Free to Cry Out in Our Suffering

In 2008 I wrote the following as our ten month old grandson Sully was in the midst of his heroic fight for life as his little body was afflicted by leukemia.

Jeremiah, the Old Testament prophet of God, I highly respect, finding him to be a fellow sufferer with the suffering. God called him to a ministry that by man’s standards of judgment was a failure. His congregation, the nation of Judah, rejected his message and hated him. His life was threatened. He was thrown into a muddy cistern. He suffered the anguish and grief of the destruction of the nation (Judah) and city (Jerusalem) he loved. The weeping prophet he has been called.

As Jeremiah laments the destruction of Jerusalem he laments his own suffering. What draws me to Jeremiah is his faithfulness to the Lord’s calling in the midst of his suffering. I am also drawn to him because of his lament when he cries out to God. As I understand Lamentations 3, Jeremiah is laying his suffering at the feet of God. He complains. He accuses. God “has turned his hand against me again and again, all day long” (verse 3). “Even when I call out or cry for help, he shuts out my prayer” (verse 8). Read verses 12-20. His suffering is terribly painful. He complains to God. He blames God. Then he remembers and has hope. He remembers the love and faithfulness of God. “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (verses 22-23). He waits on the Lord. His hope is in God.

I am drawn to Jeremiah and his words in Lamentations because they free me and you to cry out in our suffering. Yes, God accepts our struggles, our depression, our complaints, and shaking our fists at him. He patiently forbears with us. When we are finished, in the midst of the tears, we remember God’s love, compassion, and kindness in our lives. We remember his love so graciously given in Christ. In the midst of our tears we remember, and like the prophet, we turn again to our faith and wait on the Lord. In him we place our hope.

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Disney’s Frozen 2, A Lesson in Grief

We went to see Disney’s animated film, Frozen 2. It was fun until… When Anna realized that Elsa was dead she sang a song about her grief. This is no child’s song. It is not the stirring song that was Elsa’s “Let It Go”. The lyrics of “The Next Right Thing” and the emotion in Anna’s (Kristen Bell) voice, settled heavy on my heart. Leaving the theater, the whole evening, my heart was heavy. It was as if I had just experienced a loss. Any moment I felt I could break down. I went to see a Disney animated film, a story for children. Here was this song that I believe speaks to those who have experienced the loss of a loved one. It speaks to those who have experienced the gravity of grief pulling them down.

“The Next Right Thing” vividly describes grief. Kristen Bell’s performance captures the emotion and the pain of grief. I have given here the link to a lyric video of this song. If you have experienced grief, are experiencing grief, I am sure these lyrics capture well what you have felt, what you are feeling.

In her grief Anna realizes she has a choice to make. Is she going to wallow in her grief and give up on life? Or is she going to listen to that tiny voice whispering in her mind telling her in the midst of the hopelessness she is feeling, in the midst of the night and the darkness, do the next right thing? Though nothing will ever be the same again, she will make the choice to hear that voice and do the next right thing.

So is the challenge we all face in our grief. In the context of the story the next right thing for Anna is to carry on what Elsa came to do. In the context of the story of your grief what is the next right thing to do? Not right in the sense of there being only one right way to grieve. There isn’t. Rather the next right thing to help you grieve in a healthy way. The next right thing to do in carrying on the memory, the legacy, of your loved one. The next right thing, even the smallest of things, to make a step, however small, toward life. Make the choice to take a step, then to step again, as difficult as that can be.

“I won’t look too far ahead,” Anna sings, “It’s too much for me to take. But break it down to this next breath, this next step, this next choice is one that I can make. So I’ll walk through this night, stumbling blindly toward the light, and do the next right thing. And with the dawn what comes then, when it’s clear that everything will never be the same again? Then I’ll make the choice to hear that voice and do the next right thing.”

In my faith that voice is God telling me he is present. He has not forsaken my loved one now gone. He has not forsaken me. “Trust me,” God says, “Take that first step, and the next, and the next. Through the darkness of this night, this valley of death, I am with you.”

(Music and lyrics of “The Next Right Thing” by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez)

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On this Christmas Day…

Monday I spent the morning at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. I sat by the bedside of one of my young friends. When I first met this child a year or so ago, the energy my friend had when we played! As I like to say, what a hoot! Remission filled his parents and all of us with joy. Remission was not to last. The cancer is back. Monday I sat by my young friend’s bed watching a very sick child. My heart Monday morning was sad. Mom told me she is at peace being back at St. Jude. This Christmas morning I am thinking about this young friends. I prayed for him and other St. Jude children who have captured my heart as they so bravely fight their battles. I prayed for the families of my little friends who died this year.

