6:30 a.m., Nov. 12, 2015: My alarm goes off for what seems like the 15th time. I’ve got to get up and get ready for work. But my bed is comfy, and I know I can make it to work in less than ten minutes, so I roll back over and go back to sleep.
6:45 a.m.: “Neal, wake up. I need you to wake up, and I need you to listen to me.” My mom’s woken me up, and while I’m no stranger to those words, I can tell that something’s going on as my mother sits next to me on my bed.
“I got a call from Ann (my aunt on my dad’s side) this morning, around 2:30.”
I immediately assume something’s happened to Ann, or maybe my dad’s brother, Uncle Billy.
“Your dad had a heart attack last night.”
My heart starts racing. This isn’t the first time Dad’s had health problems. But, surely, he’s okay now, right?
“He didn’t make it.”
Almost five years ago to that date, I had met my dad for the first time in almost 20 years. Shaken his hand, hugged his neck for the first time in my adult life. As God had brought me back to Himself through Christ, He powerfully worked to bring my dad back into my life, and to heal us both from the 17 years of pain.
We never got to go camping. Never went to a Titans game (Dad lived near Nashville). Never played catch. He won’t be at my wedding, and he won’t ever know my children.
I loved my dad. I had talked to him earlier that week about his new job, painting a big house in the area. He was excited, ready to go. I still have the text messages.
We only saw each other three times–when we first met, when I first met his mother, and when his mother died January 2015. How I wish I saw him more. How often did I justify not seeing him more often, did I put off his requests to see me?
That weekend, we buried Dad next to his parents. It was ridiculously cold, the same way it had been when we buried Grandma. We joked about how the next person that dies, better die in the summer. We laughed, we cried, we saw faces we hadn’t seen in a long time.
And I saw Dad….but he didn’t see me. I saw him laying in a casket, eyes closed, hands folded, and wearing a tie that had that Georgia shade of red in it. The preacher said a few words, we sang some songs and said some prayers, and as the hot tears streamed down my face, I couldn’t stop thinking about how wrong this all was. Dad wasn’t in great shape, but he wasn’t that old. And even if he was, why death? Why is he gone? I just met him, and now he’s gone?! This whole death, and people having to bury loved ones, is just wrong.
It’s been (almost) three months since Dad died. The tears and the hurt come less often, but they still come. There won’t be a day I’m here on Earth when I don’t miss him. As imperfect as it was, nothing replaces the relationship I had with him.
God has placed me in the school of suffering. I’m still learning my lessons, but God has called me, not only to learn them, but to teach others. That’s why I write. To help, to encourage, and to be a vessel of God’s mercy and grace to those who need it, i.e. everyone. If just one person can learn what God’s taught me through Dad’s death, and come to know Him, or be strengthened in their walk with Him through my efforts, then it will all have been worth it. I want to share the most important lesson with you today: how the gospel addresses suffering.
The gospel of Jesus Christ, that is, His life, death and resurrection, they all speak directly to sinful humans suffering in a fallen world. How?
Jesus understands suffering, which allows us to find comfort in our common experience with Him. We do not have a King unfamiliar with suffering. Christ suffered, not only on the cross, but in His life. He had friends die (Lazarus), his friends betray him (Gethsemane), and never had a place to call home. Jesus’ earthly father died, just like mine. And, most importantly, and most vividly, Jesus experienced separation (temporary, yes, but nonetheless real) from His heavenly Father.
We have a God who gets it. He is a God who knows what it is to suffer. Tim Keller says that because Jesus suffered, we can look at Him and say, “You too?” Knowing that He understands brings comfort. Knowing I can pour out my heart and emotions to the King who loves me, knowing He gets it, and that He’s with me, brings comfort. We don’t even need to hear answers. I said earlier that I still don’t have the answer to the “Why?” question. I think it’s because I’m not going to get it. God knows we need His presence more than we need His answers. Simply resting in His love, knowing that He knows, allows for comfort, healing and joy.
