Thanks to Brad from Revelation 12 Daily, several hundred people recently read my post The Story of the Tree Man on my website here under the Why HeavenlyPerspetives.org menu at the top of this page. I'm grateful to everyone who read it and especially to those who left inspiring comments under Brad's post. I originally documented the story back in 2000 shortly after it happened and I relayed the story in person to multiple Adult Sunday School classes at my church. However, it's been a rare occasion that I have spoken or written about the event after about 2001. It's nice to have another chance to share it with a new set of brothers and sisters in Christ!
I pray that none of you reading this post ever have the opportunity to know what it is like to lose a child. The phrase "gut-wrenching" sort of explains it, but in a massively understated way. It's way worse than simply gut-wrenching and infinitely worse than anything else I have ever experienced. There's no way to avoid the after-effects of the event. It is life changing. The important question is, how does a traumatic event like this change your life?
We took Arisa to the ER late in the afternoon of the day she died. She had been acting very strange and we didn't understand what was going on. Unfortunately, her condition quickly worsened. There was nothing the ER could do for her and she died suddenly. According to the medical examiner who did an autopsy, the secondary cause for Arisa's death was congestive heart failure; a condition normally associated with the elderly. The primary cause of her death was officially listed as unknown. The medical examiner could not determine why she had congestive heart failure. It "just happened".
In addition to all that, let me give you a bit more background about my family. Our oldest son was born in 1994. As first-time parents, we were rocking along after his birth thinking it was hard having a newborn but not knowing any different. However, after a few months, he didn't seem to be progressing developmentally very fast. As our concern continued to grow, we decided to take him to a neurologist at around six months of age. The diagnosis was devastating, Intellectual Disability Disorder. IDD is the modern way of saying he is mentally retarded. We don't know why he was born with IDD, It "just happened". He is now physically an adult, but mentally low functioning. He is incapable of taking care of himself except for eating food placed in front of him and keeping himself busy with his favorite books and watching his favorite TV shows. He also loves playing ball in the house, going for rides in the car and going to Walmart or any other large store where he can push a shopping cart. He doesn't speak but he can communicate and he understands most of the things we tell him. Everything else he needs requires assistance from an adult including dressing, bathing, toileting, etc.
I don't share these things about my oldest son to denigrate who he is. For all his limitations he also has a great smile, an infectious laugh and a very distinct and fun personality that is loved by everyone who knows him. While he is a handful to care for, he is also a joy to have around. I will admit that it took me a while to see the beautiful "Child of God" side of my son and the loss of my daughter definitely helped me to get there. I will also admit that he is my church buddy. My son loves going to church and thankfully my church has a program for special needs kids and adults. Whenever I don't feel like getting up on Sundays to go to church, I remember that my son loves to go and I force myself to go. I'm always glad I did, but everyone needs some extra motivation sometimes!
Neither do I share this to elicit a "woe is me" response from the readers of this article. I'm simply sharing some facts to provide some context for the absolute despair that my wife and I experienced after Arisa's death. You see, I had personally taken my eyes off of Jesus. As a result, I made some bad assumptions about our daughter. Specifically, I incorrectly associated our daughter Arisa as our gift from God (read "reward") for doing a great job raising our older son. I felt like Jesus must have been really pleased with the way we were taking care of our son and as a result, He blessed us with a beautiful and healthy daughter to reward us for our efforts. Clearly, that was a very wrong and unbiblical assumption. I knew better than that then, but I allowed myself to be deceived into believing it was true. I learned I was wrong, but the price for learning was very high.
So what does all this have to do with lemonade? The strongest Christians I have ever known all have one thing in common. They have all been absolutely driven to their knees through some sort of tragedy in their lives. And when I say tragedy I'm talking about death. I mean the loss of a child, the loss of a spouse when they are young or have young children. It could be the loss of a parent as well, but mostly I am referring to loss that occurs suddenly or well before their expected end of life. I'm not discounting people who are driven to their knees because of divorce, job loss, addiction, violence, etc. It's just that my personal experience is related to the unexpected loss of immediate family and that's the only area where I can confidently speak.
