Tracks of a Fellow Struggler
Living and Growing Through Grief
"This little book reflects my own encounter with the realties of terminal illness and the death and the grief that follows. It is written from the inside of events, not the outside."
So begins the Preface of John Claypool's moving collection of four sermons devoted to the illness and death of his daughter Laura Lue. Diagnosed with acute leukemia at the age of 8, Laura Lue lived only 18 months with her disease—finally succumbing to her cancer in January 1970. Claypool had been serving as a pastor for nearly two decades, counseling and accompanying those whose life had been touched by grief, when he abruptly had to face crisis and then tragedy in the life of his own child. These sermons have been published and then republished on three separate occasions over the intervening 36 years, most recently by Morehouse Publishing. Their longevity testifies to the honest, searing power with which they were written, as John Claypool put into words his grief over his daughter's illness and death and how his faith had been affected. The sincerity and wisdom of Claypool's writing have helped readers dealing with loss for more than three decades. The chapter below is the sermon preached a month after Laura Lue died.
The following excerpt is used with permission from Morehouse Publishing, an imprint of Church Publishing Inc.
C H A P T E R T H R E E
Life Is Gift
The second medicine was as effective as the first, but for a shorter time span. In August, at the end of our family vacation, several things began to happen and we were never able to maintain another period of remission, although at least four other medicines were tried. Laura Lue attended school only a few scattered days that fall. Our life revolved around intermittent periods of hospitalization and unnumbered trips to the outpatient clinic and emergency room of Children’s Hospital. Toward the end, the treatments became almost impossible, and created the added strain of trying to decide what to continue and what to forego.
We had a memorable Christmas day, which Laura Lue anticipated greatly and planned for carefully. But when that was over, her life processes began to wane. Just two weeks later on a Saturday evening, with the snow falling softly outside the window, Laura Lue died in her own bed, in her own room.
It was a month before I attempted to preach again, and these are the words that broke that prolonged silence.
After these things God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.”He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; and he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place afar off. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the ass; I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.” And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering ?” Abraham said,“God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.
When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. Then Abraham put forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am!”He said “Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son from me.” And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place The Lord will Provide; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” Genesis 22:1–14
For the last eighteen months now, this particular episode out of the life of Abraham has held a great fascination for me. As you might suspect, I can identify in large measure with much that took place there. For example, I know something of the overwhelming shock that Abraham must have experienced when he realized one night that God was demanding his son of him. I found myself engulfed in a torrent of emotions identical to that a year ago last June when I first heard the word “leukemia” spoken about my child. There is no way to describe the mixture of horror and bitterness and terror and fear that churns up within one at the advent of such a realization.
I can also identify with the way Abraham proceeded to respond to this eventuality. As I see him slowly setting out on this journey he had no desire to take, I can almost sense the double agenda that was going on within him. Though intellectually he realized that the worst could very well happen, he does not try to run away but sets his face steadfastly for Moriah. Yet emotionally there is a hope within him that something will intervene even at the last moment to reverse the process.
Abraham gives expression to this residual hope there at the foot of the mountain when little Isaac asks about the lamb for the sacrifice, and I know exactly how he felt. I, too, have lived these last eighteen months with the same double agenda. Facing up with my mind to the fact that Laura Lue’s situation was very serious, I did everything in my power to cope with it realistically. But at the feeling level, I had abounding hope. In fact, I did not realize just how hopeful I really was until that Saturday afternoon as I knelt by her bed and saw her stop breathing. You may find this incredible, but I was the most shocked person in all the world at that moment. You see, deep down, I did not believe she was going to die. In spite of all my mind told me, I found myself clinging to the hope that any day a cure would be found, or that God would see fit to heal her miraculously. I certainly did not demand this of God or feel that God owed it to us. I simply believed that what had happened for Abraham would happen for us, and that even if it came at the last moment, the knife would be stayed.
But, of course, that is not what happened four weeks ago last Saturday, and I am still in the process of trying to take in what did in fact occur. It is at this point that Abraham’s experience and my own break off in different directions. He got to go down the mountain with his child by his side, arid, oh, how his heart must have burst with joy at having come through so much so well.
