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On September twenty-first, 2014 I preached a message in our church from Acts twenty-seven entitled, How to be Brave. The narrative in that passage describes a time when the apostle Paul was involved in a terror-inducing, slow motion, shipwreck. Keeping with the nautical theme, the application centered on the anchors Paul held firm to that gave him courage as his ship was abused by the sea. I talked about the things that made him brave. I said “One thing that Christ did not promise Paul as he set off to do his work: He did not promise him smooth sailing along the way.”
Little did I know at the time, but of all the waves that had hit me over the previous four months, beginning with the death of my mother, a tumultuous staff shake up, and a very painful church split, that just nine hours later I would be hit with a rogue wave that would knock me off my feet like a day sailor. The sudden death of our twenty-eight year old son Joseph from an undetected blood clot that had formed in his leg, traveled to his lungs, and took him from us before our eyes. There were times in the weeks to follow, that it all seemed almost too much to bear.
Near the end of that September message from Acts, I had announced to our congregation that the following week I was going to be speaking from Romans eight, specifically verses twenty-eight and twenty-nine which declares, “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. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.”
I heard Tim Keller once say, “the gospel does not promise me better life circumstances; it promises me a better life.” That phrase, long stuck in my head, would now be tested in my own life.
In Romans eight Paul, a man, not unacquainted with suffering and earthly grief, freely talks about the effects of sin, not only in the lives of people but also in the whole creation. Giving poetic consciousness to the physical world he says in verse twenty that all of creation like all of mankind, has been subjected to utter frustration. And that constant, stomach-churning frustration has given way to a relentless groaning and longing to be freed; to finally and forever become what it, and we, know we were always meant to be.
He doesn’t buffer the truth, or try to make it more palatable by wrapping it in with soft literary cushions, but instead in verse twenty-three starkly asserts, “ . . . we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” We, all of us, all of it, wait to be freed. We wait for the frustration to end. We wait for the groaning to cease. We wait to be finally and fully, satisfied.
There are a couple of major, misconceptions from this passage that have inadvertently long been gleaned by those who groan, which far from bringing comfort, have only added to the anguish and grief that they feel.
In the immediate aftermath of our shattering loss, many wonderful people came to us and said things like, “This should not have happened to you,” and, “you don’t deserve this,” and the “you” was emphatic. Their meaning was all too clear. Someone who is serving God, someone who has raised their children to honor him, someone who has helped so many others over a long ministry should not have to suffer what we were suffering. Good things should happen to good people, and bad things should happen to bad people. The logic seemed unassailable. But far from bringing the comfort they intended, their well-meaning words only served to frustrate us more.
Paul says again and again in Romans eight that the gospel does not promise me better life circumstances; it promises me a better life, both here and now, and there and then. Paul himself was the poster boy for such a consideration.
Another error that some have mistakenly gathered from this passage is thinking that sufferings and deep frustration along with the accompanying groans that shadow them, should be looked at by right thinking Christians, as good in themselves. Talk about frustration. Let me say this about that: Those who look at terrorist atrocities, Ebola in Africa, typhoons in Asia, a fifty-four year old worker shoved out of his or her job for a cheaper substitute, divorce, or the death of those whom we love whose passing have left gaping holes in our hearts as good things, are either morally bankrupt, borderline lunatics, or just terribly, brutally mistaken. I’m not sure there are any other options.
Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus because what had happened was bad. It was really bad. It was intrinsically wrong. Something had happened that was never meant to be, which resulted in broken hearts and, oh so much grief. And the Son of God groaned.
I know good when I see it, and when my brain reminds me of the thousands of singular experiences we endured alongside our dear son through a lifetime of groaning, it was anything but good.
Often snapshots; single photos, give insight to the telling of a larger story. That was true when I think of our son Joseph. Once when he was a toddler, Marianne had set food before him in his little high chair, but instead of reaching for the food, as he normally would, he paused, stared frozen for a few short seconds, then in one violent, sweeping motion knocked his sippy-cup and lunch off of the high chair tray, before bursting into uncontrollable tears. As a parent you say to yourself, tantrum. He’s a toddler. We get it, we read the book. That’s pretty normal stuff from time to time. But it was not until years later that we came to realize that it was more than that. That something in his brain told him that this whole scene was wrong; it was frustrating, and intolerable, and he needed to be free from it.
