Monday, January 5, 2009

Can I be honest about 2008?

Botanists tell us you can learn much about the life of a tree by observing it's growth rings when cut down. You can find out which were good years and which were bad years by looking at the relative width of the rings. Can you tell which years had good rainfall, warm temperatures and few insect or disease outbreaks in the above picture? The wider the growth ring, the better the growing conditions were that year.

For trees a thicker growth ring is a result of good growing conditions which includes rainfall, temperature, and the lack of insect or disease outbreaks. For human beings growth rings come the opposite way- through trials. The best growing conditions for Christians are not pleasant at the time- they include challenges of many kinds. Occasions that cause us to rely more fully on God prove to be times of growth, though they are usually quite painful.

If some one cuts me in half 20 years from now, they would find 2008 to be a pretty thick growth ring. Last year, at the end of 2007 I recounted some of the highlights from the year gone by. This year, I let the end of December pass and really didn't feel like blogging about the highlights of 2008 very much. Don't get me wrong, 2008 was filled with God's provision, goodness, and blessing- His mercies are definitely new every morning (Lamentations 3:23), however the year gone by will always be a difficult year to remember for me.

Just over nine months ago one of my former youth group members, a young man who I spent considerable time with especially during his High School years, ended his own life and changed the lives of his loved one's forever. I would love to report a sense of healing and closure, but I cannot. I have re-lived the phone call I received from his uncle the day he died virtually every day since March 25. The details of that day and the days that followed are still vivid to me. I sincerely wish I could share some process of understanding that has slowly worked over these months to give me a greater sense of peace, but this has not been my experience.

No one should mis-read my admissions as some kind of doubt concerning God or His goodness. My interpretation of Andrew's death has never been focused on a perceived unfairness on the part of God. On the contrary, the only genuine solace that surrounds this situation is the sovereignty,righteousness, and grace of God. This event has certainly caused me to cry out to God as the Psalmist did when he didn't understand trying events (i.e. Psalm 35), but I have experienced no essential doubt in God's goodness and wisdom through my long contemplations about Andrew's death. Further, the circumstances that surrounded his death convince me this was a momentary lapse on the part of a weak brother, not the long-planned act of a perpetually hopeless unbeliever. I am convinced that any Christian could fall in this way. God's grace is greater than all our sin. I'm just being honest by saying his death still doesn't make human sense to me and the wound is still fresh.

For me the past nine-plus months have brought weekly if not daily reminders of Andrew. I have enjoyed the recollection of some great memories as well as the continued onslaught of the "why?" and "what if?" type questions. Various things trigger my memories and thoughts- it could be seeing a vehicle like his, sometimes a person with a unique tattoo reminds me of him, a young person that looks like him, and most recently while skiing I saw a person flying downhill with a goofy hat on- just like the one he wore when we skied together. Most of all- seeing his parents on a regular basis and feeling totally inadequate to comfort them makes the pain of loss linger. There is a quiet strength Andrew's family has had for as long as I have known them and it has grown deeper and stronger. Still, I know there is a void that will not be filled in their lives until glory. That's hard to think about. Never have I felt more deficient as an under-shepherd of God's flock. God has been humbling me in this area, it is not easy and I don't like it much.

So, 2008 is history. I look forward to what a new year will bring and claim the words of Psalm 39:7 going forward- And now, O Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in you.


Malcolm said...

Tony, this may sound strange, but continue to grieve. I really am not a big fan of the term "closure." I went through two years or more watching my brother die of cancer at a comparatively young age (57). It was literally several years before I stopped thinking about him many times in one day...and I still rue the fact that I was a pitiful witness to him. The pain will ease with time, but meanwhile, keep Andrew in your thoughts and use this experience to further the kingdom. It was a horrible time and a shock for all of us in the church body. But your grief comes from love and that is why you can't drop it quickly. We all need to continue to minister to the Smiths as it is evident that their grief still dwells within them as well. I am sure that the experience with Andrew will serve you well at another time in your ministry, or with Brian's for that matter, as you both minister to teens and young adults. And, finally, thanks for not forgetting.

Frontier Forest said...

