name and weep at the coldness and hardness of it. Samuel, the name that means he belongs to God. Yanxiou, the name that shows he belongs to China. L., the name that proves he belongs to us. Oh my little boy, I miss you so much. I’m so sorry this happened, that we couldn’t protect you. How do I move on without you?

God Has Something to Say

On Friday I had an email conversation with our pastor about what the Bible says about death and children.  I read some of the verses we talked about, and then somehow ended up reading the whole book of Ecclesiastes.  I couldn’t stop, it resonated with me in a new way.  It was pessimistic, but read from the darkness of grief, it was perfect.  We come from dust, we will return to dust.  Our days are numbered and we can’t take anything with us after we die, so constant seeking after money, success, and even wisdom are meaningless.  It’s better to go to a funeral than a feast.  The laughter of fools is meaningless (which I feel strongly, and which is why I avoid scrolling through my Facebook feed these days…too much laughter of fools).

And in the middle of the book some words jumped out at me.  Ecc 5:1-2 says “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong.  Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God.  God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.” I’ve done a lot of ranting towards God lately, and I took this to mean that maybe I need to get quiet and listen.  

I mentioned this to Scott who told me those are the exact verses he’s preaching on this weekend.

Apparently God is telling me to go to church on Sunday.  And to listen.

I have not gone to a regular church service since the accident.  Too many memories, too many questions, too many happy praise songs that stick in my throat.  But I can’t brush this off as a coincidence.

And in a very kind gesture, Scott offered to keep the lights off in church on Sunday, so I can cry all I want and not worry about everyone staring at me.