Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Spring is Coming

In 2008, Christian singer Steven Curtis Chapman lost his youngest daughter, Maria Sue, when she was accidentally hit by a car driven by one of Chapman’s other children. On his 2009 album, “Beauty Will Rise,” Chapman writes about grief, about spring and about longing for the coming resurrection. He sings,

“We planted the seed while the tears of our grief soaked the ground
The sky lost its’ sun and the world lost its’ green to lifeless brown
Now the chill in the wind has turned the Earth hard as stone
And silent the seed lies beneath ice and snow
And my heart’s heavy now, but I’m not letting go
Of this hope I have that tells me


(Chorus)
Spring is coming, Spring is coming
And all we’ve been hoping and longing for
Soon will appear
Spring is coming, Spring is coming
It won’t be long now
It’s just about here

Hear the birds start to sing
Feel the life in the breeze
Watch the ice melt away
The kids are coming out to play
Feel the sun on your skin
Growing strong and warm again
Watch the ground
There’s something moving
Something is breaking through
New life is breaking through


Repeat Chorus

Spring is coming (Out of these ashes beauty will rise)
Spring is coming (Sorrow will be turned to joy)
All we’ve been hoping and longing for (All we’ve hoped for)
Soon will appear (soon will appear)
Spring is coming (Out of the darkness beauty will shine)
Spring is coming (All Earth and Heaven rejoice)
It won’t be long now (Spring is coming soon)
It’s just about here (Spring is coming soon)”


These days, Heather and I are eagerly anticipating spring. It seems like it has been a particularly long and difficult winter. Heather is blessed to be a stay-at-home mother. Because of Owen’s sleeping schedule, it is particularly difficult for Heather to get too far from our home (and Owen’s crib). In order to combat cabin fever, in good weather she has enjoyed taking Micah, during his lifetime, and then Owen, to our little neighborhood park or around a favorite neighborhood walking route.


Unfortunately, the winter weather here in Minnesota has not cooperated with Heather’s attempts to combat cabin fever. We’ve had near-record snowfall, and the temperatures continue to be more typical of February than late March. While the days are getting significantly longer, and the sun is getting higher in the sky, there is still a chill in the air. The brisk winter wind still takes your breath away. The pile of snow in the yard is still fairly significant. There are no buds on the trees, and any grass that is visible is brown.

Just as Heather feels in bondage to the inside of our house, Minnesota seems in bondage to winter. In Romans 8:18-23, Paul talks about how even creation is in bondage to sin until Christ returns. Paul says,
“For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we are saved.”

No doubt about it, we are looking forward to spring. Heather is looking forward to taking Owen to the park again. I’m looking forward to introducing Owen to baseball, the golf course, and walks with Heather around the lakes. But as much as we are looking forward to the change in the weather, our ultimate hope for redemption from our circumstances is in the coming second-coming of Jesus Christ, when He will redeem all suffering, and Jesus will resurrect our son from the dead.

Lord willing, we will someday experience springtime in Minnesota. As in Chapman’s song, we will soon start to feel the sun on our face, see children playing outside again, and the last vestiges of ice melting away. This year, when I see these signs of spring appearing, it will be a reminder to me that, like the coming spring and summer, the Day of our Lord is just about upon us.


At that day, the sound of our groans for redemption will be replaced by the trumpet call. The dank smell of death will be replaced by the smell of life. Our dark days of grief and lonesomeness for Micah will be lost in the illumined brightness of seeing Jesus face-to-face. The earth over the top of Micah’s grave will be removed, and I will no longer be limited to touching only his gravestone, but will touch him, his hair and his hands.


How excited are we for spring? Are we just as excited about the second-coming of Jesus? Just as expectant? Are you ready for that day? As excited as I am for ballgames, golf rounds, and strolls around the lake this summer, I have no doubt that the joy we experience this spring and summer will pale in comparison to our joy of finally seeing our Savior and our son once again.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Another Blessing from God

Heather and I are excited to share with you some great news--we are expecting again! Lord willing, we will welcome Baby #3 into our home in mid-August. This morning’s 19-week ultrasound revealed a healthy baby. Unfortunately, due to the baby’s position, we were not able to definitively determine the baby’s gender (the technician’s opinion is that the baby is a boy). Regardless, we feel very blessed about the possibility of welcoming another child to our home.