The timeline for Arisa's death was incredibly fast. There were less than three hours from the time we thought "there's something wrong with her" till the time she passed away. The timeline for my recovery from her loss was exponentially longer, but the first three, small but important blessings that helped me grow and recover happened in a private waiting room in the ER after she dies. The first blessing occurred when I was walking back to the private waiting room after meeting with the doctors where they told us there was nothing more the could do for my daughter. My wife and I took a moment to say goodbye to Arisa and then we left the treatment room. As I was walking back to the waiting room in a daze, a critical thought crossed my mind. I thought, "Lord, I'm going to have to trust you to lead me right now because I have absolutely no idea what to do next..." And that experience has never more true for me in my life.
Second, by the Grace of God we had managed to reach Todd Harris and Don Underwood by phone, the ministers at my church that I referenced in the Tree Man story. Todd arrived before we said goodbye to Arisa and Don arrived probably 30 minutes after she passed away. Before Don arrived the hospital nurse actually brought Arisa's body into the private waiting room and allowed us to hold her for an hour or more. After Don arrived we mostly sat there in silence but said a few things every now and then. As my mind rambled I began to feel guilty for not being a good enough father to my daughter and I blurted out to the room "We never even had her baptized..." Don Underwood immediately responded saying "We can do that now" and he proceeded to baptize my deceased daughter by sprinkling water from a styrofoam cup on her head and saying a prayer. You can argue all you want about infant baptism vs adult baptism, immersion vs sprinkling, the necessity of baptism for salvation, etc, but you were not there to experience the event. I know the baptism was for her, but during and after the even it felt like it was for me. I clearly felt that through the power of the Holy Spirit I had been forgiven of my sins by that water and that I had been born again, again. I felt like I had been given a second chance in a way that I had never felt before or since.
After the baptism, we were talking a little bit more and I asked Todd Harris the standard question that people ask during times of tragedy. Why? In my experience ministers are generally better at preaching or ministering. It's not that they cannot do both, but they are better at one than the other. Obviously, preachers excel at sermons on Sunday morning. By ministering I mean displaying an amazing level of compassion and caring for people who are experiencing times of trial and tragedy. Todd Harris is the best minister I have ever known. Todd's answer both befuddled me and it planted a seed at the same time. He said "I've often found the best answer is to ask a different question. And that question is 'How can I respond to this tragedy in a way that is faithful to God?'" At the time that answer was so bizarre to me that all I could do was to put it aside for future consideration. Seriously, I was thinking what in the world did Todd's answer have to do with my question? I didn't know the answer then, but eventually, I found the answer. Lemonade.
I'm naturally a thinker. I tend to process things that happen me or analyze things that I see happening to others or in the world. In the time after Arisa's death, and spurred on by The Story of the Tree Man, I had plenty of time to think. In fact, if you've ever been through a period of intense grief you know that it's hard to do anything OTHER than think. I feel like the Holy Spirit gave me lots of insights and answers during the ensuing weeks and months. Many of the answers were to questions I hadn't even considered and I had to discover the question to make sense of the answer. I was reminded of one of these insights recently that I had forgotten by a new friend. This friend's email helped inspire me to write this article!
The insight that occurred to me was simply this. There are two types of bad things that happen to me (or anyone else) in their lives. The two types are:
- Bad things that are my fault
- Bad things that are not my fault
While that may seem obvious or simplistic, let me state unequivocally that there is a big difference between the two when grieving. For example, there was a police investigation into Arisa's death. Rightfully so, the police investigate anytime a child dies and especially when they die under mysterious circumstances. My wife and I actually had to speak with a police officer a few hours after she died just so the police could gather our names, contact details and a few details about what happened. However, based on the findings of the medical examiner that ruled her cause of death as unknown it was clear that neither my wife nor I nor anyone else contributed to her death. At least as far as we know. In fact, that is one of the questions that I look forward to asking when I get to Heaven. Shortly after being reunited with Arisa in Heaven, that's something I really would like to know. What happened?
