Last week I buried my beloved father. The lone bagpiper stood sentry, beckoning us closer, as the familiar strains of Amazing Grace echoed in the open cemetery. The once cloudy skies gave way to a brilliant January sun as we approached my father’s final resting place.
The snap of the flag breaks the silence as the Major and the Captain begin the ceremony of folding my father’s flag.
Fold, fold, fold, tuck. Fold, fold, fold, tuck. Fold, fold, fold, tuck.
Until the stripes are enveloped in a sea of blue, covered in 50 brilliant stars of white.
The Major is on one knee before my sisters and me. On behalf of the President of the United States of America, we wish to thank you for your father’s service to our country. Piercing blue eyes lock gaze with each of us. Eyes that proclaim I offer you my thanks as well.
The flag is in our hands. The bugle is on the bugler’s lips. The strains of Amazing Grace have been replaced by the mournful notes of Taps. And it is finished.
Soon, my father’s coffin would be lowered into the same earth that, 55 years earlier, had swallowed the tiny coffin of his beloved and only son, Johnnie.
My father’s death was “in the natural order of things”; his son’s death was not. Taken at age 8 by a rapid onset of type 1 diabetes, and a shockingly fast decline of all of his bodily functions, my brother quietly slipped from this life into eternity and my parents began their lifelong journey of trusting God despite unfathomable pain and far too many unanswered questions.
As my sisters and I began preparations for our father’s services, we were asked this simple question several times.
Did your father have a favorite Bible verse?
The first time we were asked the question, we all three stopped, looked into the distance, and began what we assumed would be a time of quiet reflection. In less than half a minute, we all agreed that while he never said he had a favorite verse, he did have a life verse. He and our mother inscribed it in every Bible they ever gave us. And it was the verse by which he lived his life.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct your paths.
~ Proverbs 3: 5-6
When my father lost his only son, he had a decision to make. Would he trust in the Lord with all his heart?
With all his broken heart?
With all his heavy heart and aching gut, pummeled by wave after wave of tears of anguish?
With every doubt and fear and sorrow that would rise up from the heart of a devoted daddy who would never again hold his precious son in his arms?
Or would he choose instead to lean on his own understanding of how things should have turned out?
Lean on his own understanding that a good God doesn’t let bad things happen to good people, to good little 8-year old boys with their entire lives ahead of them.
Lean on his own understanding that if this is what God’s favor looks like, then he didn’t want any part of it, thank you very much.
While my parents grieved terribly the loss of their only son, they chose to hold onto these words of the wise King Solomon, recognizing that God’s ways were higher than their ways. Even in their greatest suffering, they chose to acknowledge that God is God and they are not. Their trust in the Lord remained steadfast, and not even the death of their son would shake their belief in God’s character.
God is good. All the time.
I wish I could say that I had the same heart response when my own son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when he was 5-years old. My response to his diagnosis was swift and deep, allowing it to settle over me for a long time.
I was angry.
I had lived in fear of this disease my entire life. It took the life of a brother I never knew and has afflicted one of my sisters since she was 16. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, and during each of my pregnancies, I did regular urine testing to see if diabetes was invading my pancreas as well. This disease was so personal, so deeply woven into the fabric of my family.
God, how could you do this to me?
Overnight I lost sight of who I knew God to be. With one finger stick blood test, every hidden maxim of my “since-then” theology was revealed.
Since I love God and try to honor him with my life, then he will protect me.
Since God is good, then he won’t allow really bad things to happen to me and to those I love.
I didn’t even know I was harboring this false theology. But there it was. Out in the open in all its ugliness. The trouble with “since-then” theology is that when pushed, it becomes a slippery slide to an even uglier conclusion.
Since my child was not protected from this bad thing happening, then God is not good.
It’s easy to trust God when things are going well. When things are going as we want and expect them to go. It’s another matter entirely to trust God when our world has caved in and we can’t imagine how this same world can even spin on its axis anymore. And when, for the life of us, we can’t imagine how anyone can possibly be smiling when we can’t even breathe.
But trust is a choice. It’s a daily, moment-by-moment choice not to lean into our heart’s immediate pain-filled response, but to choose to believe in the goodness of the One who holds our heart.
In the midst of this season of standing apart from God, judging Him from a distance for not being exactly what I wanted Him to be, a wise friend spoke these words to me,
Father is always good.
I recoiled at her words. I was not yet ready to receive them. Surely He was mostly good, but how could she say He was always good, since He allowed my son’s life to be forever changed? Forever challenging and never carefree again.
The issue of God’s goodness was one I would wrestle with for two years. Blinded by anger and by my indignance at how and when God chooses to act, I needed time to recognize and deconstruct what I thought I knew about God. And then with much study, prayer, and reflection, to rebuild a faith that was anchored on the unchangeable character of God, including his love and goodness, and not on my desire to control everything around me.
Ultimately, these words of the psalmist became my words. I hope they become yours as well.
Whom have I in heaven but You?
And besides You, I desire nothing on earth.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
Psalm 73: 25-26