One Year Later in a Journey of Grief

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Natchez Trace Trail

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Last May my best friend died after a six-year battle with breast cancer. Karen showed great courage in facing her disease and lived life to the fullest, remaining asymptomatic over most of the course of her disease. I visited her in Hospice a couple of weeks before she died, and tomorrow I return to the city where she lived to meet with some of her beloved friends to reminiscence. The deep sense of loss remains palpable, an ache in my heart, and it remains difficult to face the fact that she is gone, at least this side of eternity. I believe in the “sure and certain hope of the resurrection,” but emotionally that promise often seems too good to be true when facing the finality of a loved one’s death. I long for a “visitation” from her, as may loved ones of the dead have experienced, but then I feel guilty, remembering Jesus‘ words that “an evil and corrupt generation seeks after a sign.” I wonder if I received a visitation, such as a few days ago when I was at a stream near the Natchez Trace in Tennessee, and two butterflies kept landing on me–Karen loved butterflies (which are also a traditional symbol of the resurrection), and her boyfriend released some after her funeral. But then I doubt since butterflies like to drink the sweat off people. Rage at God taking her away all too soon fights it out with guilt at my own lack of faith, and fear that that lack will separate me from God–and from her. Soon my journey in grief will be a literal journey, and I pray that God will grant all of us who visit places of fond memory that we will rejoice in those memories while realizing the extent of loss, realizing that grief for a loved one only eases but never ultimately comes to an end. If God be so gracious that we sense her presence with us, thanks be to Him; if not, we should still thankful for her life and the promise that this life is not all there is.

I marvel at those individuals who believe in God but deny life after death. St. Paul said in I Corinthians 15 that “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.” This is not egotistical; it is an acknowledgement of the value of others, a value that can only be truly sensed by love. I have hope in Christ. I have doubts. “Lord, I believe; pardon Thou my unbelief!” When the veil is parted and reality in its fullness is finally revealed, may those of us who knew and cherished Karen embrace her and speak with her once more. For those reading who mourn loved ones, I pray that you discover the hope beyond all hope, that “this body of death” will “rise in newness of life” in a world where love never dies, and neither do those we love.

The Earthquake in Japan and Theodicy

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Japan Earthquake LIVE News

The earthquake and resultant tsunamis that hit Japan marked, according to Japan’s prime minister, the greatest crisis for Japan since World War II. Besides the massive loss of life, thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of people are homeless. Many are grieving the loss of their loved ones; others wait with trepidation for any news. It is easy to forget, so far away in America, that this tragedy is not an abstraction. Real flesh and blood people died, and real flesh and blood people are suffering. During such times of tragedy, some people may lose their faith in God or in the particular tenants of their religion. The thousands of people killed were not bad people; the vast majority were good people struggling to get by in life like everyone else in the world. Many children are among the killed and bereaved. Where is God in such a time? Why did God allow an earthquake so massive to occur, one that destroyed so many people’s lives?

No one knows–not this side of eternity. We can give our guesses–“this gives people a chance to come together and show their love and concern for others”–but couldn’t there have been a less destructive way to do this!? Another answer may be that “the laws of nature must operate in stable ways. With a system of plate tectonics, when one plate slides under another, sometimes the plate snaps back, causing earthquakes.” But the positive changes in evolution that result in part from the motion of continents occur over millions of years. What about the people in Japan now? And if natural laws must remain stable, why can’t God make a world with different natural laws in which earthquakes do not occur or are not as severe? One plausible answer is that the number of possible universes compatible with intelligent life with significant freedom is very small–perhaps even this universe only–due to the specificity of natural laws that are so finely tuned that a minuscule change in the laws of nature would result in no life at all or at least no intelligent life.

Ultimately such answers will not satisfy a grieving parent who has lost a child or someone who has lost a spouse. In the predominate mixture of Shinto and Buddhism in Japan, invoking karma at such a time is just as unsatisfying as the answers I just presented from a Judeo-Christian perspective. The practical response of Christians is to support the relief effort in any way they can and to pray for the victims and their families. Ultimately the greatest gift Christian belief offers in such times is hope–strength to hope for a recovery from this great disaster, and the hope of eternal life for those killed. This world is full of tragedy–diseases, earthquakes, deadly weather, accidents, and dangerous radiation. The only way such tragedy can be redeemed is through a restoration of all things that transcends our present space-time order. In the meantime, we pray that the death figures will not go much higher, that those alive can be rescued, and that those who live can, at least in part, recover from their losses. May God be with the Japanese people during this time of trial.