Friday, January 31, 2014

Left Behind, or Not Finished?

Your pastor announces it from the pulpit.

“For those of you who haven’t already heard, Jane Doe passed away early this morning at the hospital.”

A wave of muffled exclamation ripples through your sanctuary as the congregation reacts to this somber news.  Jane had only been diagnosed with cancer two months ago.

“Of course, it’s hard for us to understand God’s purposes for claiming Jane’s life with such a fast-moving disease.”  Your pastor measures his words, balancing grief with a composure he hopes will seem reassuring to his audience.

“And she was only 40,” he continues, inadvertently biting his lip, since he’s not much older than she was. “But the God of all comfort can strengthen Jane’s family - and us, her church family - as the grieving process begins.  We mourn, yet not without hope.”

Later on, after the worship service, you’re chatting with a friend in church who, like yourself, is single, never-married, with no kids.  The two of you share your shock at the swift death that cancer dealt Jane.  Forty doesn’t necessarily seem all that young, does it, unless it’s the age of a cancer victim.  Can you imagine how hard things are going to be for her newly widowed husband, and her newly motherless children?  How they all adored her!

In times like this, it doesn’t matter how financially well-off a family is, or how well-loved they were in the community.  No matter how you slice it, death hurts.  And it seems to hurt all the more when it comes at what we consider to be an “early” time in one’s expected lifespan.  And then there’s the spouse, and their kids; all left behind, with years of school events, sports leagues, campouts, family vacations, and everything else now murky in the morose reality of loss.

As you’re commiserating with your single friend, whatever problems you might be facing in your own lives temporarily blur into the background.  For a while, it’s actually easy to concentrate on somebody else’s problems, and feel genuine sorrow for their loss.  With so much apparently going so well for them, what with being happily married and all, with young kids and a grand future for their family.  And then, just like that, it’s over.  At least, the part about everything going along so wonderfully.

As the impact of the loss this family is experiencing wells inside of you, your conversation drifts off for a moment.  And then one of you asks what you’re both now thinking: “Why does God take people like Jane, who have such obvious joys and responsibilities for a spouse and children, while singles like us He keeps healthy and alive?”

Have you ever asked yourself that question when faced with a similar scenario?  Not that we have poor self-esteem.  Or that we don't have responsibilities of our own.  Nor are we looking to die today, of course, nor do we mean to trivialize God’s holy sovereignty by questioning His decisions.  But from a practical, humanistic perspective, His taking people like Jane doesn’t really make much sense, does it?

Jane had a relatively young family relying on her.  She had a husband and kids who depended on her direct, wise, and Godly contributions to their family.  We believe God designed children to be raised in a loving family headed by a father and a mother.  We believe that “those whom God has joined together, man should not put asunder.”  So how does it fit into what we claim to know about God’s holy providence that He should simply remove such an important component of a family unit like this?  Doesn’t it seem cavalier, or counter-productive?

Besides, there are plenty of passages in the Bible that talk about long life being a gift from our Lord, and His reward to us for honoring Him.  Doesn’t death at half of an otherwise healthy person’s lifespan seem to add insult to injury?

Granted, we might be able to offer a patently “Sunday School” answer to such questions.   We know theologically, for example, that God does not make mistakes, and that to be absent from the body is to be present with Him.  We know that He doesn’t guarantee anybody a long life – or at least, our definition of a long life.  Isn’t God, the Creator of time, the only One Who gets to define how long a “long” lifespan is?

Nevertheless, in our cost-benefit-analysis world, where we value efficiencies and, by extension, award values to things based on how they contribute to our quality of life, doesn’t the loss of a spouse and a parent of young children still seem exceptionally punitive? We believe that every life is sacred, and has a purpose.  The knowledge that each individual person bears the image of God is likely what keeps us from going berserk when we see what otherwise would be confounding examples of injustice.  Because, let’s face it:  a 40-year-old wife and mother dying of cancer two months after her diagnosis strikes us as a form of injustice, doesn’t it?

Even if we won’t come out and say it.

So, why does God take people like Jane – who, by the way, was a real person, whose name is the only fact from her story changed for this essay – and leave us singles here, when Jane’s family desperately needs her?

Well, for one thing, God has created each of us for basically one purpose:  His glory.  Sure, He gives us various skills to use and roles to play in the life He gives us, but we’re not here for those skills and roles primarily.  First and foremost, we were created for Him.  Yes, while we may hone those skills and develop our roles throughout the course what may be quite a long life indeed, God’s idea for when we’ve maximized them may be different than ours.

Those skills and roles may involve being married and having kids, or they may not.  But here again, God’s love for us and His sovereignty over our lives is not contingent upon our family status.  Theologically, we may know that God takes us Home to be with Him in what we say is His “perfect timing.”  But how often do we let the reality sink in:  death represents the time at which God is saying that somehow, in some way, even if we can’t see it, our life has accomplished what He ordained it to accomplish.  He doesn’t make mistakes.  We don’t die before He ordains it.  And don’t forget – He ordained it before time even began!

When God called Jane home, He did so because – perhaps in ways we’ll never know here on Earth – she had fulfilled the purposes God intended for her to fulfill.  That’s the only reason why any of us are called home to Heaven.  It’s not a matter of convenience, or value, in which some of us are more important to God than others of us.

Why might it be easy for us singles to adopt some sort of cultural hierarchy regarding whether a spouse or parent is more important to God than those of us who haven’t been blessed by those roles?  Maybe because we have an enemy in the world who likes to tear people down any way he can?  All the more reason for us single people to reaffirm the truth of God’s sovereignty over our lives.  As well as the validation He gives us as His children.  All with equal value in His eyes.  And all with something to accomplish for His glory.

For however long it takes, with whomever He gives us.  Or not.

God is the One who ascribes value to our roles in His plan for His Kingdom.  Believers in Christ can find Jane's life - and death - as proof of that.

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