One of my two brothers was present with me as Micah died. In that hospital room immediately following Micah’s death, my brother asked to read from Romans 11, verses 33-36.
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!
Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?
Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen


I have thought a lot about our path and this passage since Micah’s death. God’s path for us over the past two years is never something that we could have predicted. If our lives were up to us, we would still have Micah with us. If it were up to us, our path would have taken different turns than paths to emergency rooms and funeral homes and cemeteries. If it were up to us, we would have walked the path of loving our oldest son for longer than just those nine sweet months.
We admit that we don’t know why God would give us our oldest son, then take him away from us just as quickly. His reasons for taking Micah are still so very confusing to us. Why would God give us Micah, then take him away, only to give us two more children? Why aren’t God’s ways simpler? Why involve so very much heartache? Clearly, God’s reasons are “beyond tracing out.”
It is easy to say that God, in his eternal wisdom and love, has given us Owen and now, Lord willing, Baby #3. It is difficult to say that God was right in taking Micah so soon. But if God is the God of all circumstances, then God was not asleep when Micah died. Instead, Romans 11 tells us that God, in his eternal wisdom and knowledge, took Micah away. Be happy for us, my friends, that God’s judgments appear to include provision for Heather and me to enjoy the opportunity to steward the life of yet another of God’s children. But also rejoice with me, friends, that God’s ways are eternally wise, that even in the death of our little boy, we can trust His goodness. Even when our grief is greater than what we can seem to bear, we can trust that God is actually working through our pain and the suffering in ways that are too great for us to possibly understand.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Our Sons at 9 Months


Shortly before he died, we had a professional photographer take some "9 month" pictures of Micah. Last month, Owen reached and surpassed the same 9-month mark. As we did with Micah, we had Owen sit for his "9 month" pictures. You'll notice that Owen fills out the same outfit just as well as Micah did.
It has been a difficult month for Heather and me. We have taken several trips to Children's Hospital and urgent care to deal with hand, foot, and mouth disease, RSV, pneumonia and just last night, a very high temperature. It has been a month of anxienty--too much anxiety. While God has brought us through this month with Owen in good health, it feels like we keep re-learning what it means to trust God.
Owen has brought joy and laughter to our house. There are two large pictures of Micah in Owen's bedroom. When Owen gets up from a nap, we usually hold Owen next to one of these pictures and say his name. In response, Owen lets out a happy yelp or chatter, and waves his little hand at the picture of his big brother. We think that Owen already knows Micah's name. Lord willing, Owen will grow up to know all about his big brother Micah.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Trusting God Through Tragedy

A friend asked me to write a short paper on whether I continue to believe that God is sovereign and loving after Micah's death. Here are my thoughts:

************************************************************

For most of my life, I have believed what the Christian Bible says about God. Along with most Bible-believing Christians, I believe that God is both sovereign and loving. Admittedly, however, until tragedy struck, intellectual objections to the goodness or sovereignty of God seemed esoteric. Significant suffering was something that happened to “other people.” My life seemed to go going along quite well, and, as a result, it was easy for me to espouse the traditional Christian view about God.

In July of 2009, I experienced a type of suffering that I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy—the death of my oldest son. Our little oldest son Micah, then nine months of age, was in perfect health. He loved to play with his parents, to laugh at our dog, and to wave his little hand at passers-by. He would be content to ride in our stroller as my wife, Heather, and I pushed him around our neighborhood or around one of the lakes of South Minneapolis.

On Thursday afternoon, July 23rd, 2009, Micah had fallen out of his high chair reaching for his toes. While he sustained a black eye from his fall, no one felt that his condition was serious, much less life-threatening. On each of the next two days, various pediatric doctors saw Micah because he developed a low fever and an unusual cough. The doctors diagnosed Micah with pneumonia, probably as a result of inhaling something down his lung when he fell. However, the doctors were not concerned. They felt that whatever was causing his pneumonia in his lung would probably dissolve in a matter of days, and he would be back to his normal, energetic self in short order.

