Category Archives: Death

Dealing With Life’s Most Persistent Question: Part 12 – The Top 10 Most Persistent Questions

Mt St Helens 7-9-11 PSYou don’t know what you don’t know. And you will never know exactly how another person feels or the depth of their personal suffering. I’ve spent almost 40 years of my life as a pastor and counselor. During those years I’ve empathetically listened as people have poured out their hearts and told me their stories. Some are horrific, catastrophic, or tragic beyond belief. All are filled with emotions from violent anger to shocked bewilderment. While the people and stories are all unique, the questions articulated remain very similar and all are a variation of what I’ve been calling life’s most persistent question, “Why?”

“God wants to build character in our lives,” I once mused to a young father with three children who was mourning the loss of his wife from cancer.

“I don’t need any more character,” he shouted at me. “I need my wife back!”

Ouch! His explosion reminded me of the then-recent eruption of Mt. St. Helens (pictured above almost 35 years after the explosion).  I was a young pastor and just trying to make sense myself out of his tragic circumstances. Parroting what I truly believed, but without any comprehension of his own incredible grief, my words, that were intended to soothe and answer, simply applied salt to his wounded heart. I’ve learned a few things about suffering myself since then and would never make such a statement under similar circumstances today.

Based upon many such encounters with grieving souls, I’ve compiled a list of the top 10 most persistent questions. Much has been written about them, and I seriously doubt what I might say will shed any additional light on the topic. But by their very nature, they persistently remain the questions that cross generational, societal, and geographical boundaries. They are universal questions, asked by all people in all places at all times. And in one way or another, they are also questions considered by the ancients and recorded in the pages of the Bible.

While there are personalized versions of every one of these, the general questions are universal.  And when asked in a real-life situation, every one of them are typically accompanied by a pretext. For example, “If God is all powerful, why doesn’t God prevent tragedy?” or “God answers prayers for other people, why doesn’t God answer my prayers? Here are my top 10:

10.   Why would a loving God send someone to hell?

9.     Why doesn’t God prevent corrupt leaders from coming into power?

8.     Why doesn’t God put an end to all suffering?

7.    Why does God allow innocent children to be victimized and harmed?

6.    Why doesn’t God heal everyone who asks?

5.    Why doesn’t God prevent tragedy?

4.    Why does God allow evil?

3.    Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?

2.    Why do evil people prosper?

1.    Why do the righteous suffer?

Before you quickly attempt to provide pat answers to these questions, consider the fact that these questions are consistently universal and ubiquitous—they appear everywhere at all times. If our philosophical and theological answers were adequate to explain the human condition on a level beyond the intellect, wouldn’t people stop asking them, and have stopped doing so years ago?

And please remember that they are posed in the midst of great turmoil of soul and spirit, typically generated by circumstances that have destroyed the fabric of human decency and order. They are not questions that inquire or call for a philosophical or even theological dialogue, although that sometimes occurs and may be profitable. No, these questions are more like a rhetorical shotgun blast, an interrogation generated by an internal explosion of angst and turmoil of the soul—triggered by external circumstances beyond our control.

These are questions that at the same time demand an answer, while not really expecting any single answer to sufficiently explain the catastrophe of a broken life and heart. So, how do we respond? How should we respond? And what do you think about the questions themselves? Are there other questions you would add to the top 10? I’d love to hear what you think, and I’ll share my thoughts in a later post. I will tell you this, Mt. St. Helens is proof that time may bring beauty out of the most explosive of circumstances. It takes time, but time alone does not heal all wounds. Ultimately, only Jesus does that.

Remembering Memorial Day

Don Detrick at David Brainerd GraveI like to visit cemeteries, like this old one in Northampton, Massachusetts, where I visited the grave of Pioneer American missionary, David Brainerd. I know that seems odd to most people. But there is something about visiting a cemetery populated by reminders of the past that makes me more aware of the present. And I always enjoy the history provided there, causing me to reflect on the legacy I might be able to leave behind, or not, depending upon what I do today and whatever tomorrows I have left on this earth.

As a boy growing up in rural Oregon, Memorial Day meant noisy boat races in the nearby Willamette River and a ritual my parents carried out as a sacred duty. They called it “Decoration Day” as it was a day for decorating the graves of our departed family members. Rising early in the morning, we would enter our yard and garden to pick the flowering white blossoms of the snowball tree, pink peonies, orange and yellow day lilies, red rhododendrons or azaleas– anything that happened to be blooming at the moment, colorful and fragrant. Dad was particularly fond of iris, which he always called, “flags.” These cut flowers were carefully arranged in Mason jars and off to the cemetery we would go. My parents would reminisce on the way there and back about relatives I never knew except what I gleaned via those conversations.

