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How Are We to Understand Lingering Illness and Premature Death In A Child?

 

2nd Samuel 12:16-23                 Mark 5:1-43

 

[1]           I’ve always found conducting the funerals of children extraordinarily difficult. I manage to get through the service, albeit shakily, and then I stagger home and fall on my wife.

What is worse than the death of a child?  For years I said that the greatest burden I’ve seen in people is the burden of childlessness. People will do anything to have a child. Yet if they can’t have a child, can’t adopt a child, I’ve noticed that husband and wife don’t thereafter divorce. But when a child dies the parents divorce 70% of the time.         In other words, the death of a child strains marriages beyond the breaking point more often than not.  Then perhaps there is something worse than childlessness; namely, the death of a child. When David’s child died (the child he had had with Bathsheba), his servants were afraid to tell him lest the heartbroken king kill himself.

 

[2]         Everyone is upset at the death of a child.  Everyone feels the death of a child to be especially tragic.   We feel that the child has been cheated.  We don’t feel this way about the elderly.  When Maureen and I lived in rural New Brunswick we called one evening on Mr. and Mrs. Henry Palmer.  Henry Palmer was dying. He was 98 years old.         As he lay dying in the bedroom Mrs. Palmer sat in her rocking chair, that winter evening, close to the fire in the wood stove, rocking pensively, saying little. Maureen, assuming Mrs. Palmer to be upset, began to commiserate with her.         Mrs. Palmer listened to Maureen for a while and then interjected, without interrupting her rocking, “Henry’s had a good life.”   By our standards he’d had a difficult life: he’d had to spend a month at backbreaking labour every year just to cut enough firewood for the winter, among other things.   Still, by Mrs. Palmer’s standards, Henry had had a good life.  Where children are concerned, however, our standards or anybody else’s standards mean nothing: we feel the child has scarcely had any life.

 

[3]         Lingering illness in a child; untimely death in a child; these are manifestations of evil. Evil is evil, and must never thought to be anything else.   We must never pretend that evil is “good in disguise.”   “Good in disguise” is still good; evil can never be good.   We must never say that evil is good on the way, or at least the potential for good. Of itself evil is never the potential for anything except more evil.

My aunt’s grandson (my cousin’s son) died at age seven.  The little boy was born a normal child and developed normally until age two when he was diagnosed with a neurological disease.   His condition deteriorated thereafter.         His facial appearance changed — became grotesque, in fact; his mobility decreased; and his intellectual capacity decreased.  When I spoke with my aunt at the funeral parlour I said to her, “There’s no explanation for this.”   (I didn’t mean there was no neurological explanation; of course there was a neurological explanation.)   I meant, rather, “Given what you and I know of God, there’s no explanation for this.”  My aunt told me later it was the most comforting thing anyone had said to her at the funeral parlour, for virtually everyone who spoke with her put forth an “explanation”; such as, “Maybe God wanted to teach the parents something.” What were the parents supposed to be taught by watching their son suffer and stiffen and stupefy for five years? “Maybe God was sparing the little boy something worse later in his life.”   It would be difficult to imagine anything worse.  These aren’t explanations; these are insults.   As long as God is love, unimpeded love, there isn’t going to be an explanation for this.

We must always be careful and think 25 times before we conclude we’ve found the meaning (or even a meaning) to such a development. Think of the one and one-half million children who perished during the holocaust. Their parents (four and one-half million of them) were first gassed to death, whereupon their remains were burnt.  The children, on the other hand, were never gassed; they were thrown live into the incinerators. If anyone claims to be aware of the meaning of this event I shall say, among other things, “Meaning for whom? for the barbequed children? for their parents? for their survivors? for their executioners? for the shallow pseudo-philosophers who think their question is worth the breath they spend to utter it?” What meaning could there ever be to such an event?

We can bring the same question to bear on any one child who is dying at this moment in the Hospital for Sick Children.

 

[4]         In light of what I’ve just said I have to tell you how unhappy I’ve been with Harold Kushner’s bestselling book, When Bad Things Happen To Good People.  I’m disappointed in the book for several reasons.  In the first place there’s virtually no discussion of God’s love in Kushner’s discussion of God.  In view of the fact that God is love, that God’s nature is to love, the book is woefully deficient right here. In the second place, because God’s love isn’t discussed, the rest of the book is skewed. Kushner writes, “Let me suggest that the bad things that happen to us in our lives do not have a meaning when they happen to us.   [I’ve no problem with this.]   They do not happen for any good reason which would cause us to accept them willingly. [No problem here either.] We can redeem these tragedies from senselessness by imposing meaning on them.” I object to this statement. We redeem them by imposing meaning on them? Any meaning that is imposed can only be arbitrary. An arbitrary meaning, something imposed, is just another form of “make-believe”, and no less “make-believe” for being adult “make-believe.”  My cousin and his wife whose seven-year old son died of neurological disease; what meaning were they supposed to impose on the event? And why impose that meaning rather than another?  And how would the imposition of such arbitrary meaning redeem the tragedy?