On Sunday morning, July 26th, I drove to the local Target to fill a prescription. When I arrived home, my wife came running out of our house screaming at me, “Micah has stopped breathing! Micah has stopped breathing!” Within two minutes, the EMTs arrived. A few minutes later, the ambulance arrived. But no one could revive Micah. The gravity of the situation hit my wife first, then it hit me. I held my wife in my arms on our kitchen floor as we screamed and cried together, praying as earnestly as we could that God would allow our little son to take a breath and come back to us. But God didn’t answer our prayer. We never heard him cry again.

Micah was eventually taken to Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis, where the doctors were finally able to revive Micah’s breathing. But after nearly one hour without oxygen, there was no hope for any brain activity. Over the next 24 hours, we prayed that our sovereign and good God would miraculously heal our little boy. But by 10 am the next morning, we were told that Micah had so little brain activity remaining that there was no hope for recovery. We were told that we needed to say goodbye to our pride and joy, our little boy. After a very emotional family gathering around Micah’s bedside, each of us had our own opportunity to say our last goodbyes. Heather, deciding that she could not be in the room when Micah’s ventilator was removed, said her final “goodbye” by encouraging Micah to, “Run to Jesus, sweetie, run to Jesus.” A few minutes later, I held my son in my arms as the doctors removed the ventilator and other equipment that was keeping our son breathing. In the single greatest moment of anguish that I have ever or will ever experience, my son’s little heart stopped beating.

Following Micah’s death, doctors determined that Micah had aspirated a pea when he had fallen from his highchair trying to touch his toes. The following Sunday morning, when trying to cough up the pea, the pea became lodged in his windpipe. The pea lodged itself in just such a manner as to block any airflow. According to pediatricians, the chances of this occurring are infinitely small.

No longer just an esoteric or theoretical question, Heather and I have grappled with this very real question of how a good and sovereign God, if He exists, could allow this happen. If God could create the stars, planets and the human body, master the precision of gravitational forces, how could He allow a pea to kill our son? How could this happen to our son, when no pediatrician has even heard of this ever happening before? But rather than pushing me away from God, Micah’s death has, paradoxically, actually drawn me closer to God. Looking back at my life since Micah died, I believe that Micah’s life and death has impacted me in many ways that are consistent with what the Bible says, generally, about how and why God uses significant personal suffering to achieve His purposes. Allow me to briefly share three ways in which Micah’s death has changed me and caused me to trust even more fully in a sovereign and loving God.



STRENGTH

First, Micah’s death has provided an insight into my own powerlessness and God’s strength. Most cultural leaders tell us that in order to be successful, we need to trust in our own strength—“to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.” Most of us live by the credo penned by Ralph Waldo Emerson when he wrote, "Trust thyself, every heart vibrates to that iron string. Discontent is the want of self-reliance. It is infirmity of will."[1] Similarly, 7-time Tour de France cycling champion Lance Armstrong lives by the mantra, “Live Strong. “ But I can't think of phrases and ways of life that are completely contradictory to how I now live my life. Rather than a “Self-Reliance” or “Live Strong” mantra, my day-to-day mantra is more like "Live Weak." To the extent that I used to rely on my own efforts, my own self-will, I can do it no longer. The death of my son is, among other things, the clearest demonstration possible that that I am not, in any way, “the captain of my ship…and the master of my soul.”[2]

During Micah’s lifetime, I pictured my future as being a good dad to my son. I envisioned helping Micah with his homework, fixing his broken bike, or talking him through important decisions. I thought I be the “fix-it” man for my son. But on that Sunday morning, July 26th, 2009, I learned that I am absolutely powerless, on my own, to carry out my dream of being the “fix it” man for Micah. In that whirlwind of activity, all of my strength, my knowledge, my love for my son didn’t make a difference. After a half hour of failing to resuscitate my son on our living room floor, the paramedics moved Micah out of our living room to the ambulance. So instead of helping my son with homework, broken toys, sports teams, relationships, school, job and life choices, I found myself doing the only thing I could—holding the door for my son’s now-lifeless body and the paramedics as they quickly left the house, never to return. And with them departed whatever sense of control, strength and self-reliance I had left.