I guess it was that same malfunction, which came into play one time when he was about six or seven. He scored a goal in a soccer game, which normally is a very good thing. But immediately after scoring the goal, as his teammates cheered his achievement and rushed to congratulate him, he stopped, stared, clenched his fists and let out a primordial scream from his inner world of frustration and turmoil, frightening and mortifying his mother and I.
It was about that time I remember saying to Marianne, “Has a day ever gone by without this child crying about something?” We later came to understand that his tears were not the tears of a bratty kid. His problems would not be remedied by discipline, or threats. These were the actions of a little boy who was just utterly, completely frustrated. But at the time we still didn’t know. Is this merely a lack of self-control? Was it something else? Were we being too soft? Too hard? Who knew? We never knew. We just never knew.
I remember a scene when he was in fourth grade that shook us into the realization that this was not a child that needed correction, but one who needed help. In the wee hours of the night we found Joseph crawling on all fours around the perimeter of his bedroom, looking in every nook and cranny for bugs that he feared had crept in. In spite of our assurances that there were no bugs, he continued his painstaking search. Once he had finished his sweep of the room, he began all over again, since as he tried to explain to us, in the time that it took for him to go through his room, a spider may have stolen in undetected. Around and around he went. Frustrated.
Or the picture of him at his birthday party at the neighborhood bowling alley. After pizza, his birthday cake was placed before him and on cue, all the kids started to sing ‘Happy Birthday’. But instead of basking in the moment, he crawled under the table and began to scream. I felt like crawling under there too, as both children and parents stared at us in embarrassed silence. We were frustrated trying to understand. We stopped singing after that.
The first highly recommended counselor we saw told us after just two visits, “I’m sorry, I can’t help him. He needs medication and that can only be prescribed by a psychiatrist.” A psychiatrist? Did we really need to go that far? Was he really that bad?” We went. The initial diagnosis was Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Although difficult, we knew that lots of people live very productive lives with OCD. We read books. The psychiatrist prescribed medication, and it seemed to help, taking the edge off of whatever it was that was wrong with him. And for a time his frustration level seemed to ratchet down, and so did ours. There were long stretches when he seemed almost normal.
In spite of the help the medication brought, we were never really comfortable with pumping our son with drugs, especially since there were no long term studies on the effect on young children taking the medications he was on. So somewhere during his junior high years, we stopped medicating him. We watched him carefully, and thankfully, he seemed no worse. We had great hope that perhaps he would truly be able to live a decent, fairly regular existence.
He did seem to live a normal life through his high school years. Normal can mean a lot of things, but he was certainly functional. We knew that he still struggled internally, but there were times of laughter and fun. He had a dry sense of humor and took great joy in sending well placed zingers in the general direction of his younger sisters at the dinner table. I think I laughed harder at his playful barbs than was warranted, because it helped me believe that he was getting better. It was as if I was willing him to be so. But then we would observe him involved in some bizarre ritual and slowly became convinced that his struggles seemed to go beyond the original diagnosis.
To those on the outside who casually came in contact with Joseph, he seemed like an average kid. Shy, retiring, sure, but not weird or anything. One of the most frustrating things for us throughout most of his life was when well-meaning people, people whom we had confided in concerning the difficulties we grappled with would say things like, “He seems totally fine to me. Are you sure there is a problem?” We learned not to talk too much about it.
But he continued to battle inside. He was frequently off in his own world. I would see him going through his gyrations and paces, which is a common companion to all who struggle as he did. Checking, rechecking, inspecting the underside of his dinner plate every night, walking through a doorway, then backing up and walking through the doorway again, washing his hands and rising, and rinsing, and rinsing. Over time he learned to cover things up well. We came to see that it was the reason most casual observers had misconceptions of his seeming stability.