Given that her death was "not my fault", that made her death "socially acceptable". It was easy for friends and family to console and support my wife and me during our times of great sorrow. What would that support have been like if Arisa died because of something intentional, unintentional or just plain stupid that I did? Her death would have been considered "socially unacceptable". What would people have thought of me? You know what people would say if this all played out on social media. Even if it was an accident they would have said I'm an evil person who deserved to be tortured and ridiculed for the rest of my life. Let me suggest that most if not all of the words that some people write in social media in 2018 would also have gone through their minds in 2000. It's just they would not have said anything to me about it in 2000.
My apologies for this tangent but it is really something that bugs me. I promise to get back to the lemonade after I get off my soapbox. It is critical for Christians to support those who are grieving over a loss. In fact, Jesus commands us to do just that in the Beatitudes:
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Matthew 5:4
Having been on the receiving end of this blessing, it is actually one of my favorite verses. Jesus proclaims that people who mourn will be comforted. Exactly who do you think does the comforting? Of course, it is Christians who allow the Holy Spirit to use them as an advocate. We had a few advocates who cared for us during our time of grief. I promise they were infused by the Holy Spirit and they made a great difference by walking with us through the grieving process.
If we are "In the world, but not of the world" then we are called to support our grieving brothers and sisters (Christian or not). Even the person who died did so because it was "their fault" (addiction overdose, suicide, dangerous living, etc.) there is someone who is grieving who need our support and only Christians who are filled with the Holy Spirit can reflect the light of Jesus on them. The only way they can receive the blessing from Jesus is if we do our part to those who mourn. I think this is especially true for supporting non-Christians who are grieving. Christians doing their part supporting someone who is grieving may be the first or only chance non-Christians have to receive a blessing from Jesus. It does not matter why. It only matters who. As in, it does not matter why or who's to blame for their grief. It only matters someone needs support and we as Christians are to provide it.
Speaking of the question "why", let's transition back to lemonade. Apparently asking the question why is the standard human response when bad things happen. I wonder if it's not something God programmed us to think in response to tragedy? Isn't "why" really the same question as something like this?
Surely there's some divine reason for this tragedy and my suffering. Please tell me why you allowed this tragedy God, so I can accept your wisdom and find peace knowing that this tragedy successfully serves a high purpose!
Through Bible reading, prayer and meditation I have come to understand the idea that God does not cause tragedy, although He does allow it. We'll get to this in a moment, but before we do let me ask you a question.
What if you knew with 100% certainty and accuracy the answer to the question "why" your tragedy happened?
Do you think the answer would provide you with comfort and inner peace? Only God knows the future. So if God didn't cause the tragedy then the answer could be something you don't want to accept. For example, why did terrorist kill about 3,000 people in the U.S. on Sept 11, 2001? The answer could be a simple as this. Because bad people who don't like Americans they wanted them to die. I'm not saying I know the answer for sure. I saying that this might be the answer or something like the answer. Does this answer provide you with peace and comfort? It doesn't provide it to me either.
I'm sure you are thirsty for Lemonade and we are almost there; almost. However, before we get there we need to discuss original sin and the theology that we live in a fallen world. If you know anything about Adam and Eve in Genesis 3 you know that they committed the original by eating the apple from the Tree of Life. I'm sure you remember that as a result, humans are imperfect, sinfully and doomed to death and destruction without salvation through Jesus. Did you also remember the God cursed the ground in Genesis 3:17?
17 And to Adam he said,
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
and have eaten of the tree
which I commanded you,
'You shall not eat of it,"
cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain, you shall eat of it all the days of your life;" Genesis 3:17 (Emphasis mine)
And did you connect that together with what Paul said in Romans 8:22 about the whole creation?