Micah’s death has caused me to believe, subjectively, what has always been objectively true—that I am an impotent little creature previously mistaken about my ability to affect change or accomplish goals. Ironically, the Bible teaches that this realization of powerless, this self-emptying of pride, is a good thing. Jesus taught that it was through weakness that God’s power would be demonstrated. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught that, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted."[3]

In his second letter to the Corinthian church, the early Christian leader Paul notes how he pleaded with God, in prayer, to remove certain suffering from his life. Eventually, God made it clear to Paul that God was purposely choosing not to answer Paul’s prayer in order that, through Paul’s suffering and resulting weakness, God’s power might best be demonstrated. Of God’s response to his prayers for healing, Paul writes, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”[4]
I cannot honestly claim to want suffering in my life, as Paul did. But I can attest to how God has used my weakness to showcase His own power. I have no other explanation as to how I can even keep a job, stay married, and be even remotely conversant at social functions. If it were up to me, if it were up to my own ability to “pull myself up by my own bootstraps,” I would have given up on life following Micah’s death. But by breaking me of my self-reliance, God has demonstrated His power to me.



JOY

Second, God has used Micah’s life and tragic death to begin to change the source of joy and happiness in my life. I cannot adequately describe my anguish as I sat in the hospital next to my little son’s body. I determined in those moments that, so long as I live on earth, there could never possibly be any set of earthly circumstances that could provide my wife and me with sufficient joy to make up for our loss. As much joy as marriage, children and family have (and will) bring to us, there will always be a place missing at the dinner table, a child absent from family pictures, and gifts lying unopened under the Christmas tree. His death has left such a void in our hearts and in our home that no set of circumstances can ever make us or our family “whole.” The moment that my son’s little heart stopped beating, my dreams for happiness on this earth died along with him.

Micah’s death has caused me to re-examine every aspect of my life and where I find joy and happiness in my life. Is my joy from my job? But what happens when I lose it? Is my joy in my hobbies, my athletic pursuits or my entertainment? What happens when I lose my sight or my ability to run or walk? Is my joy in my spouse and children? What happens when my child or spouse dies? How will I have any ability to carry on in life if all of my joy was centered solely in my child or spouse? To the extent that you use your life circumstances as the sole means for joy in your life, I believe that you are living in a dream world, for sooner or later the fa├žade will come crashing down, and you will have nothing left. What of joy then? Where will your joy come from then?

Rather than suffering as a demonstration that there is no good God, I see suffering as God’s clear demonstration to us that joy in life cannot be lived centered around our circumstances. It is not that God is cruel and doesn’t want us to experience joy—He wants us to experience joy. But rather than allowing us to live in the artificial joy of happiness in circumstances, God desires that we have a profound, eternal joy. This eternal joy can only be found through His son, Jesus Christ. Jesus himself told His disciples that the reason for his teaching was for our eternal joy. He said, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”[5]

In the Bible, we see several examples of people centering their affections for God and not their own circumstances. One of these was King David who, as King of Israel, led the Israel through its greatest, most successful years. But rather than focus on his own circumstances and significant earthly successes as the source of his happiness, David tells us that it was God that ultimately brought him joy. In Psalm 27, David says, “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.”[6] David said, “I say to the Lord, ‘You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you’…The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot.”[7]

Heather and I want to follow David’s lead in finding ultimate joy in God. Suffering has a way of souring the taste of anything that competes with one’s affections for God. Like David, we have come to believe that no earthly joy tastes as sweet as a joy centered in God.[8] It is my hope that Micah’s death serves to increase my joy in God alone.

SIGNIFICANCE

Third, through Micah’s death I have recognized the degree to which God brings significance to all of life, even to life’s darkest hours. Rather than believing that God was “asleep at the switch” when that pea blocked Micah’s windpipe, I believe that God’s designs for Micah’s life are greater than what I could have imagined, and that He is somehow using Micah’s death to achieve his purposes. Of course, this means that we must live in faith that God is indeed good and working in ways we cannot see.

The author of the Biblical book of Hebrews writes, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen…And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”[9] One of the greatest biblical examples of faith in the Bible is the story of Abraham. In the book of Genesis we are told that God promised Abraham that he would become the father of a great nation—what would become the nation of Israel. But God took his time to fulfill this pledge. Not until well past their child-bearing years did God finally and miraculously give Abraham and his wife a son, Isaac. Later, when Isaac was still a boy, God commanded Abraham to take Isaac to a nearby mountain and sacrifice him.[10] Obediently, Abraham took Isaac up the side of a mountain. At just the last moment, when Abraham’s knife was raised to sacrifice his long-awaited son, a ram was provided as a substitute sacrifice.