My son was not unintelligent, quite the opposite; but he couldn’t pass tests in school. We discovered that the main problem was not cognitive, but practical. Since he spend huge chunks of time going through the demands placed on him by his disability, time would invariably run out on him, and he was forced to hand in half completed assignments and exams. This was easily remedied when he was given extra time to finish. He did very well after that.
He was involved in things. He was a regular part of the youth group at our church. He went on mission trips. He played the drums on the worship team. He had a few friends, not a lot, but a few.
He almost never confided in us what was going on in his head. I’m not sure he could. Perhaps he was afraid to do so. Mostly, I think he just didn’t understand it all himself. I knew he was made fun of a lot at school, because one day in a weak, transparent, moment, he let that bit of information slip out. He was different, and different kids are an easy mark. It broke my heart when I heard it, though I suspected it had been the case all along.
I remember one day when his struggles were at their peak, and our frustration level through the roof, I said to my wife “if this kid ever makes it to his high school graduation, we have to promise to look at each other when they call his name, and together whisper a silent prayer of thanks to God.” He did, and we did. Again we thought that perhaps better days were ahead.
He was accepted into Montclair State University here in New Jersey and that fall began classes. Before he began though, his mother urged him to apply for the same special privileges afforded him through his junior high and high school years; getting a little extra time to finish his exams and assignments. But he bristled at the thought. This time, he insisted, he was going to have no special privileges. If he was going to make it, he was going to make it totally on his own. He got mostly A’s and a few B’s those first two years at MSU. He got a job in the school library. He still struggled privately, but we were guardedly happy and hopeful to see his life moving along.
Then in September, two weeks into his junior year, he came home and announced to us that he had withdrawn from all of his classes. He told us that he just couldn’t do it anymore. We were alarmed and disappointed, but we thought that perhaps he just needed some space. “He’ll go back after a while” we thought. But inside my own frustration level with him began to ratchet up.
By then he had left the library and was working a part-time job at Bed Bath and Beyond. Since he was no longer attending classes, he was able go pick up a few more hours there. He worked. He saved almost every penny he made. He bought a car all by himself from his savings. I remember going down to the Valley National Bank with him to make his final car payments a few years later. It was a major life passage. If he wasn’t going to fulfill some of the hopes and dreams we had for him, he at least would be able to take care of himself, and we were thankful for that.
He was still coming to church, but now when he wasn’t working, he stayed mostly at home. He began to very slowly withdraw from his few outside interests. Fear, worry, and anxiety began to once again, gradually paralyze him. And as we observed our oldest child’s suffering and frustration slowly increase, our own did in like measure. Our pain seemed to be linked with his own. A year or two later he came home and announced that he had given Bed, Bath and Beyond his notice, and soon would be leaving his job. He never worked again.
Marianne and I, seeing his downhill spiral, began once again with the rounds of doctors, each one giving us their best, educated, alphabet guess as to what was ailing him. O.C.D., A.D.D., A.D.H.D., clinical depression, bipolar depressed, Asperger’s, somewhere on the spectrum of autism, . . . on, and on, and on it went.
He went back on medication. Abilify, Neurontin, Prozac, Buspar, Wellbutrin, Cymbalta, Risperdal, Cogentin, Celexa, and a dozen or more other drugs, lined our kitchen counter at one time or another. One doctor would give us a new diagnosis and put him on a round of medication that had worked on other patients. When that didn’t seem to help, they tried another. When that didn’t work we went to the next expert, who put him on yet another medication that they had had great success with. We were always searching for that elusive key that would unlock the mystery that was our son. We came to expect failure. Why could these doctors help others, but not our son?
He helped me around the house. He learned how to paint and assisted me in odd jobs. Once again I thought that maybe he would be able to hold down a simple job in the future. He could do things.
Then there was another portrait; another glimpse into his soul that showed me the reality of his descent that I had been denying. Joe and I were painting a new front porch at my father’s house, when he suddenly stopped, and very apologetically said, “Dad I can’t do this, I can’t do this anymore.” He put his brush down, sat on a bench, and just hung his head with his eyes closed for the next forty-five minutes. He was not being lazy, he didn’t need to be properly motivated, there was something wrong inside which slowly was robbing him of the ability to do even simple things that he had been able to do before.
