The sting of death and the silence of God

I’m not meant to be writing this. I’m meant to be compiling a sermon for this Sunday addressing the fifth question in our church’s ten-week series: You Asked For It.
The question is a predictable one: How Can a Good God Allow Suffering?

I sit down to create.
I picture myself before the congregation and my mind fills with theodicies.
God is sovereign over our suffering, I say.
He is wise and good and does all things according to the counsel of his will!

I quote promises:
He works all things for the good of those who love him!
What they intended for evil, God intended for good!

(I put emphasis on the ‘intended’ to prove that God isn’t passive in all this.)

I apportion blame:
God created a perfect world. Our suffering is the product of our sin! We are the authors of our downfall! The engineers of our pain! The masterminds of our misery!

I’m cruising now.
Equal parts Bill Lane Craig and Clive Staples Lewis. The noisy, clamouring counter-arguments of the World fall dumb beneath the sweep of my theodicean scythe. 


And then it all falls apart.
The arguments go to dust in my mouth and I choke on them. 
I make a fatal error: I remember my oratorical training and search for an illustration to ground my abstract arguments in experience. 

And I see Her.
A picture of my Mother flanked by her family.
It’s her alright, but, it’s not her, too. Not really.
The portrait has been arranged to capture the family-in-full before it’s too late. Something to call to mind the beauty of what was. An image to outlive the fragility of memory.

She’s sick.

Cancer is advancing through her body like a militant host. Taking no prisoners. Defiling the corporeal like so many mercenaries pillaging a once pacific realm.

She’s sick and she's tired. 

Her deep brown eyes, once vibrant, are now fixed in a faraway gaze. 
Her face, once exuberant (and often arranged to form her characteristic grin) is now drawn, weary.
Her hair, once impossibly thick, has been robbed by a final attempt at drug-induced redemption. The wig in its place only mocks the memory of what was.

She smiles, but it is the smile of a woman in deep, inequitable pain. 

The picture undoes me.
And it helps me see clearly.

All this rhetorical supposition. This theological explanation. This philosophical abstraction.
It serves a purpose, you know. But, for me, its purpose is not to convince or elucidate or justify or compel… Its purpose is to protect. 
To protect me. 
To protect the boy, just turned eight, from going back into that room. That room of vacancy. That room of grief. That room that held the body, but released the soul of my dead Mother.

I fight through the protective cognitive mesh and re-enter that room. 
And I remember.
I remember seeing her there, but knowing she was gone.
I remember kissing her cheek and receiving nothing in return.
For the first time in my life an expression of affection went utterly unanswered.
Perfectly unreciprocated.
- - -
God’s Book speaks:
“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”

Where? Seriously, where?
It’s here, damn it! It’s here! It’s in this room. It’s in this woman's body. It’s in this boy’s heart.
It takes up the space vacated by love and warmth and affection and comfort.

It's here. It’s now.

So, for now.
To hell with your theodicies. They are inept.
They only enhance the sting. 

So, for now.
I’m with Jack.
Soon after his wife’s death, and still reeling, he wrote:

When you are happy, so happy you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be - or so it feels - welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.
— C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

I’m sure, come Sunday, I’ll extoll God’s goodness. I’ll tell those gathered that He is kind and trustworthy and benevolent. That He is present in our sufferings. That He is sovereign over our miseries.

And I'm sure all that is true.

But, for now.
As I stand alone in my Mother's room. All is silent.

How God Saved Me

Classic Christian kid, me. All grace before meals and prayers before bed. Sunday School gold stars plentiful as their astronomical similitudes.

Good stock too. Anglican on Dad's side going back to Cranmer, or something. Baptist on Mum's.
Best of both worlds, me.
Dad helped lead the church. Mum was theologically trained, a missionary, a chaplain, an offer to be the first female Baptist pastor in Australia... Good stock, that.

But then it happened. 17 happened. 17 and drifting. 17 and itching. 

Mum, with Jesus for a decade by now, and Dad, still labouring to raise 4 kids on his own. They had done enough. 17 had come and it was all my fault.

Was the Prodigal Son a 17 year-old?

My Dad worked two jobs to send me to an elite private school. He scraped every cent. He scraped every plate to make dinner stretch further. He didn't eat if we ate out. He didn't buy clothes between '89 and '99. You get the picture - I've already embarrassed him.