Today, many Americans have no idea why we celebrate Memorial Day, viewing it only as a reason for a 3-day weekend.  I once asked an Israeli cardiologist who was a resident at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles what he thought about living here. He replied, “I don’t understand your Memorial Day. In Israel it is a very sacred and serious day when we remember those who have died and given their lives for our nation. In America, it is a huge shopping day and sale.”

Memorial Day has traditionally been a day of remembering the many heroes who lost their lives during the Civil War and other wars in which the United States has been involved. All told, more than 1.35 million lives have been lost in America’s wars since our nation’s beginning.  However, for many people, Memorial Day is also a time to honor all loved ones who have passed on before us.

The American Civil War was the deadliest war in American history, and the only one fought on our own soil, with more than 625,000 killed on both sides. Three years after the Civil War ended, on May 5, 1868, the head of an organization of Union veterans – the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) – established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared it should be May 30. It is believed the date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country. The first large observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.

The ceremonies centered on the mourning-draped veranda of the Arlington mansion, once the home of Gen. Robert E. Lee. Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant and other Washington officials presided. After speeches, children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home and members of the GAR made their way through the cemetery, strewing flowers on both Union and Confederate graves, reciting prayers and singing hymns.

In 1966, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y., the “birthplace” of Memorial Day. There, a ceremony on May 5, 1866, honored local veterans who had fought in the Civil War. Businesses closed and residents flew flags at half-staff.

By the end of the 19th century, Memorial Day ceremonies were being held on May 30 throughout the nation. State legislatures passed proclamations designating the day. The Army and Navy adopted regulations for proper observance at their facilities. It was not until after World War I, however, that the day was expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars. In 1971 Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress, though it is still often called Decoration Day. It was then also placed on the last Monday in May, as were some other federal holidays.

Gen. Logan’s order for his posts to decorate graves in 1868 “with the choicest flowers of springtime” urged: “We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. … Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”

The crowd attending the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery was approximately the same size as those that attend today’s observance, about 5,000 people. Then, as now, small American flags were placed on each grave – a tradition followed at many national cemeteries today. In recent years, the custom for many families is to remember their departed loved ones by visiting cemeteries and cleaning up tombstones, or laying flowers or decorations on graves.[1]

Why do we need a special day to remember the dead?  The answer is simple – it is too easy for the living to forget about them.  Speaking of the dead, the writer of Ecclesiastes says, “For the memory of them is forgotten.”  (Ecclesiastes 9:5b NKJV)  He goes on to say, “Whatever they did in their lifetime – loving, hating, envying – is all long gone. They no longer have a part in anything here on earth.”  (Ecclesiastes 9:6 NLT)

While dedicating the Gettysburg National Cemetery on November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln said:

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.  It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Today we know that to a great extent it was the resolve of President Lincoln that brought an end to both the Civil War and slavery, thus creating a “new birth of freedom.”  The United States of America still exists today because of the principles set forth in a graveyard dedication speech, the Gettysburg Address. Thus it is fitting for us who remain in this day to remember and show honor and respect on this Memorial Day in 2015–and maybe visit a cemetery to pay our respects. Who knows, you might actually enjoy it!

[1] Some information taken from “The Origins of Memorial Day” from the Department of Veteran’s Affairs office of Public Relations at http://www.va.gov/pubaff/mday/mdayorig.htm.

Dealing With Life’s Most Persistent Question: Part 8

Sunset rolling farm fields Portrait along Hwy 90 near Ritzville WA 4-29-15On the Emmaus Road, late afternoon shadows lengthened as Cleopas and his buddy were walking along and asking questions—probably rhetorical questions. They may or may not have expected answers, but they needed to ask the questions. Their questions represent the dilemmas many of us face in the journey of life:

  •  “What are we going to do now? What is going to happen to us?”
  • “If He did rise from the dead, how did he do it?”
  •  “Why did this happen to a good guy like Jesus? He didn’t deserve to suffer like that.”

The Bible says “they communed together and reasoned…” (Luke 24:15, kjv). The Greek word for “reasoned” is suzeteo and means “make a thorough investigation.” These guys wanted to know what was going on. They were posing the questions of suffering that everybody asks at one time or another.

First, we want to know “What happened?” or “How did this happen?” This is the quest for details. We want to understand fully the whole story. Like hearing the news of a friend’s sudden death, we want to understand how it happened. Was it an accident or a sudden illness? We want to know who, what, when, and where. Details of information will be passed back and forth to satisfy our need to know.