He began to slowly shed himself of human contact. He would go to bed in the wee hours of the morning just before the rest of the family rose, and then retreat to his room until mid afternoon. There were times when, according to his doctor’s advice, we would come down firmly on him, being told that he had developed bad habits that we needed to break him of. He needed to be pushed into self-sufficiency they said. Then we would see something that made us think that his problems were beyond him, and we would soften up once again. One thing was constant . . . we never, ever, ever, had confidence that we were doing the right thing. Never. We were always terribly frustrated.
Then in October, 2012 Superstorm Sandy, the largest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded came ashore on the New Jersey coast. The casualties in terms of lost property, livelihood, and lives are well known in these parts. One of the unknown casualties of that storm was our son Joseph.
We were without electricity as was most everyone else along the coast and the northeast part of the state. We thanked God that we had a little fireplace to generate some warmth in the living room where we huddled. Even after the power finally was restored more than a week later, we remained without cable or the Internet for another two weeks. Joseph couldn’t watch television, or listen to his beloved sports radio during that time, and something happened. Since there was nothing to distract him, all the fears, and all his maladies, and the full reservoir of frustration that were partially pacified and held back for so long, came bursting out.
It was one night near the end of that storm period when Joseph called his mother upstairs. We looked at each other a bit startled because he had never requested a private conversation with either of us before. I knew it had to be something serious. The two of them talked in our bedroom for a long while. As I sat in the cold confines of the family room wondering what was going on for what seemed like an eternity, I began to fear the worst. Marianne eventually stumbled down the stairs with Joseph trailing behind. She had a look of fear on her face, and silently mouthed three words to me, “We need help.” I knew instantly that we had entered into a new, desperate phase.
Joseph had confided in her about his struggle with what seemingly were psychotic episodes that his tortured mind had been taking him through. He was playing out scenes of terrible and destructive things, and was genuinely fearful of what he might do. That night we slept with one eye open. Sometime after 2am he came up to our room, woke us and said to me “Dad I think I turned all the gas on in the house.” I went downstairs, but he hadn’t, he only thought he had. Even after assuring him repeatedly that everything was fine, he wasn’t sure if he could believe me.
The next day on November 8th, we had him placed in the psychiatric ward of a local general hospital. The staff there was overworked and the accommodations were, charitably speaking, simple. Now there was more self-condemnation, and more frustration for Marianne and I. The night we left him in that ward, we got into our car, and we wept. We couldn’t believe that it had come to this. Our son, our first-born child was confined to a psychiatric ward of a hospital because he was a threat to himself and others. We visited him every night, and twice on Saturday and Sunday for the three weeks he was in that hospital. It was a nightmare.
The night before Thanksgiving was the first time Marianne was not able to accompany me to the hospital because she had to go to the airport and pick up our daughter Kaitlin who was coming in from Colorado for the holiday. We had hoped and prayed that Joseph could be released so that he could spend Thanksgiving with us, but days before his doctor had informed us that he could not be discharged. In fact, he let us know the Joseph would probably have to stay there for quite some time.
As I sat with him that evening, sad and depressed, one of the nurses on staff approached me. By God’s providence, He had arranged for a dear woman, a nurse and a member of our church to be in that ward that evening. She took me aside and said, “Pastor Tim would you like to take Joseph home with you tonight if it could be arranged?” I almost began to cry right there and then. I was overjoyed. I told Joseph the good news and said to him “Let’s not call mom and the girls, let’s just show up and surprise them!” Two hours later we walked through the front door to tears and hugs. It was one of the happiest moments in my entire life. The next day was the best Thanksgiving I had ever experienced.
But Joseph never really got better; in fact he continued to slide. His withdrawal became deeper. We prayed. We begged others to pray. He was able to do less and less things. Then in March of 2014 a woman from our church told us of another highly regarded and sought after psychiatrist who had greatly helped a member of her own family go from being house-bound to living a normal life. She was sure that this doctor could succeed where others had failed, so we went. We once again had a glimmer of hope.