But I made sure it was worth all the sacrifice. I studied hard and was made dux of the scho--

Not really. I wasted just about every day. I set up a couch in the 7-11 carpark near school and drank Slurpy syrup and smoked Marlboro Reds. I drank Foster's Extra between classes and drew little pictures on my uniform. I skipped class but swindled marks by having an elite-level ability to talk shite.

Now I was 18 and everyone had gone to Uni. Except me. I hadn't gone to Uni. Uni was for the studious and the cowardly.
Instead I went to America. Land of the brave, and all that. 
I signed up to work at a Camp because they would give me a visa and meals and somewhere to sleep.
It was a Salvation Army camp. The Salvos. The tin-shakers. The Red Shield Appeal. Good ol' Salvos.

I didn't know they were Christians. They didn't know I wasn't. We collided and I was fired.
"We'll send you to a nice Jewish camp in Cali."

Whatever. I'm just here for the longitude. I'm here because it's not home. This is my "distant country" (Lk.15v13)

They ended up changing their mind. I could stay, but...
But then all the Hell started.

"Grandad passed away." I hate when people say that. "Passed away" - like death isn't a rapacious monster.
Cyril Charles Smith. One of God's own. Best Man without the bad speech.
And then the girl whose pictures were all over my cabin dumped me. That didn't take long. Week two.
And then I got sick. Nearly died, they said. "Fever of unknown origin".
And then I was healed. A 250 pound football player laid his mitts on me and prayed to his God and I got better all at once.
And then the campers started freaking-the-hell-out.
Kids from the ghetto. Kids from the projects. Black kids who carried guns and had the faraway gaze of old men. They started getting really scared. Scared enough to cower and to cry. They said there were ghosts in the room. Dark shapes and weird movements. Then a kid's bag caught fire and the unplugged radio in my room started playing the Top 40. I heard footsteps at night over the sound of my thumping heart. I've never been so scared. I didn't sleep with the light off for more than a year. Legit.

And then God just upped and saved me.

I had a Bible with me to make my Dad feel better.
A family photo, an international calling card, a Bible. That'll stop him worrying.
It was given to me when I was 13, and it still had that 'just pressed' sheen. The gilt-edge pages were gleaming like it was 1993. I cracked it open and left it on my bedside table hoping it would ward off bad vibes, or ghosts, or Satan himself.
It was my imitation leather amulet. My gilt-edged talisman. My holy juju.

My room mate told me to read it. To read Job. The one about suffering. The one about Satan. The one about God's mysterious ways.

It took me a while. There's a lot to get through. But the last chapter changed everything. It stopped me in my tracks. It hit me like a terrible lightening bolt of divine beauty. It made me fear God. And love Him.

I've underlined it in every Bible I've owned since. It made complete sense of everything then, and does to this today:

Then Job replied to the Lord:
“I know that you can do all things;
no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.
“You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.’
My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.

Blog Rebrand

Dust & Ashes.

The main drawback with this blog is that it's written by me.
My writing has always been pathetic because I've always written with the audience at the forefront of my mind. What will they think of this piece? How will they view me in light of this sentence? Will they laugh at this hilarious anecdote? Will they swoon at this delicious turn of phrase?


I hope Dust & Ashes is the product of a growing in self-awareness. Namely, the recent realisation that I am not God.
During a particularly brutal season of depression and burnout, a mentor was kind enough to say:
"Jonathan, you are dust."


He was quoting Psalm 103:
As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.

You might think that there are more encouraging things one might say to a depressed person, but for me, it was wonderful news. God's compassion is linked to this realisation...

God is God. I am me.
He is Creator. I am creation.
He is Father. I am son.
He is Sovereign. I am servant.
He is Lord & King. I am dust & ashes.

This blog serves as the reservoir for my stream of consciousness.

A word on being Reformed, but not Restless (or Ruthless)

If we should be ashamed of our being Reformed it's because we have a tendency to be lacking in the patience and tenderness of our Teacher, not because of the truth we embrace. Gentleness, candour, and forbearance should be the sweet fruit of our theology - not their sour antitheticals!

As John Newton said: “The views I have received of the doctrines of grace are essential to my peace; I could not live comfortably a day, or an hour, without them. I likewise believe... them to be friendly to holiness, and to have a direct influence in producing and maintaining a gospel conversation; and therefore I must not be ashamed of them.”