Sully’s Birthday and Trusting God, Part Two

Sully and his mother

It began with Sully’s mom, our daughter, experiencing the faith of the mother of a child taken all too soon by leukemia. It continued with seeing, hearing, and reading the faith of other mothers of children with pediatric cancers. Their faith spoken, written, and lived, humbles me. I have thought of them this past week. In the mix of the joy and the grief of our grandson Sully’s birthday, I have also been thinking of two passages of Scripture. One passage from Daniel I shared in my last post. In this post I share the second passage with you. As I read this text today, I am reminded of these mothers and their children.

Hebrews 11 has been called the Hall of Fame of Faith. The names and stories are familiar, Abel, Enoch, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, the list continues. Stories I learned in Sunday School as a child. Stories I preached as an adult. Stories of faith, of trusting in God, no matter the circumstances. I have often gone to this chapter to encourage faithfulness toward God. As with Daniel’s three friends, these are stories of answered prayers, of deliverance, and victory. Well, perhaps the exception is Abel, murdered by his brother. The writer concludes stating there were more examples than he had time to discuss. He names a number of them, summarizes the victories of faith they experienced. “Who through faith conquered…Women received back their dead, raised to life again”, Hebrews 11:33-35a.

I read Hebrews 11:1-35a. Yes, this is the story I expect in my life. Faith in God who is love. Faith in the Lord God Almighty who is sovereign over all of his creation. Faith which results in strength, deliverance, and victory. There will be hard times for the faithful, yes. Yet these verses reveal God giving his faithful the strength to overcome the hard times. He gives them victory. God delivers his faithful. “Women received back their dead, raised to life again.”

My grandson was not delivered. We visit his grave. Children suffer and die. Yet their mothers beautifully share their faith in the midst of suffering and death. Their faith, including my daughter’s, taught me, teaches me. There are more stories in Hebrews 11. Stories of faith unwavering. Something is different about these stories, these unnamed faithful of God.

“Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith.” Hebrews 11:35b-39a

Perhaps we respond better to the stories of faith and obedience in which the outcome is deliverance and victory. Yet these stories in Hebrews 11 are between the bookends of faithful Abel who was murdered and the unnamed faithful who faced horrific persecution, poverty, and death. Those who have lost their children and grandchildren to pediatric cancers know only too well the need for these stories. The stories of faith and obedience without deliverance and victory in this life. The stories of the faithful who persevered. The faithful who cried out to God in the midst of suffering and were heard. The faithful whose prayers were answered, not with deliverance. The suffering continued even to the point of death. The Lord heard their cries and gave them his presence and strength to journey through the valley of death.

The stories do not give us the understanding of why. The unfairness of it all does not disappear. Yet the stories teach us that in all circumstances God is with us. The stories teach us God does not desert us. The stories encourage us to continue to trust God “even if he does not” deliver us from the flames.

When we lost our precious grandson Sully, I wrestled with my faith. I wrestled with God. I read the stories in Scripture. I watched Sully’s mother, my daughter. I read the stories written by mothers of other children ripped from their arms by pediatric cancers. They teach me the hope of faith in the resurrected, living, and reigning Christ. They teach me the love of God poured out in the crucified and risen Son of God. His love never forsakes me. Hope in Christ, the hope of resurrection and eternal life, is as certain as God is faithful. I have learned from the story of Scripture. I have learned from these mothers and their children. Even if God does not deliver me from the flames, trust him still.

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Sully’s Birthday and Trusting God, Part One

Mom, Dad, siblings, delivering toys to St. Jude.

Our grandson Sully’s tenth birthday was this past Monday. The ninth birthday we celebrated and remembered his life without his physical presence. So much love for Sully, his parents, and his siblings was poured out this year. Many donated toys and money to buy toys for the children of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The love of so many people enabled Sully’s parents and siblings to make the largest donation yet in memory and honor of Sully.

It is difficult to put into words the death of a grandchild. Grief becomes a part of you. Most of the time now it lies quietly in your heart. You know it is there. Yet it does not dominate your life. You remember your grandchild every day. Mostly the thoughts are of that sweet child who brought, still brings, joy to your heart. There are times, unexpected, catching you off guard, when grief awakens. For a moment or for hours, you grieve. You weep. Your heart is sliced open again. Once again you wrestle with your faith. You wrestle with God.

In the mix of the joy and the grief of Sully’s birthday, all this week I have been thinking of two passages of Scripture.

The first is Daniel 3:17-18. Three friends of the prophet Daniel refused to worship an idol built by the king. They faced being burned alive. This text is their response. “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

Yahweh, the God of Israel, did rescue them from the fire, a miraculous outcome. As I heard this story as a child I marveled at God’s deliverance of these men. Sully’s death caused me to look more closely at the words of these three friends. For the first time I paid attention to the full depths of their trust in God. “But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” “Even if he does not!” Even if the flames began to consume their flesh they were determined to continue to trust God.

During his short life of fifteen months, battling leukemia, Sully taught all who knew him. He taught me. People all over the world were praying for God to deliver Sully, to rescue him from his illness and his death. I prayed this prayer, fervently. I trusted that the God I serve was able to save Sully from leukemia and death. When God did not so answer our prayers, my prayers, my faith was challenged. I wrestled with my faith. I wrestled with God. “Even if he does not!” Could I so trust God? With his strength and spirit Sully taught me. The faith of those three men so long ago taught and encouraged me. God did not save our precious Sully. Yet I have learned to trust Him still.