The gospel addresses suffering because Jesus suffered FOR us. Jesus didn’t just die a horrible death as an innocent man, but as a righteous Savior, putting forth His perfect life and His sacrificial death for us, so that we can plead His work for our salvation, not any of our works. Because Jesus died and rose again, I can trust in Him for forgiveness and eternal life, and trust Him to be my Lord, and I can know that no matter how lonely I may feel here, no matter how big the struggle, how many are my tears, I will be with God forever, and He will love me for all eternity.
God uses our worst days, the “darkest nights of the soul,” to bring us closer to Him in faith and joy. Suffering makes me thankful for the gospel, because while my dad wasn’t perfect, he was forgiven by the blood of Christ. Suffering gives us a greater anticipation for eternity, because this life will not compare to our life there. Suffering makes us more grateful for His love, because His love never fails, even on our worst days. Suffering increases our joy and devotion to God, because we find that this world cannot provide the joy and satisfaction only God offers. Lastly, suffering makes us more equipped to help others who are suffering. Whatever it is you’re going through, remember it, because God will use you help someone else get through it, too.
Friday, 2,000 years ago: The disciples of Jesus are wondering what to do. Their Lord just died. Betrayed by one of their own, they have, each of them, abandoned Jesus at His darkest hour. What to do? Was it all worth it? Was He who He said He was?
Saturday, 2,000 years ago: Another day passes, another day where the disciples feel lost, unsure of what to do, unable to move on. Jesus has left them, and they are back to feeling like sheep without a shepherd.
Sunday, 2,000 years ago: Early in the morning, a handful of women go to Jesus’ tomb to anoint His body.
But the body’s not there. Instead, they find angels reminding them that “He has risen, just as He said!”
All of a sudden, Jesus is back. He’s defeated the grave. He has purchased salvation for all who trust and follow Him.
Because Jesus Christ has risen from the grave, all who are in Christ will experience total victory over sin and death, just as He did. In Christ, there is ultimate hope and victory over suffering. He has won…our Savior has won!
Nothing will totally alleviate the pain and the hurt that I, that you, that we all, feel right now…not this side of heaven. But nothing will stop, and nothing will compare to, the joy that is to come for those who are in Christ. Our suffering will look like nothing compared to the “glory that is to be revealed to us.”
Put your hope in Christ. Suffering won’t disappear, and the pain won’t just go away, but if you have trusted in Jesus as Savior and Lord, God is with you, God is for you, God understands, and through God the Son, He has and will bring ultimate victory over all that would keep us from Him forever.
Let the Father hold you in your grief, in your tears, in your mess, even as you hope in Christ.
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died–more than that, who was raised–who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”–Rom. 8:31-39
The following is the poem I wrote shortly after my dad passed:
You left last week
No note, no phone call
No teary-eyed goodbye
No chance to hug you one last time
All the pain, all the sadness
All the regret, all the anger
Floods my heart and my mind
As the tears stream down my face
Why? God, why?
I asked over and over
Our relationship had just begun
So many things are left undone
My children will never know their grandpa
You won’t be there when I say, “I do.”
When I land my first “big job,” I can’t call you.
You’re gone, and I can’t get you back.
There are no memories of playing catch in the yard
No sounds of you cheering me on
Or yelling, “Go, go, go.”
I was never good at ball anyway.
I met you five years ago
At Cracker Barrel, as Christmas music blared outside
I shook your hand and hugged your neck for the first time
And we shared a meal.
The next time I saw you was when I met grandma.
I’ll never forget the look on her face
Her smile, the joy in her eyes.
And the joy of seeing you again.
Then, years passed, and I saw you last
When she went home.
We shared meals, hugs, tears and laughter,
And we said goodbye again.
Little did I know that that was the last time
I’d stand by your side, proud of all God had done
I never thought it would end this way
With me, at 24, putting you in the grave.
The preacher asked about you the other day
I didn’t know what to say.
I told him I didn’t know you as well as I wanted to.
But I did know one thing.
The God-man died on the tree
He lived, He died, for you and for me.
Our faith was one thing we had in common.
And because of that, this is not goodbye.
I’ll see you again, perfect and holy.
I’ll see you again, free of the pain and free of the tears.
I’ll shake your hand and hug your neck.
I’ll hear you say, “I love you, son.”
And I’ll get to say, “I love you too, Dad.”
Hasten that day, Lord.