Harold Kushner’s book is yet another attempt at theodicy.  Theodicy is the justification of God’s ways with humankind, the justification of God’s ways in the face of human suffering.  All attempts at theodicy lefthandedly put God on trial, so to speak, and then develop arguments that acquit God, allowing us to believe in him after all, allowing us to believe that he really is kind and good despite so much that appears to contradict this.  All theodicies assume that we know what should happen in the world; as long as there continues to happen what shouldn’t, God (we think) is on trial; we have to develop arguments and marshall evidence that will acquit him if we are to go on believing in him.

 

[5]         All of which brings me to my next point; namely, our assumption that the questions we think to be obvious and obviously correct are the right questions.  The question, for instance, “If God is all-good, he must want to rectify the dreadful state of affairs so often found in people’s lives; if God is all-powerful, he must be able to rectify such a state of affairs. Since such a state seems not to be rectified, then either God isn’t all-good or he isn’t all-powerful, is he?” Next we set about trying to remove the suspicion that surrounds either God’s goodness or his might. We think our question to be the right question, even the only question.  But in fact the question we’ve just posed didn’t loom large until the 18th century, specifically the 18th century Enlightenment.   The question we’ve just posed was raised by Enlightenment thinkers who weren’t even Christians.  Eighteenth century Enlightenment atheists raised the question, and Christians took it over in that they thought it to be a profound question. But this question didn’t loom large in the Middle Ages where physical suffering, at least, was worse than it is today. This question wasn’t pre-eminent in the ancient world; neither was it front-and-centre in the biblical era.   The pre-eminent question in the biblical era wasn’t “Why?”, because those people already knew why: the entire creation is molested by the evil one. The pre-eminent question in the biblical era was “How long?   How long before God terminates this state of affairs?         What’s taking him so long?”

Think for a minute of the biblical era; think of John the Baptist. John and Jesus were cousins. Not only were they related by blood, they were related by vocation.   John began his public ministry ahead of Jesus.  John’s ministry ended abruptly when a wicked woman, angry at his denunciation of her sexual irregularities, had him slain.  What did Jesus do when he learned of John’s death and the circumstances of John’s death? Did Jesus say, “We need a theodicy. We need a justification of the ways of God.  We need an explanation of how John’s terrible death could occur in a world ruled by a God whose love is mighty.  And if no explanation is forthcoming, then perhaps we can’t believe in God.” — did Jesus say this?   Jesus said no such thing. When John’s head was severed Jesus didn’t cry to heaven, “You expect me to trust you as my Father; but how can I believe you’re my Father, for what Father allows his child to be beheaded?   In view of what happened to cousin John, I can’t be expected to think that I’m dear to you.” Jesus said no such thing. When he was informed of the grisly death of John, Jesus said, “It’s time I got to work.” Whereupon he began his public ministry, and began it knowing that what had befallen John would befall him too, and did it all with his trust in his Father unimpaired.

My point is this: that question which we suppose to be a perennial question, “How can we continue to believe in a mighty, loving God when terrible things keep happening in our world?” — wasn’t the most pressing question in the biblical era or the ancient church or the mediaeval church. It was shouted only in the 18th century Enlightenment, and was shouted by atheists. Having heard the atheists’ question, the church took it over thinking it to be the soul of profundity.

Susannah Wesley, mother of John and Charles, had 19 children. Ten of them survived. As the other nine died (eight of them in infancy), Susannah’s heart broke.   Never think that she didn’t care; never think that her heart wasn’t as torn as anyone’s heart would be torn today.  Read her diary the day after a domestic helper accidentally smothered Susannah’s three-week old baby.  Infant death was as grievous to parents then as it is now.  What was different, however, is this: even as Susannah pleaded with God for her babes while they died in her arms she never concluded that God wasn’t to be trusted or loved or obeyed or simply clung to; she never concluded that as a result of her heartbreak God could only be denounced and abandoned.