We naturally ask why. O how I asked why not me instead of my sweet, innocent grandson Sully. Now, as I sat in this room two rooms down from the room where my grandson died, I ask why when this old man sits by the bedside of a young friend fighting for life. There is no satisfying answer, no heart comforting answer. Yet on this Christmas Day I remember the coming of Christ. I remember his embodiment of the love of God. God’s love which we are promised never forsakes us. As difficult as it is, I see Christ on the cross and his empty tomb, and yes, I trust that God’s love is always present. I trust the hope of Christ is so very real. The love of God and the hope he gives, yes I have to believe, is with my little friend, with all my young friends at St. Jude, this morning. As they were with our precious Sully and still are.

May the love, the hope, and the peace of God in Jesus Christ fill your hearts this Christmas day. God’s blessings.

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“To feel pity…is almost an insult.”

“To feel pity for anyone so magnificently brave as Joy is almost an insult.” 

W. H. Lewis (Warnie) wrote this concerning Joy Davidman on the occasion of her marriage to C. S. Lewis. The marriage took place in Joy’s hospital room. She had cancer. Douglas Gresham, Joy’s son, reflecting back on his mother’s illness, wrote, “And brave she certainly was; the spring-steel fibre in her personality bent further and further time and again, but it never broke!”

When I read this I immediately thought of our grandson Sully. For one so young he lived with courage in the face of leukemia. I thought of the many children I have known at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Then came the news of the death of Tyler Trent, a Purdue University student, on January 1. The story of his fight against cancer and his fierce support of Purdue football, became national news. At the memorial service for Tyler, Purdue quarterback David Blough described Tyler, “Our family member, our friend, our teammate, captain, a classmate, a cancer fighting warrior.”

“A cancer fighting warrior,” this best describes our grandson, the children and young people, and yes adults, who fought and are fighting cancer. It is the description used by parents to describe their children. Of course, there are so many children and adults who are fighting other life threatening diseases and injuries. Children and adults for whom “fighting warrior” is the best description.

Joy’s son, Douglas Gresham, further wrote of his mother. “Strangely, all through those hard, bad, bitter months, it was Mother who comforted us rather than the other way around. She encouraged Jack [C. S. Lewis] and teased him out of his sorrow, she delighted Warnie with her wit and conversation, she cuddled me when I needed it and chided me also when that was required. Mother, from her bed of pain and fear in the common room, became the support and the strength of the whole family. Strange as it now seems looking back at it, had it not been for her strength, we all would have broken down. Mother’s courage and her indomitable spirit were the bonding agent of the Lewis household.”

I have heard similar descriptions given by parents of their children who were cancer fighting warriors. Sully taught us, encouraged us, made us laugh, kept us going, as he so courageously fought for thirteen months of his fifteen month life. Tyler Trent inspired a university football team and so many others with his courage and his encouragement. For Sully, for Tyler, and so many like them, compassion, yes. Love and support, yes. Encouragement and presence, yes. Pity, no. They are heroes among us. 

“Heroes”—this message is on a shirt designed by his parents remembering Sully and all the children whose lives are stricken by pediatric cancer. “Warriors”—a message declared by a patient at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, displayed for all to read who walk by the Alphabet Wall at St. Jude.

Purdue quarterback David Blough had one additional description of Tyler Trent. “Most importantly tonight we get to remember Tyler as a follower of Jesus.”

To feel pity for anyone so magnificently brave as Sully, as Tyler, as the many children fighting childhood cancer, is almost an insult.

(The quotes from Douglas Gresham are from his book, Lenten Lands, My Childhood with Joy Davidman and C. S. Lewis (New York: HarperOne, 1988, 2003), pages 75 and 81.)

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Elf, A Lesson in Faith and God

My wife and I took a trip this past Thanksgiving. In a hotel I turned on the television. The movie Elf was playing. This movie has become a Christmas classic for many. I watched. Had some laughs. Santa Claus getting stuck in Central Park especially caught my attention. As Buddy and Santa find each other in the park Santa explains why his sleigh is grounded. “The Clause meter suddenly just dropped down to zero. There’s just no Christmas spirit anymore.” Then there is what Santa says to Buddy’s brother Michael when Santa’s sleigh lifts up off the ground. “You made my sleigh fly….This baby used to run solely on Christmas spirit. You believed in me. You made my sleigh fly.” As the dreaded Central Park Rangers and their frightening horses close in on Santa, Buddy’s girlfriend leads a crowd gathered outside the park in singing Santa Claus Is Coming to Town. As they sang the Christmas spirit grew in their hearts and they once again believed in Santa Claus. The Clause meter began to rise and Santa, sleigh, and reindeer were on their way.