Second, “Why did this happen?” This is a more profound question, and one that consistently persists. Once we know how, we want to know why. The “why” questions are always the most difficult, indeed they are life’s most persistent questions. They often defy solution. We search for reasons. Like Cleopas and his buddy, we investigate and seek answers, even though they often can’t be found in the here and now.

  • “Why did Jesus return to Jerusalem if He knew people wanted to kill him?”
  • “Why did Peter deny Jesus?”
  • “Why did Judas betray Jesus and then kill himself?”
  • “Why didn’t Jesus stop the people who were killing him?”
  •  “Why didn’t we all stick together?”

When we are troubled, it is helpful to remember that Jesus walks with us on our journey of life. He is never distant or far away. While these disciples were walking along and trying to figure things out, Jesus drew near to them. During troubled times we may think God is a million miles away. Panic sets in when we feel abandoned. We don’t usually make good decisions when we are in a state of panic or fear. And fear makes a poor lens for viewing life. It distorts reality and magnifies problems. It makes God appear to be far away while trouble appears to be next door.

Jesus is as close as the mention of his name. The Bible is full of promises about God’s nearness and comfort during our times of sorrow and grief. The journey may get rough at times, but Jesus will strengthen our faith as we recognize his presence and trust the promises of Scripture:

  • God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. (Psalm 46:1)
  • God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. (Acts 17:27)
  • For He Himself has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5, nkjv)
  • … surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matthew 28:20)
  • Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:9, nkjv)

Never forget:  Jesus is bigger than your questions, and as close as the mention of his name.

Dealing With Life’s Most Persistent Question: Part 6

Ghost Tree Middle of Cottonwoods Meadowbrook Farm - Nostalgic Purple 4-16-15Sometimes God uses this life’s greatest losses to bring about heaven’s greatest gains.

Perhaps like Mary and Martha in the Bible who lost their brother Lazarus, you have experienced the death of a loved one and been deeply grieved. Grief is a process and it takes time to process our feelings of grief and loss—tempered with the comfort of the Holy Spirit and hope of heaven.

The story of Mary and Martha’s grief at the death of their beloved brother draws me into the drama of the situation. And that is where I discover what has become one of my favorite verses in the Bible. It also happens to be the shortest verse in the Bible—the go-to verse for those who are not gifted with a good memory but want to remember a verse in the Scriptures.  John 11:35, “Jesus wept.”  If you are not familiar with the context, this verse begs the question, “Why?”  Why did Jesus weep?

Jesus wept because of the grief he saw in the lives of his good friends Mary and Martha after the sudden and untimely death of their brother Lazarus. I love this chapter because it provides so many of the answers to the “why?” questions about life and death. Here are a few of the lessons I learn from this:

  1. John 11:5 tells us that “Jesus loved Mary, Martha and Lazarus:” Despite our circumstances, we should never forget that God loves us and wants what is best for us.
  2. John 11:19 tells us that Mary and Martha’s friends gathered: We learn that friends can help us process our grief and bear our burdens.
  3. It is normal to have questions when death suddenly takes a loved one: Mary and Martha were grieving – and they sent for Jesus while their brother was still alive, but Jesus did not respond to their request until after Lazarus died. Naturally, they were disappointed, and somewhat angry. So much so that when Jesus finally did arrive with his disciples, Martha (always the one associated with action) goes out to meet him and rather accusingly exclaims, “If you had been here, our brother would not have died.”
  4. Martha showed her belief and hope when she said, “Even now, you could do something.”
  5. What followed is an important lesson for us about life and death and belief in Jesus: John 11:23-27 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
  6. Martha shared the good news that Jesus had come and sent a secret message to her grieving sister, Mary. “The Master is here, and He is calling for you.” (Matthew 11:28)
  7. We tend to tell ourselves a story to accommodate our pain and resolve our incredulity at our circumstances.  Mary rehearsed the same speech her sister Martha had given. “Jesus, if you had been here, our brother would not have died.” No doubt they had said this over and over. If only. . .”
  8. Jesus cares about our grief. Upon seeing Mary and the weeping, grieving crowd, “Jesus wept.” This is perhaps one of the most poignant verses in all of Scripture. It lets us know that Jesus really was “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.”
  9. Others recognized the compassion and power of Jesus.  Yet, they still searched for reasons and asked questions:  Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
  10. Jesus was moved by their compassion, in spite of their questions and reasoning. John 11:38Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb.” Where He proceeded to call Lazarus from the grave!

A final takeaway from this:  When other people see our faith in Jesus, despite our grief and questions and reasoning, they will be drawn to Him.

“Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him.” (John 11:45 NIV)

Because sometimes God uses this life’s greatest losses to bring about heaven’s greatest gains!