Until the 18th century Enlightenment there was no expectation of living in a world other than a world riddled with accident, misfortune, sickness, disease, unrelievable suffering, untimely death.  There was no expectation of anything else.  It was recognized that the world, in its fallen state, is shot through with unfairness, injustice, inevitable inequities, unforeseeable tragedies. When John the Baptist was executed Jesus didn’t say, “If honouring God’s will entails that then I need a different Father.”   Instead Jesus said, “I’ve got work to do and I’d better get started.” Susannah Wesley didn’t say, “If I bear children only to have half of them succumb to pneumonia and diphtheria, I should stop having them.”  Instead she had twice as many.   If today our expectation is so very different on account of the Enlightenment, then what did the Enlightenment cause us to expect?

 

[6]         The Enlightenment brought us to expect that humankind can control, control entirely, the world and everything about it.   The Enlightenment brought us to expect that we are or can be in control of every last aspect of our existence.   Specifically, the Enlightenment brought us to expect that the practice of medicine would smooth out our lives.   And with the new expectation of physicians there arose as well a new agenda for physicians. Whereas physicians had always been expected to care for patients, now physicians were expected to cure patients. Until the Enlightenment physicians were expected to care: they were to alleviate pain wherever they could, they were expected to ease the patient in every way possible, and above all they were expected to ease the patient through death, which death everyone knew to be unavoidable in any case. But cure? No one expected physicians to cure, at least to cure very much.   Nowadays physicians are expected to cure everything.  I’m convinced that people unconsciously expect physicians to cure them of their mortality. When physicians can’t cure people of their vulnerability to death, blame for such failure is unconsciously transferred from medicine to God.

A minute ago I said that we creatures of modernity assume (arrogantly) that the questions we ask are the questions that people have asked in every era; our questions are perennial questions, and our answers are the only answers.  It’s not so. If people today are asked how they’d prefer to die, they nearly always say, “Quickly. I want to die quickly. I’d like to slip away quietly in my sleep.” During the Middle Ages, however, no one wanted to die quickly; people dreaded sudden death. Why?   Sudden death gave them insufficient time to make adequate spiritual preparation for death. What we regard as human expectations as old as humankind are actually very recent. What’s more, these recent expectations weren’t fostered as we reflected on the nature and purpose and way of God; they were fostered by atheists who, at the time of the Enlightenment, came to think that there was nothing humankind couldn’t control.

 

[7]         Let’s come back to the situation of the young person afflicted with a lingering illness and about to die all too young.  Why are we so very upset at this?   I think we’re upset in that we feel the young person to have been cheated. The 85-year old who dies has had a life, a complete life (or at least what we regard as complete.) The eight-year old, we feel, hasn’t; she’s been cheated.   The elderly person’s life can be told by means of a story; the young person, on the other hand, has virtually no story to be told.   I am 63 years old, and if I die tonight others will gather up my life in a story and tell the story.  Hearers will identify me, the real “me”, with my story.  But let’s be honest: they will regard “me” and my story as identical in that my story is fit to be told; my story is positive; my story is rich (supposedly.) No one would hesitate to tell my story.   But if my story were one that couldn’t be told; if my story were bleak or disgraceful or incomprehensible, others would like to think that the real “me” was somehow better, somehow grander, than my shabby story.

It isn’t only the eight-year old child with leukaemia whose story seems to be sad and sorry and miserable.         There are many, many adults whose stories are longer, to be sure, but no better. One Sunday, several years ago, a man wearing a clerical collar sat in the gallery of my church in Mississauga , accompanied by a lawyer-friend of mine.         The man with the collar was an Anglican clergyman.  He was also a plastic surgeon with a practice in one of the wealthiest areas of Toronto . He was at worship, that Sunday, as he awaited trial. He and his estranged wife had had an altercation, in the course of which his wife was struck, the result of which was that her skull was fractured. Several weeks after the service the attended in Mississauga the fellow was convicted and sent to jail.  Upon his release from jail the College of Physicians and Surgeons restored his licence, thus permitting him to do plastic surgery again. The Anglican Church, however, didn’t reinstate him as a clergyman.   A year later the man committed suicide.  What’s his story? Is it a grand story? Is it a story anyone would envy? Or is it a story better left untold?