Wait a minute, I thought, this is what many people think about God. He is only as strong and as able as the amount of faith people have in him. God is limited by our limitations. What happened to Jesus’ words “faith the size of a mustard seed”? Unlike Santa and the Claus meter, God is not energized and fueled by our faith. God is not waiting for me to have enough faith so He is able to work in my life. “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:24-25). God acts out of his very being as Creator and Almighty God. He acts out of his wisdom, patience, mercy, kindness, righteousness, holiness, and love. Thank God he does. We could never believe enough to empower God to be and to do as he already is and does, the Lord God our Creator and Savior.

(The picture is from Amazon.com.)

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Psalm 10, The Arrogance of Pediatric Cancer

“Why, O LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

When times of trouble stubbornly persist, the heart of the faithful cries out as it appears God is far off. In his arrogance the wicked taunts the faithful caught in the schemes of the wicked. Often the psalms speak of the struggles of faith, the struggle of the suffering righteous who watch the wicked prosper.

I remember daily my grandson Sully, who died at age fifteen months with infant ALL, leukemia. When I read a text like Psalm 10 I read it through the eyes of one who has witnessed the wicked scheme of Satan called pediatric cancer. The psalmist’s description of the wicked man serves as a metaphor of pediatric cancer–the arrogance, hunting down the weak, the boasting. “He lies in wait like a lion in cover; he lies in wait to catch the helpless; he catches the helpless and drags them off in his net. His victims are crushed, they collapse; they fall under his strength. He says to himself, ‘God has forgotten; he covers his face and never sees.'”

“Arise, LORD! Lift up your hand, O God. Do not forget the helpless.”

Parents’ desire (a weak word to express what their heart is longing and aching for) is deliverance now. The faith of the believer is that God hears her cries. Yet deliverance might not come now. Trust in God may waver in the weakness of the pain and heartache. However, trust does not break. Christ strengthens trust in God as hope in his return sustains. Christ is coming. All wickedness will perish. God’s people, all of them, and the children, will be eternally delivered. In the midst of continuing affliction, of the arrogant evil of wickedness, the cries of those who trust in God through Christ are heard. God gives strength and hope. He gives peace. He pours out his love.

“You hear, O LORD, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed.”

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Ten Years Ago—Remembering, Loving, and Missing our Grandson

Ten years ago today our daughter called. “Come to the hospital.” Her son, our grandson, Sully, was nearing the end of his life at the age of fifteen months. We spent the day, family, friends, hospital staff, saying “good bye”, holding and hugging Sully, holding and hugging each other. Room 14 on the BMT unit at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.

We watched Sully for thirteen months wage a fierce and courageous battle against leukemia. During his short life we watched this little man defeat death more than once. Sully’s fight, his spirit, his sweetness, and his smile, blessed us all. Sully was God’s gift to us.

The prophet Isaiah wrote, “and a little child will lead them” (Isaiah 11:6). Oh how Sully led and taught us.

The pictures are from July 25, 2008, nine days before Sully took his last breath. These pictures are evidence of Sully teaching us that no matter how painful life can be, there is reason to smile. There was a toughness of spirit within Sully which was a gift from God. Grumble and complain, Sully did not. There were cries and screams of pain, which broke our hearts. Yet a moment or minutes later Sully was smiling and playing patty cake or waving his hand or “I-I” or peek-a-boo or throwing a kiss.

Sully loved and enjoyed people—people, reason to smile. Sully taught us that the Lord did make this day. The Lord—reason to smile. Sully taught us not to waste life wallowing in the difficulties. In the midst of all the struggle, the pain, and the grief of those thirteen months, the one suffering the most, little Sully, was the one bringing us joy with his smile, his grunts, his kisses, and his laughs. He taught us to smile and to live with hope.

Life becomes so filled with the seriousness of what amount to small things, ultimately unimportant things. We spend our days and nights consumed with the urgent, with wants of toys and pleasure, and with energy draining efforts to get, to achieve, and to have. We forget the important things. With his sweet spirit Sully taught us to remember the important—a good attitude, a smile, a “thank you,” a “let me help you,” people, and above all, God.

The prophet Jeremiah writes of his suffering in Lamentations 3. As I understand his words he lays his suffering at the feet of God; he blames God for it. “I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me” (Lamentations 3:19-20). If anyone had a right to speak these words Sully did, but he smiled; he loved; he gave joy. I know his little mind could not form the thoughts as we can, but with his spirit Sully taught us. He taught us that with all the suffering and the questions his suffering brought, it all ultimately comes down to this—trust God. Out of the depths of suffering the prophet went on to write, “Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” Sully helped us understand these words.

Sully helped us understand the words of Jesus in Matthew 18:1-4. “At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: ‘I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” And so you are Sully, and so you are!

Ten years ago, remembering, loving, and missing you Sully. Thank you for being our teacher. Thank you for leading us. Thank you Lord for your gift and for the hope we have in Christ.

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