But my situation is different. Here I am, left alone on that mountain, with my child and not a ram there on the altar, and the question is: how on earth do I get down and move back to the normalcy of life again? I cannot learn from Abraham, lucky man that he is. I am left to grope through the darkness by myself, and to ask: “Where do I go from here? Is there a road out, and if so, which one?”
Let me hasten to admit that I am really in no position to speak with any finality to such a question this morning, for I am still much in shock, much at sea, very much broken and by no means fully healed. What I have to share is of a highly provisional character, for as of now the light is very dim. However, if you will accept it as such, I do feel I have made a few discoveries in these last four weeks that may be of worth to some of you. To be very specific, now that I have looked down three alternative roads that seem to lead out of this darkness, I must report that two of them appear to be dead ends, while a third holds real promise.
The first of these routes comes highly recommended, and I would label it “the road of unquestioning resignation.” If I have been told once, I have been told a hundred times: “We must not question God. We must not try to understand. We have no right to ask or to inquire into the ways of God with humankind. The way out is to submit. We must silently and totally surrender. We must accept what God does without a word or a murmur.”
Now there is both ancient and practical wisdom in this approach to deep sorrow, and in one sense it is utterly realistic, for if I have learned anything in all of this, it is just how weak and ineffectual we humans are against the immensities of life and death. Since I was powerless a month ago to do anything to avert this agony, why bother now to try to struggle with it? I repeat, there is a wisdom of sorts down this road of unquestioning resignation. The only trouble is, it is not a Christian wisdom, and in fact it is a denial of the heart of our faith. I have been frankly dismayed at how many deeply devoted Christians have recommended this way to me, and I have wondered to myself; “Don’t they realize what such an approach implies about the whole of existence?”
To put it bluntly, this sort of silent submission undermines the most precious dimension of our existence; namely, our personhood. It reduces all of life to a mechanical power transaction. To be sure, a leaf submits to the wind without saying a word, and a rock allows the flood water to do whatever it pleases without murmur, but are these appropriate analogies for a relationship between God and human beings?
According to the Bible, they are not, for in this document the mystery of Godness is depicted as involving more than brute force. The One who moves through these pages is by nature a Being of love, “a Father who pitieth his children” rather than a Force who knocks about a lot of helpless objects. And of course, words and questions and dialogue back and forth are at the heart of the way that persons—especially parents and children—ought to relate.
Where, then, did we Christians ever get the notion that we must not question God or that we have no right to pour out our souls to God and ask,Why? Did not Job in the Old Testament cry out to God in the midst of his agony and attempt to interrogate the Almighty? Did not Jesus himself agonize with God in Gethsemane, telling God how he felt and what he wanted, and then cry out from the Cross: “My God, My God! Why? Why have you forsaken me?”Would the verse “Ask and it shall be given you, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you” ever have appeared in Holy Scripture if unquestioning acquiescence had been the way to meet tragedy?
I, for one, see nothing but a dead end down this road of silent resignation, for it is one of those medicines that cures at the expense of killing the organism it is supposed to heal. After all, my questions in the face of this event are a real part of me just now, and to deny them or to suppress them by bowing mechanically to a superior Force is an affront not only to God and to my own nature, but also to the kind of relation we are supposed to have.
There is more honest faith in an act of questioning than in the act of silent submission, for implicit in the very asking is the faith that some light can be given. This is why I found such help in a letter I received from Dr. Carlyle Marney just before Laura Lue died. He admitted that he had no word for the suffering of the innocent and never had, but he said: “I fall back on the notion that God has a lot to give an account for.”
Now, to be honest, no one had ever said anything like that to me before, and at first, it was a little shocking, but the more I thought about it, the truer it seemed in light of the faith of the Bible. At no point in its teaching is there ever an indication that God wants us to remain like rocks or even little infants in our relationship to God. God wants us to become mature sons and daughters, which means that God holds us responsible for our actions and expects us to hold him responsible for his!
I do not believe God wants me to hold in these questions that burn in my heart and soul—questions like: “Why is there leukemia? Why are children of promise cut down at the age of ten? Why did You let Laura Lue suffer so excruciatingly and then let her die?” I am really honoring God when I come clean and say, “you owe me an explanation.” For, you see, I believe God will be able to give such an accounting when all the facts are in, and until then, it is valid to ask.
