Friday, January 25, 2013

The Death of a Child

Children’s funerals are the hardest part of being a pastor. I’ve conducted several during my years of ministry, and they get more and more difficult. The sight of a small casket in front of weeping parents is the most heart-wrenching thing I know of.

Our church went through it last week. A baby girl—the first child of one of our precious young couples—struggled for a few days after birth then died. It sometimes happens that way. For whatever reason a baby will have so many physical challenges that their bodies simply can’t go on.

My wife and I walked into the hospital room just a few moments before she died. The young parents were seated together on a small couch, with the dad holding his daughter on his chest. She wasn’t much bigger than his hand. They were surrounded in the room by their family. A few medical people hovered around the walls of the room. The nurses wept along with the family.

After the child died, the young couple did what Jesus followers do—they asked for prayer. Of course, they’d been praying all along for their daughter’s healing. But at the end prayer took on a deeper resonance. Now they prayed from the dark intersection where loss slams headlong into faith, and you’re not sure what spiritual wreckage may result. It’s the place described so well in the Bible, where Job proclaims, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the Name of the Lord.”

Not everyone is able to believe as Job did. Sometimes the loss is simply too great. Through the years I’ve seen it happen many times: a great personal loss is followed by the loss of faith. The first tragedy is then compounded by the second.

That wasn’t the case with this young couple, and I saw why at the funeral a few days later. The best way I know how to tell what happened is by describing the concentric circles formed by the people gathered around the grave. The first circle was that of the parents with their child’s casket. But they weren’t by themselves. Their extended family gathered close around them, holding their hands, gripping their shoulders. Letting them know through their touch that they weren’t alone. There was then a third circle, almost as closely pressed. That was the large group of other young couples, their friends and fellow Jesus followers in their Sunday School class that they go to church with every Sunday and live alongside during the week. Further out you could see other friends and co-workers. And then, further away but still very close, invisible to the naked eye but very much present in the spiritual realm, there was that great company that surrounds us all as we move through this life toward glory.

None of us this side of heaven can know everything we wish we could know about tragedy and loss and the pain that goes along with it. But here are a few random thoughts about what it looks like when we follow Jesus through the death of a child:

·         There are no easy answers for why children die and when people try to find easy answers it almost always leaves you feeling frustrated and angry.

·         Figuring out how to hang onto faith when you suffer catastrophic loss is the hardest thing any of us will ever deal with.

·         Everyone grieves differently. How you grieve is how you grieve and you don’t have to apologize for it or explain it to anyone. Just because you’re grieving doesn’t mean that you don’t have faith.

·         The people around us make healthy grieving possible. Without them, grieving can become an oppressive experience that robs us of the future. With them, grieving can actually move us to a deeper awareness of the preciousness of life.

·         The Lord is near to the broken-hearted. I can say this with certainty because I’ve witnessed it so many times.

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