Paul’s advice to the Corinthians stings more this morning than it has before. As I sat down to write this reflection, my phone blew up with texts from my sister, Kelsey. The little boy she cares for, Ethan, unexpectedly passed away this morning. The text shook my whole family. We had heard just weeks ago that Ethan, only two years old, had been recovering from surgeries designed to stall his terminal disease. How could this have happened?
Personally, Ethan’s story reminded my family of a young seven-year old named Creed who my sister cared for all his young life, before he died of cancer in 2012. Kelsey also told us that Ethan reminded her of Creed in so many ways: their old souls, odd senses of humor, and brave perseverance were all rare traits in kids that age. Several months ago, I spoke to Kelsey about her hesitations in working with Ethan; naturally, she was scared to attach herself emotionally to another young, terminally ill child, knowing she would watch this child, too, die. She chose to stay with Ethan anyway.
When Paul tells the Corinthians to “lead the life the Lord has assigned him” in verse 17, it sounds like a rallying cry for young millennials who have been told they cannot study literature, psychology, or humanities because it is not “practical” in the business world. And I get that meaning. But, that is not what comes to my mind now, in the face of such tragedy.
Some moments in life are too heavy on your mind to allow other thoughts in: A two year-old suffering under chemotherapy until his birthright, cancer, kills him; A seven-year old, with a smile that melts cold hearts and a laugh that warms entire hospitals, falls prey to a disease that slowly takes his smile, his voice, and eventually his life. These moments in life force you to wander into realms of empathy better left untraveled, to observe moments of grief better left unobserved, to feel the sting of death better left untouched.
We all know tragedy somehow, but many have not known this tragedy – its sting is stronger than most have felt. Paul, an author of Light and an apostle of Christ, knows how to speak into such darkness; but this passage also pushes us emotionally and theologically. Kelsey, who feels called by God to minister to sick children, now has a weighty decision to make: does she find another family, another Ethan or Creed, and emotionally invest again? Does Ethan’s mother have another child, knowing that she will feel the weight of Ethan’s loss every time she looks at him? At its heart, how does someone continue to live God’s plan for them with such a burden of pain always one memory away?
I know little of an answer, but I know that you cannot do it apart from God – “and so brothers, in whatever condition each was called, let him remain there with God” – our faith must be real enough that God can enter into our grief and stay in it with us. Paul’s final two words in the passage mean the most to me – with God – because they prove that even in profound misery (children in the hospital, Paul in prison, Christ in Gethsemane) God is present.
Our conception of The Father must account for his allowance (though not condoning) of all events, including the tragedies that we encounter. Our primal instinct and immediate reaction to the evils like childhood cancer is anger – correctly so. Yet our anger is often aimed at God for his allowance of such malice and his unwillingness to stop such suffering. This anger feels natural, albeit righteous at the time, but it should not be aimed at our Creator. Living as we are called in the midst of tragedy, when comfort is impossible, requires that we acknowledge and hate the evil that produces such suffering.
Tragedies also alert us of our helplessness to prevent suffering and stir us to dependence upon the One who carried the weight of all afflictions. Our hearts are forever pierced by the losses of Creed and Ethan; the sting runs much deeper for our Father, though – who sees and feels the weight of all tragedy, and did not leave us alone to carry such pain. The action of Christ covers the passivity of Adam. Even in suffering, in tragedy, in loss, we are free because we are accompanied by Our Savior. On this dark day, living as called simply means holding the Great Light as tightly as possible and taking another step forward in the mystery of today.
Will Thompson is a graduate of the 2015-2016 Capital Fellows Program.