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I wanted to slap her!

I was wearing one of my St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital golf shirts. When I wear one of the two I own someone usually asks me if I work at St. Jude. Typically I respond, “I am a volunteer. Also my grandson was a patient during his short life.” (Sully was diagnosed with infant leukemia at the age of two months. He fought valiantly. We continue to be very grateful for the efforts of everyone at St. Jude to help Sully. He died at age fifteen months.)

After lunch with my grandson Max, I went to Sprout’s Farmer’s Market. A
fellow customer noticed my shirt. She asked if I worked or volunteered at St. Jude. I answered with my typical response. Forty-four years of ministry, and especially the illness and death of my grandson Sully, have taught me not to be surprised at people’s responses to those who have lost a loved one. People mean well. As they search for the right words, so often what comes out of their mouths is not helpful. Yet I know typically their hearts are compassionate. I admit to stumbling with my words at times. Even though I know better.

This woman’s response shocked me. I was not prepared for it. “Did your grandson have cancer?”

“Yes,” I replied. “Leukemia.”

“What caused it?” she asked. Her question and tone caught me by surprise. I fumbled to explain what I understand about Sully’s leukemia.

“You know likely it was the result of the environment, cell phones, computers, and the like. You know that the chemotherapy industry is a multi-billion dollar business.”

I don’t remember what else she said as I fumbled in my effort to respond. The inferences I was drawing, but not saying, weren’t helping. You are saying my daughter and husband could have prevented Sully’s leukemia?! St. Jude’s dedicated medical and research staff are only interested in the money?! I could not believe what I was hearing.

There were no attempts by this woman to express sympathy or compassion. She saw my shirt and saw an opportunity to get on her soap box. Her parting words: “Go to this website [I did not hear it]. And keep an open mind.”

An open mind?! I wanted to slap her! My anger kept growing after she walked away.

The words of Job in rebuke of his “comforters” come to mind. “Then Job replied: ‘I have heard many things like these; miserable comforters are you all! Will your long-winded speeches never end? What ails you that you keep on arguing? I also could speak like you, if you were in my place; I could make fine speeches against you and shake my head at you. But my mouth would encourage you; comfort from my lips would bring you relief.’” (Job 16:1-5)

Admittedly this is a little rant I had to get off my chest. If it helps you think carefully about what you say to the hurting, the rant was worthwhile.

Here is a link to a very good article on things not to say to the grieving.
Things You Never Want to Hear in Your Grief

God’s blessings!

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Sunday, Another Visit to the Grave

Journey through the Shadowlands

(From my CaringBridge site in honor and memory of our grandson Sully. Written on Easter Sunday, 2010.)

Sunday had come. The Sabbath was over.  Women who had followed Jesus went to the tomb to finish the traditional anointing of the body of Jesus for entombment.  To their surprise and concern, the stone at the door of the tomb had been rolled to the side.  The tomb was open.  Entering the tomb they found the body of Jesus missing.  What happened?  Did his enemies steal his body to add further shame to his death?  While they were standing and wondering two men suddenly appeared beside them with clothes brightly gleaming. Angels?  The women bowed down before them in fear.  The men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here; he has risen!” (Luke 24:1-5).  The darkness and grief of the Sabbath…

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The Day after Good Friday

Journey through the Shadowlands

(From my CaringBridge site in honor and memory of our grandson Sully. Written on the day after Good Friday, 2010.)

IMG_4737A Grief Observed is C. S. Lewis’s journal of his grief when his wife Joy died after a painful battle with cancer.  His stepson, Douglas Gresham, wrote the forward to my copy of this little book.  “All human relationships end in pain–it is the price that our imperfection has allowed Satan to exact from us for the privilege of love,” Gresham writes.  “The greater the love the greater the grief, and the stronger the faith the more savagely will Satan storm its fortress.”  He gives Satan his due for the suffering in this world.  Later in the forward Gresham wrote of his mother’s death and the love she and Lewis shared.  “It almost seems cruel that her death was delayed long enough for him to grow to love her so…

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Good Friday

Journey through the Shadowlands

(From my CaringBridge site in honor and memory of our grandson Sully. Written on Good Friday, 2010.)

On this Good Friday, I remember the suffering of Jesus.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?…But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads: “He trusts in the Lord; let the Lord rescue him….” Roaring lions tearing their prey open their mouths wide against me…My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death…a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands…

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O Sacred Head, Now Wounded

Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand and knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. Matthew 27:27-31

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. If, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Romans 5:6, 8, 10

“O Sacred Head”, this ancient hymn captures the emotion, the humility, the penitence, of the heart of the believer when confronted with the sacrifice of Christ. “Mine, mine was the transgression, But Thine the deadly pain; Lo, here I fall, my Savior!” “What language shall I borrow To thank Thee, dearest Friend.” “O make me Thine forever; And, should I fainting be, Lord, let me never, never, outlive my love to Thee.”

In his singing of this hymn, Fernando Ortega captures the emotion, the heart, the humility, the penitence, the faith of this great hymn. As you listen I pray the Spirit will humble your heart and lift you up. “Lord, let me never, never, outlive my love to Thee.”

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