22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. Romans 8:22 (Emphasis mine)
What the Bible tells us is that not only are humans imperfect, but also the Earth and the entire universe (creation) is cursed. Ever wonder why we have earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters? It is because the universe is imperfect and the whole of creation has been groaning together in pains of childbirth.
So what does that mean for humans and tragedy? It simply means that because both humanity and nature are imperfect, bad things happen. It's NOT God's will that it should happen, but it does happen because we live in a fallen world.
Let me give you a hypothetical example to consider. If someone broke into your home and brutally tortured and murdered a loved one, is it God's will that this happened? From my study, the answer is definitely no. It is not God's will that this should happen but He does allow it to happen because He has given us free will and we live in a fallen world.
Not sure if you agree? Let me challenge you to read this book, The Will of God by Leslie Weatherhead. Rev. Weatherhead was a preacher at a church in London during World War II. Here's part of the description of the book.
During the tumultuous era of World War II, the city of London shattered under unrelenting bombs dropped by Nazi Germany. Millions of buildings were destroyed or damaged, tens of thousands of civilians were killed, and survivors were left to ask: How can this destruction be part of God’s plan? What is God’s will in all of this?
After City Temple in London was reduced to rubble, Rev. Leslie Weatherhead crafted five sermons on understanding the will of God to help his congregation endure religious doubt as their city—and church—crumbled around them.
In the book, Rev. Weatherhead breaks down God's will into three parts:
- God's Intentional Will
- God's Circumstantial Will
- God's Ultimate Will
God's Intentional Will is that which God intended at the beginning. Did God intend for Adam & Eve to eat the apple? No, he did not. But he did give them free will so that they would have a choice.
God's Circumstantial Will is how God helps people overcome the tragedies of their lives. It's how He helps them make the best of the circumstances. (Lemonade anyone?)
God's Ultimate Will is the point that whatever God originally planned in His intentional will ultimately be accomplished. The good news here is that neither Satan nor humans can subvert God's ultimate will. Whatever His will is, it will ultimately be accomplished. Although, it may take a different path to get there than He originally intended.
If you still have questions after you read what Rev. Weatherhead had to say, go back and look at Job 38-39. God spends two chapters of the book asking Job if he understands the intricacies and mysteries of creation in response to his question why. Here's a small snippet.
1 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said:
2 “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
3 Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me.
4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Job 38:1-4
Finally for the Lemonade.
After lots of Bible study, prayer and meditation and considering everything I had learned above, what was I supposed to make of Arisa's death? What does it mean or at least how can I respond faithfully to God?
God is The Great Lemonade Maker! Only God can make something sweet and tasty out of the sour events of our lives.
Here's the thought process that went through that ultimately led me to that realization.
- Bad things happen to people not because God willed it but because God gave sinful humans free will and we live in a fallen world.
- For those who believe, God can make lemonade out of your lemons. True believers will answer the brilliant question from Todd Harris in a positive way. How can I respond to this tragedy in a way that is faithful to God? This is the path, and the only path, to make lemonade from your lemons.
- Finally, a paradox. When we let God make lemonade out of our lemons, He somehow turns the lemonade into something sweeter and better tasting than it would have been if we had never experienced the lemons (tragedy) in the first place.
I want to expand on the last statement and show you the paradox that I encountered. All people and Christians especially are a product of their gifts, talents, and experiences. Our experiences give us opportunities to use our gifts and talents in ways that are unique and powerful. For example,
- Would I be the Christian that I am today if my daughter Arisa had not died? No, absolutely not.
- Am I'm glad that Arisa died? No, of course not.
- Would I prefer to be less of a Christian than I am today? No way.
- Does that mean my life was all ice cream and cake after Arisa died? Absolutely not, it was very hard.
See the paradox? God transformed my lemons into lemonade by granting me the opportunity to serve Him in ways that I never could before. And let me say that when I use my lemonade to serve Him it is spiritually filling and rewarding.
So, what do you think? Ever been served a cool, refreshing glass by the Great Lemonade Maker?
For me, lemonade is the only way in this crazy world!