In Abraham’s case, the story ended well. Isaac was spared, and Abraham became the father of the nation of Israel. But not many of us will achieve anything close to Abraham’s earthly significance, particularly our children who, like Micah, are lost in infancy. Many parents who lose a young child struggle over the lack of significance that other people attach to their child’s life. In the minds of the parents, the child never even had the opportunity to succeed, to accomplish something, to be significant. And, if there is nothing beyond our sensory experiences, then achievement, fame and fortune alone dictate significance, and the death of a young child is truly insignificant.

But rather than thinking that Micah’s little life was insignificant, we believe that it is significant because God is using it to accomplish his designs. One of the most audacious claims of the Bible is that regardless of where we go, we cannot escape God. Even in death, God is there.[11] God holds the power to give life and take life. Since God is using each and every action to accomplish something greater in our lives, every life is significant. Who knows the full impact that Micah and his death had on us, our family and friends, the medical community, and others? It would be highly presumptuous of us to think his death had no meaning when we lack the omnipotence to fully understand how God uses human events to achieve his purposes.

The Bible does not apologize for the clear fact that God sometimes chooses to use the worst human suffering imaginable to achieve his purposes. Based upon the descriptions of Jesus in the Bible, Jesus deserved human acclaim. He healed the sick, taught about love, and challenged hypocritical religious leaders. He deserved to be significant in the eyes of the world, and to become a “significant” person in the eyes of the world like a president, king, or emperor. But instead of becoming the new king of Israel, he died an agonizing death on a cross. Through the cross, Christians believed that He accomplished something more than He ever could have accomplished if He had been just a great political ruler. Through his perfect life and agonizing death, we believe that Jesus redeemed my life, and the lives of all of His followers, for all time.

The cross of Christ is the symbol of hope for Christians in the midst of even the most terrible circumstances, for it means that there is meaning and not absurdity in the cruelest of all human sufferings and that, somehow, God will turn our greatest sufferings into our greatest joys. God promises that just as He used Christ’s great suffering to bring about great purposes, so also He works in our lives, even in our darkest hours, to accomplish His purposes.[12] The Bible says that, “…neither death nor life…nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[13] Even though we continue to struggle at times with why God’s plan must involve our earthly separation from our son, Heather and I continue to see Christ’s death and resurrection as a clear demonstration that God can indeed use Micah’s death to achieve His plan.

I often return to the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son as a source of encouragement in my own faith. The story is indeed difficult to understand; in many ways, it doesn’t make logical sense. But to me, that is the point. Like us, Abraham had the capacity for logic; he could have questioned (or defied) God’s demand because it didn’t make logical sense. But Abraham, without questioning God or his ways, was ready to be obedient to God, even to the point of the death of his own son at his own hand. In the book of Hebrews, we are told that as Abraham led Isaac up that mountain, he considered his son already dead. Abraham, “considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.”[14]

For Heather and me, we have learned that we must walk as Abraham walked with God—in faith. We will not know what purposes God achieved through Micah and his death, at least not until we see God and Micah again. Even through anger at God, unfulfilled dreams and nights of weeping, we believe that God’s plan for us and Micah involve peas wider than windpipes, little graves, and short earthly lifetimes. We believe that God has power over death, and can bring significance even through Micah’s death. Through these difficult circumstances, our faith, the “assurance of things hoped for,” has become dearer to us than it ever has before.

Someday, I will hold my little Micah again in Heaven. Our happiness in being together will have not been reduced by the pea that stuck in Micah’s throat. Instead, we will be able to spend eternity together learning about the endless wisdom and power of God, worshipping God for how He divinely orchestrated human history to display His wonderful attributes to us. Until then, I can be thankful, and live in faith, that God uses events in our lives to teach us more about Him, including how He wants us to find strength, joy, and significance in Him.

[1] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance.
[2] William Earnest Henley, Invictus.
[3] Matthew 5:3-4.
[4] 2 Corinthians 12:9-10.
[5] John 15:11.
[6] Psalm 27:4.
[7] Psalm 16:2,5.
[8] Psalm 34:8.
[9] Hebrews 11:1, 6.
[10] Genesis 22.
[11] Psalm 139.
[12]About God’s power, Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
[13] Romans 8:38-39.
[14] Hebrews 11:18-19.