She seemed very skilled and quite certain she could help him. There was more medication. Dosages were increased. When one didn’t work, there was another to be tried. Then after seeing Joseph for a few months with not much change in him, she looked at Marianne and I at the end of one of our sessions clearly frustrated and said, “I’m not sure were to go from here. I’m not sure what to do.” We walked out of her office devastated. Frustrated. We felt there was nowhere else to go.
Then came Sunday, September 21st. After church I joined a bunch of folks from our worship team who went out to a local restaurant to thank and say good-bye to our Worship/Arts Director who was leaving our staff. I went home after and saw Joseph in his customary position, lying on the couch, watching his beloved New York Giants finally win their first game of the season.
I said to him “Now Joe after the game we are going to go for a walk together and get some exercise like the doctor told us to do, and then you have to take a shower.” Showers had become an almost unbearable task for him, why, I was never entirely sure. He begged me like a frightened child not to make him take a shower. “Pease dad, you don’t understand, I just can’t do it.” I firmly insisted that he shower that evening.
While he showered, I sat on the top step of the staircase, listening to Joseph labor in he bathroom as I spoke to my father on the phone. He finally finished, and retreated to his room only to retrace his steps back to the bathroom; back into the shower, then out again. Then back in again since he was never sure that he had rinsed himself thoroughly. I could hear him breathing heavily. He seemed to be having a panic attack of some sort. I was annoyed and exasperated more than anything, and told my dad that I would have to call him back since there seemed to be something wrong with Joe.
I went in to him as he sat on his bed. He couldn’t seem to catch his breath. I called Marianne to come into his room. We tried to calm him down. We had him breath into a paper bag. I said to him “Joe if you don’t calm down I am going to have to call 911.” He said “No, please don’t call them, I will be alright.” But he wasn’t. Finally Marianne went out into the hallway to call the paramedics. Seconds later, he slipped to one knee, leaned forward and fell face down next to the nightstand.
So much happened in the next minutes. The whole, panicked, horrible scene is forever etched in our minds. Suffice to say we tried to revive our son, but by the time the paramedics got there I knew he was gone.
Romans eight is all about living in a suffering world marked by brokenness. Paul talks about trouble, and persecution, and nakedness, and poverty, and how Christians are supposed to live in a world like that. He wrote, “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.”
Has anything good come from the death of my son? Honestly, I can say, yes. For instance, we reconnected with a couple that we used to be very close to years ago. Time and life circumstances conspired together and we just drifted apart. No hard feelings or anything like that, we just went down different paths. The last time we had seen them years before we said, “We’ll get together again soon.” But it never happened. Through Facebook they saw of Joseph’s death and they showed up at his funeral. It was so good to see them. That was a good thing.
There was another person, an estranged friend really, who likewise we hadn’t seen in a long time. Things didn’t end well. Complicated. Over the course of the viewing and the funeral and in the weeks after, we reestablished our friendship. Through my son’s death, any raw feelings seemed to all wash away. That was a truly good thing.
We saw through his death people rise up and show us generosity, and compassion, and love that at times simply stunned us. It was not that they didn’t love us before, but they just didn’t have a good opportunity to show us their love. Now, in the most desperate time of our lives, they did. Paul in Romans 12 said “Love must be sincere. . . . Be devoted to one another in love . . .Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn,” (9, 10, 15). Joseph’s death afforded them that opportunity.
Within a very short time on the night our dear son died, our house suddenly filled with people from our church. I will never forget them sitting all around in the near darkness of our living room, spilling out into the dinning room. For a long stretch of time everyone just sat there. No one said a word. No one moved, as they silently entered into our deep, deep grieving. I will never forget it. We were humbled and so desperately grateful to see God’s people gather around us. That was a good thing.
