“Ashes, ashes, we fall down.
It always feels too soon.
But when we walk on golden ground
All will be made new.”
–JJ Heller, Kingdom Come
My daughter’s 3-year-old best friend held my hands and walked me in circles in the hospital waiting room. He was singing the familiar rhyme, “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.” I couldn’t speak. I didn’t want to walk to this song, but I let him lead, and we fell to the ground. He didn’t know that his baby brother had just died that day, or that his mom was fighting for her life in the other room.
I wiped the tears from my sweet friend’s cheeks as she awoke, intubated, to learn that her baby was gone. We couldn’t keep it from her when she wrote the message into her husband’s palm asking if her baby boy was okay. The doctor said she must not speak, and she couldn’t utter the sobs that surely ached to pour forth from the depths of her soul. How do you speak the words that will acknowledge your sweet friend’s pain while she lay there in forced silence, yet words which would not burst open the floodgates of her tears that weren’t allowed to come?
I held the empty body of that beautiful 7 pound baby boy in my arms. I gazed at his perfect little features, felt his cool, soft skin as I kissed his forehead. My heart pounded as I held this precious child, like a nephew to me, whose own heart wasn’t beating anymore. Mine was doing double-time, wishing it could beat for that boy in my arms, just as it longed to do something to heal the aching heart of his mama. She did this already, you know, this thing no mama should ever have to do. Just two years ago she held a little girl in her arms and said goodbye. My friend is one strong, brave Mama Bear.
There were three things I knew that night, felt deep in my bones.
- God made that precious boy, made him so magnificently, and as I gazed at him, I was just so glad He did, in spite of the pain. It is right to rejoice over life, even as we grieve over death, and we would never wish he had not been made. The sorrow of loss, or the fact that we didn’t get another miracle, doesn’t change what a miracle he is to begin with. So, I celebrated him that night as I held him in my arms. He once did not exist at all, and now he does. He still does. And he is okay. He is healthy, strong, and basking in the sweet delight of eternity with Jesus. Hallelujah! We are so happy for you, sweet boy, and we will see you soon.
- I felt the glaring truth that this—death—is not the way it was supposed to be. It’s all wrong. There is so much I could say here, and also nothing I can say. It’s not fair. And yet my grieving friends would be the first to acknowledge that God doesn’t owe them anything. What I can say, though is that this is not what God wanted for His children, death. It breaks His heart. It’s what Jesus wept over. It’s what He faced with us, faced for us. And it’s what He died to keep our souls from having to experience. Yes, because of His great love for us, it is only our bodies that need suffer death. The ones who belong to Him won’t have to experience the second death. And our bodies, he’s going to fix those, too. You guys, our God loves us! Don’t you know? I know that many people question how God could be good if He allows bad things to happen, and I get that. Christians aren’t exempt from wrestling with those hard questions in the midst of their suffering. But there are those who come to terms with suffering and land on the side of, “Yes, there is a God, and He is still good.” Which brings me to number three.
- The most powerful thing I knew that night, the thought I can’t get out of my head or my heart and the reason I am writing this post, is that God’s children praising Him in their pain will never stop being the most beautiful thing in the world to me. The bittersweet fierceness of it just knocks the wind out of me, making my chest ache with awe. It’s like we, God’s children, are staring evil in the face with a burning determination in our eyes that tells it it’s not going to have the last word. It reminds me of that feeling you get when Frodo and Sam finally chuck that damned ring into the fires of Mordor and you know that good will win, but it will take every last thing they have, and they’ll stumble home battle-scarred and they will never be the same. It’s like that, and it’s like the feeling that comes when they later bow before the king and he says the words that choke me up every time: “Friends, you bow to no one.”
But my friends do bow to Someone. And they kept bowing to Him that night. They worshiped the Lord with tears rolling down their faces and their lifeless baby in their arms. All they had to say about it to their friends and family? “Listen to this with us today…our God is good and ruling right now. We have all experienced loss, some more, some less. Bridget and I pray that all of you would experience the peace and love of our God.”
“We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” -Hebrews 6:19
You guys, faith in Jesus is not trite. It’s gritty, and when the rubber meets the road for those who believe, it becomes even more real, going bone-deep and keeping you standing, with hands lifted in worship. Like our friend Bill, who praises God from the pulpit as he curses the cancer that took his sister, with tears of pain falling but his heart in a posture of submission and trust in his God. Like the families we know who have received news of a diagnosis that will probably claim the lives of their children before they reach adulthood, and still they trust Him. Friends who still praise God through the pain and uncertainty of infertility. Friends who praise the God who took their spouse or allowed him to suffer a brain injury. Friends who have had a stroke, and their life no longer looks like they thought it would, but they keep seeking the God they somehow know is good even though he doesn’t always answer the question of why. These people, they aren’t naïve. They just can see, even when they can’t see. They look past the fog of their pain to the hope that waits on the other side. They know this world isn’t all there is, and they trust that their pain has a purpose. This is faith. It is deep and powerful. It’s strong enough to kick back the darkness, especially when we wield it together.
“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, and certain of what we do not see.” -Hebrews 11:1
Blake and Bridget, they don’t know why the God they trust didn’t let their son take his first breath or all the many years of breaths he could have taken with them, why they had to say hello and goodbye at the same time. But they trust that there is a why. That their pain is not meaningless, and that their son’s life, and his death, is leaving a living legacy, planting seeds and bearing fruit even now, in ways that will have a ripple effect for years to come. I’ve seen some of that fruit already. I’ve seen children hold the body of a baby who no longer dwells in it and think about Heaven. They saw death, yes, but they also held evidence of eternity in their arms, and Heaven is going to be a little more real to them for the rest of their earthy lives. I saw a community come together in an instant and show what it means to be the Body of Christ. I saw a young woman who has been keeping God at a distance since her brother died witness believing families taking care of each other and trusting God in crisis. She asked how she could take a step back toward God and left with a daily devotional to begin reading, a devotional that happens to already have been passed from one friend to another during a hard time. In so many ways, God was caring for us all in this moment even before it began, preparing a safety net to catch us when we’d fall.
He loves us. Life is hard. There is pain. But, oh, how He loves us. Our pain and God’s goodness are not mutually exclusive. They are woven together intricately, and in time we will understand. Thank you, Maddox, for showing us the deep, deep love of our God.
“I have told you these things, so that in Me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” -John 16:33