It is not rebelliousness, then, but faith that keeps me from finding any promise down the road of unquestioning resignation. This approach is closer to pagan Stoicism than Christian humility. I have no choice but to submit to this event of death. Still, the questions remain, and I believe I honor God by continuing to ask and seek and knock rather than resigning myself like a leaf or a rock.
Having said that, however, I need to hasten on to identify a second dead-end route, lest I badly confuse you. It is what I would call “the road of total intellectual understanding,” the way of explaining everything completely or tying up all the loose ends in a tidy answer. To be sure, I have just said that I believe some day God will be able to give account for what God has done and show how it all fits together, but that eschaton is not now. Accordingly, any attempt at this moment to absolutize or to find an answer that will account for all the evidence will either end
in failure or be a real distortion of reality.
I perhaps need to confess to you that at times in the last few months I have been tempted to conclude that this whole existence of ours is utterly absurd. More than once I looked radical doubt full in the face and honestly wondered if all our talk about love and purpose and a fatherly God were not simply a veil of fantasy that we pathetic humans had projected against the void. For you see, in light of the evidence closest at hand, to have absolutized at all would have been to conclude that all was absurd and there was no Ultimate Purpose. There were the times, for example, when Laura Lue was hurting so intensely that she had to bite on a rag and used to beg me to pray to God to take away that awful pain. I would kneel down beside her bed and pray with all the faith and conviction of my soul, and nothing would happen except the pain continuing to rage on. Or again, that same negative conclusion was tempting when she asked me in the dark of the night: “When will this leukemia go away?” I answered: “I don’t know, darling, but we are doing everything we know to make that happen.” Then she said: “Have you asked God when it will go away?” And I said: “Yes, you have heard me pray to him many times.” But she persisted: “What did God say? When did God say it would go away?” And I had to admit God had not said a word! I had done a lot of talking and praying and pleading, but the response of the heavens had been one of silence.
And although in moments like that I was tempted to absolutize about life and arrange all existence around one explaining principle, clearer moments made me realize that such simplicity would not correspond to reality. For you see, alongside the utter absurdity of what was happening to this little girl were countless other experiences that were full of love and purpose and meaning. From people in the clinic and at the hospital, from unnumbered hosts of you in the church and the community, came evidences of goodness that were anything but absurd. And I realized if I were going to judge it all fairly, this data had to be balanced in with equal weight alongside all the darkness.
I was reminded of a conclusion I came to a long time ago which was that you do not solve all the intellectual problems by deciding that everything is absurd. To be sure, it is hard to account for evil on the assumption that God is all-good and all-powerful, but if you do away with that assumption and go to the other extreme, you are then left with the problem of how to account for all the goodness and purpose that most assuredly also exist. This leads me to conclude that expecting to find one total explanation or answer to this situation is futile.
Never has the stark paradox of real darkness alongside of real light been more apparent to me than in the last days, which means I shall continue to ask questions, but not expect, in history at least, to find any complete answer. George Buttrick is right in saying that life is essentially a series of events to be borne and lived through rather than intellectual riddles to be played with and solved. Courage is worth ten times more than any answer that claims to be total.We cannot absolutize in such a way that either the darkness swallows up the light or the light the darkness. To do so would be untrue to our human condition that “knows in part” and does all its seeing “as through a glass darkly.”
For me, at least, the roads called unquestioning resignation and total understanding hold no promise of leading out of the darkness where I lost my child. But remember, I said in the beginning there was a third way, and what little I have learned of it I now want to share.
I call this one “the road of gratitude,” and interestingly enough, it is basic to the story of Abraham and Isaac that serves as our text. Years ago, when I first started taking the Bible seriously, this whole episode used to bother me a good deal. What kind of jealous God is it, I wondered, who would demand a man’s child as a sign of devotion? As I moved more deeply into the biblical revelation, however, I came to realize that the point at issue in this event was not that at all.What God was trying to teach Abraham here and throughout his whole existence was the basic understanding that life is a gift—pure, simple, sheer gift—and that we here on earth are to relate to it accordingly.