Pastor, in reading over your brokenness so many “feelings” rushed to my mind. Last night you spoke from your heart of God’s attribute, His unfailing righteousness. Your thoughts took me immediately to John 11, the providential death of Jesus’ dear friend Lazarus and his broken hearted, confused sisters. His sovereign purpose for waiting was for His further, future glory. But that is so very hard to understand when we are going through the wilderness of trials.
We know that Jesus wept! But how many of us have searched, or ask “WHY?”
I believe the most hurtful and painful words ever spoken to Christ, came not from the religious hypocrites who condemned His every righteous act, not from Pilot who sentenced Him to death, not from the Roman Soldiers who spit upon Him, who tortured and crucified Him. Not even from Peter who denied Him 3 times, at the most crucial time when Jesus needed His loved ones to stand by Him. I believe the most hurtful words He ever experienced came forth from those 2 hurting sisters. In all their brokenness, they both came to Jesus, fell at His feet…. then actually accused the Creator of the Universe, the ONE who spoke the world into being, for not caring! “Lord, if YOU would have been here, our brother would not have died!” (Vs 21, the angry words of Martha and again in Vs 32, the exact same words spewed forth by Mary.)
We know the results. Those few hurtful, soul wounding words broke His heart! Those HE so dearly loved, misunderstood His greater, sovereign purpose. Yes He did come to heal the sick and give hope to the down-hearted. But His greater purpose was coming to “care,” offering His sinless life to save and justify sinners! This He spoke of as His resurrection message.
The truth is we so often fail to feel the impact of the verse before and the verses following verse 35, when “Jesus Wept!” Verse 33, “When Jesus saw her weeping… HE WAS MOVED in spirit and was troubled.” Verse 38, “Jesus therefore again being deeply moved witin…” Understanding the depths of His righteousness and His limitless love for me, a terrible sinner, brings me great comfort when I doubt. For many times I too have shouted my anger at God… saying, “Lord, don’t you care?” I know that Jesus wept for Andrew, He wept for and still weeps for the entire loving hurting Smith family, He wept and still weeps for Pastor Tony’s fellings. He did so, He does so, just the same as HE wept for Mary and Martha.

Rick Calohan said...


No words I could write or say will ever overcome the grief you have experienced with the loss of Andrew. I know what I wrote then when you asked for prayer request still bold true today and everyday you grieve.

“May God’s Grace and Peace be with those whom mourn this day.

Matthew 5: 4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Father of mercies, and God of all comfort: Look in Thy tender love and compassion, we beseech Thee, on Thy sorrowing servants. Enable them to find in Thee their refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble, and to know the love of Christ which passeth knowledge. Grant them faith and hope in Him who by death hath conquered death, and by rising again have open the gates of everlasting life; Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
March 26, 2008 2:58 AM

When my dad was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer on of all days September 11, 2001, I reviewed what I wrote to friends and family and these verses of scripture came to mind and I had placed them in that email.

Exodus 20:1-3
Psalm 23
Psalm 46
Psalm 102
Zephaniah 3:17
Matthew 18: 12-14
Mark 12: 29-31
Luke 12: 2-4
John 3:16
John 14
Romans 12
1 Corinthians 13
Ephesians 6: 1-3

You will note that Psalm 23, 46, and 102 came to mind. He is the Good Shepherd thou shall not want, He is our Mighty fortress and even in our Laments, He remains the same, and His years have no end.

My dad passed away on October 12, 2001, and while seven plus years have passed I know that by His Grace my dad is in heaven with our Lord. For we believe that God is gracious and faithful to His people not simply as individuals but as families in successive generations according to His Covenant promises.

If I may I leave you with this hymn played at my dad’s funeral may it give you solace.

Psalm 23

My Shepherd Will Supply My Need

Para. Isaac Watts 1719 Walker's Southern Harmony, 1835.

My Shepherd will supply my need:
Jehovah is His Name;
In pastures fresh He makes me feed,
Beside the living stream.
He brings my wandering spirit back
When I forsake His ways,
And leads me, for His mercy's sake,
In paths of truth and grace.

When I walk through the shades of death
His presence is my stay;
One word of His supporting grace
Drives all my fears away.
His hand, in sight of all my foes,
Doth still my table spread;
My cup with blessings overflows,
His oil anoints my head.

The sure provisions of my God
Attend me all my days;
O may Thy house be my abode,
And all my work be praise.
There would I find a settled rest,
While others go and come;
No more a stranger, nor a guest,
But like a child at home.

Salvation is by Grace alone, through Faith alone, in Christ alone, as revealed in the Scripture alone to the Glory of God alone! Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Solus Christus, Sola Scriptura, Soli Deo Gloria!