But I have to tell you, even in light of all those good things, it is not enough. It is not near enough. In terms of a simple trade-off, it never could, or will be. If you came to me before all of this and said “you will reestablish contact with some friends from the past, some old hurts will disappear, and you, Marianne, and the girls, will see how much people value and love you . . . but it will cost you your son . . . ” I would have chased you from my presence with a stick. There is no way I would have signed up for that. Not in a million years. Sorry.
And so I thought, there must be something more. There must be a ‘good’ that is still coming, or that has already happened unbeknownst to us to make this verse make any real sense at all.
The oft-quoted twenty-eighth verse of Romans chapter eight does not promise that those who love God will have better circumstances. Nor does this verse say that bad things are actually good things. Rather, it acknowledges that truly bad things happen to God’s children, yet in them all, God is somehow working for their good. It says that God is working towards a good effect in their life.
Randy Alcorn tells the story of how when he was a child, he decided to sample the individual ingredients that his mother had gathered as she was about to bake one of her delicious chocolate cakes. What he found was that the raw egg, baking soda, baking powder, flour, and semi-sweet chocolate all tasted bland, even a bit nasty. To his amazement, he discovered that almost everything that went into making one of his mothers’ cakes tasted terrible. Yet, when it was all mixed together in the right amounts, placed in the oven, then left to cool, something glorious occurred. Those things that separately left a bitter taste were transformed into something sweet and highly satisfying when brought together by the master chef.
Years ago I would look at this verse and say things like “OK, so you lost your job, but you can be sure of getting an even better one because all things are working for good.” Or, “yeah I heard your fiancé broke up with you, but take heart because God must have an even better person in mind for you.” The problem was I wasn’t taking into consideration the end game. I wasn’t following Paul’s thoughts through to the end. Verse twenty-nine says, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son . . . ”
The good Paul speaks of cannot be defined in a narrow materialistic way. The ultimate good is defined in spiritual terms. Sin destroyed everything. Everything. And as a result everything immediately began to move in a crooked trajectory. Where once man loved to be with God, now he ran from him. Work became difficult, our bodies began to die, and our relationships became challenging. But still buried deep in our souls was the knowledge of how things should be, and how they once were, before the entire creation was subjected to frustration.
But if God is committed to anything, he is committed to this: reclaiming, restoring, and resurrecting what once was, to what is. His desire is to one day eliminate all our frustrations. And the omnipotent and infinite God uses those very frustrations that cause us so much pain and sorrow; things which fill our eyes with tears, to move the restorative process along, allowing us to slowly but deliberately take on the look of Jesus.
One day this good work will be completed (Philippians 1:6), and we will be like him. But it seems that it will take time, and a fair amount of pain to get us there. But if we focus on every trial, every disappointment, and every crushing, individual grief, thinking in terms of narrow, time-confined segments of days, weeks and years, we will be disappointed. In fact, we will be devastated by the harshness of it all. But God is looking at the good that he is working into us with a long view in mind. He sees it all in terms of a lifetime.
The Romans eight twenty-eight promise is that God is making sure that all the individual bad circumstances, all the frustration, and all the groaning is being used to restore me to what I was always meant to be. Unlike me, God has a long view of life and the work he is doing. As Keller said, the gospel does not promise me better life circumstances; it promises me a better life. And because God watched his own Son die to pay for the sins of men and women, the reclamation has begun, and the slow hard work goes on.
The ways of the Lord so often seem to be shrouded in mystery. I think I have him figured out and then . . . But there are some markers to which I hold fast. Romans eight speaks of suffering, and frustration, and the glory just ahead that will soon be revealed. And it speaks of the good work of God through all things that come into our lives because of his great love.
At the end of our service on the morning of September 21st 2014 I gave an invitation for people to come forward to ask God to help them in their trials, to trust him in the midst of their ship being battered by the individual rogue waves of searing adversity. Marianne, along with many others came and knelt at the front of the auditorium. I wept on stage because I knew why she had come. She had come to pray one more time for her son to be healed. She came to pray that his bitter frustrations would come to an end. She prayed for his sorrow to be turned into joy.
There was one more good thing from all this. My dear son, whom we did everything we could to help, but who suffered so much, later that night was set free from his own frustrations. Forever.