Maureen and I were asleep on a Friday evening when the phone rang at midnight . The caller was a man I’ve looked out for for 20 years.  He’s paranoid schizophrenic.  I’ve followed him around to restaurants, hospitals, jails, and numerous shabby “digs.” Last autumn he was in Vancouver and got into a “discussion” (as he tells his story) with a motel clerk.  The clerk phoned the police, and Eric spent the next three months in a provincial hospital. A week or two before Christmas I took him to Swiss Chalet for lunch.  We had been seated for only a few seconds when he leapt out of his seat and shouted, “It’s bugged.  It’s bugged. There’s a tape-recorder under my seat.” I took the shaken waitress aside, told her my friend was deranged, promised her I’d see that no harm befell her, and asked her to find us seats in an area that was free of tape-recorders.   A few months after this incident Eric phoned me again.  In the afternoon he’d gone to a barber shop, only to have the barber “butcher” his hair. And why had the barber “butchered” his hair? Because the barber too is part of the conspiracy that is putting foreign substances in Eric’s drinking water and causing his urine to stink.  Eric had come home; his sister had burnt the supper-meal toast; Eric had decompensated and smashed the toaster.  His sister had fled the house; the police had been called; Eric had refused to open the door to them – and was now in a great deal more trouble. Eric was phoning me at midnight. He wasn’t angry and he wasn’t violent: he was frightened, terribly frightened. He feared he was going to be sent back to a provincial hospital.  Eric is 65 years old. He was diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic when he was a 20-year old university student. Eric has suffered atrociously since then. He hasn’t had one torment-free day in 45years.         What’s Eric’s story? Do you want to hear all the details? Would anyone want his story (all of it) told at his funeral?         Tell me: are Eric and Eric’s story identical?

The truth is, none of us is identical with our story.  Our story isn’t big enough, comprehensive enough, grand enough.  None of us has a story (whether tellable or untellable) that does justice to who we are truly in ourselves because of who we are truly before God. Our story is small and feeble and miserable and frustrated.  Often our story, so far from reflecting who we truly are, contradicts who we truly are. Our story has to be taken up into a much bigger story.

Then what’s the bigger story, grander story, for Eric?   It’s the story of a man who once lived in a cemetery. (Mark 5:1-20) He was violent, anti-social, and an inveterate “streaker.”   One day Jesus came upon him and asked, “What’s your name?”  “My name?”, the fellow replied, “I’ve got lots of names.   I’m your local nut-case; so why not call me ‘Peanut, Pistachio and Pecan’, ‘P-cubed’ for short.”   Some time later the townspeople saw the same man seated, clothed and in his right mind. By God’s grace that gospel-story has been appointed to be Eric’s story, Eric’s true story.  That story is the final story into which Eric’s story is taken up and in which Eric’s story is transfigured.

And the eight-year old who has just died of leukaemia?   Her story too is bigger, grander than most people know.         A distraught man cried to Jesus, “My daughter is sick unto death. Won’t you come with me?” Our Lord is delayed by a needy woman who is distressed herself.   While he’s delayed, the daughter dies.  Now all the relatives are beside themselves.  Jesus declares, “The little girl isn’t dead; she’s asleep.” The relatives scorn him. Plainly she’s dead; anyone can see she’s dead.   But you see, in the presence of Jesus Christ (only in the presence of him who is himself resurrection and life, only in his presence but assuredly in his presence) death is but sleep.  The girl is awakened shortly — as the eight-year old has been appointed to be awakened. This is the story into which the leukaemia patient’s story is taken up and in which it is transfigured.

 

[8]         If you ask me why such things as leukaemia and mental illness happen I shall not attempt an answer.   When tragedy befell John the Baptist Jesus didn’t say, “I can’t figure out why these things happen; therefore I can’t trust my Father.” Jesus knew that in a fallen world such things happen and will continue to happen until God’s patience, finally exhausted, ends the era of the fall and with it forecloses the day of grace. Jesus didn’t explain John’s wretched death; Jesus responded to the news of his cousin’s death by launching his public ministry.

Let me conclude by recalling Aaron, my cousin’s little boy who was diagnosed with a neurological disease at age two and who declined hideously for the next five years. Our Lord offers no explanation. (What help would an explanation provide?)   Our Lord, rather, whose risen life is grander even than his life from Bethlehem to Golgotha ; his risen life is that larger, grander story in which Aaron’s story is transfigured.  Furthermore, our Lord is the occasion of a response: the response of Aaron’s friends and relatives and neighbours and congregation.  The response we make to all such developments is an expression of our caring. (Not an expression of our curing; ultimately I can’t cure you, you can’t cure me, and medical practice can’t cure any of us, ultimately.)   Such a response will be caring enough until that day when we see our Lord face-to-face, the sight of whose face will transfigure our face, for the sight of his face will be enough to wipe away every tear from every eye.

 

                                                                                                        Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                                            

 May 2007