The promise that came originally to Abraham from God was literally “out of the blue.” Just as he had not been in on the creation of the world or his own birth, so Abraham had done nothing to earn the right of having a land of his own or descendants more numerous than the stars. Such a promise came as pure gift from God. Abraham was called on to receive it, to participate in it fully and joyfully, to handle it with the open hands of gratitude.
And this, of course, is an image of how human beings were meant to relate to existence itself. Life, too, is a gift, and it is to be received and participated in and handled with gratitude.
But right here is the problem. God had to start all over again with Abraham, because humankind had lost this view of life and instead had tried to earn life by the ardors of legalism or to possess it totally as if it belonged to them alone. All these mistaken relations, of course, served only to curdle life and make of it a crushing burden or a prison of anxiety.
The whole point in the Abraham saga lies in God’s effort to restore human beings to a right vision of life and a right relationship to it. Only when life is seen as a gift and received with the open hands of gratitude is it the joy God meant for it to be. And these were the truths God was seeking to emphasize as God waited so long to send Isaac and then asked for him back. Did Abraham realize that all was gift, and not something to be earned or to be possessed; but received, participated in, held freely in gratefulness? This is the most helpful perspective I have found in the last weeks, and of all the roads to travel, it offered the best promise of being a way out and a way through.
Something that happened to me years ago may help you to understand what I mean. When World War II started, my family did not have a washing machine.With gas rationed and the laundry several miles away, keeping our clothes clean became an intensely practical problem.
One of my father’s younger business associates was drafted and his wife prepared to go with him, and we offered to let them store their furniture in our basement. Quite unexpectedly, they suggested that we use their washing machine while they were gone. “It would be better for it to be running,” they said, “than sitting up rusting.” So this is what we did, and it helped us a great deal.
Since I used to help with the washing, across the years I developed quite an affectionate relation for that old green Bendix. But eventually the war ended, and our friends returned, and in the meantime I had forgotten how the machine had come to be in our basement in the first place.When they came and took it, I was terribly upset and I said so quite openly.
But my mother, being the wise woman she is, sat me down and put things in perspective. She said, “Wait a minute, son. You must remember, that machine never belonged to us in the first place. That we ever got to use it at all was a gift. So, instead of being mad at its being taken away, let’s use this occasion to be grateful that we ever had it at all.”
Here, in a nutshell, is what, it means to understand something as a gift and to handle it with gratitude, a perspective biblical religion puts around all of life. And I am here to testify that this seems to me to be the best way down from the Mountain of Loss. I do not mean to say that such a perspective makes things easy, for it does not. But at least it makes things bearable when I remember that Laura Lue was gift, pure and simple, something I neither earned nor deserved nor had a right to. And when I remember that the appropriate response to a gift, even when it is taken away, is gratitude, then I am better able to try and thank God that I was ever given her in the first place.
Even though it is very, very hard, I am doing my best to learn this discipline now. Everywhere I turn I am surrounded by reminders of her—things we did together, things she said, things she loved. And in the presence of these reminders, I have two alternatives. I can dwell on the fact that she has been taken away, and dissolve in remorse that all of this is gone forever. Or,focusing on the wonder that she was ever given at all, I can resolve to be grateful that we shared life, even for an all-too-short ten years. There are only two choices here, but believe me, the best way out for me is the way of gratitude. The way of remorse does not alter the stark reality one whit and only makes matters worse. The way of gratitude does not alleviate the pain, but it somehow puts some light around the darkness and creates strength to begin to move on.
Now, having gone full circle, I come back to caution you not to look to me this morning as an authority on how to deal with grief. Rather, I need you to help me on down the way, and this is how: do not counsel me not to question, and do not attempt to give me any total answers.Neither one of those ways will work for me. The greatest thing you can do is to remind me that life is gift—every particle of it, and that the way to handle a gift is to be grateful. You can really help me if you will never let me forget this fact, just as I hope maybe I have helped some of you this morning by reminding you of the same thing. As I see it now, the best way out of darkness is the way of gratitude.Will you join me in trying to learn how to travel that way?
Used with permission from Morehouse Publishing, an imprint of Church Publishing Inc. Excerpt from Tracks of a Fellow Struggler: Living and Growing Through Grief © 2004 by John Claypool.