Collateral Damage

There are not enough analogies to describe the death of a son, but in some ways, it is like a bomb. The grief is a crater out which one climbs, if able and lives, if not.  But within the blast radius, there are other casualties and more damage. Some things are left structurally unsound—even unsafe. Many guides to grief cover the familiar stages of grief, but most are less helpful with collateral damage. I am sure my current assessment of the damage is preliminary, but here are few things shattered by Peter’s death.

Hope this side of the grave. I hold tightly, even more tightly, my hope in Christ, resurrection, and eternal life. My hopes, however, for the time between now and the grave are grim. I am ready to be surprised by joy, but it would be a surprise. This is not a complaint; many suffer more and worse than I will. I have been and still am blessed in many ways, but I have no hope that the path between here and the grave will be anything but miserable.

This doesn’t mean that Teckla and I will be unable to enjoy small delights and moments of joy and laughter. The other day Teckla was trying to share her diagnosis with people at the church, but she couldn’t remember the right word. We laughed, and then I whispered “dementia” in her ear. The crater is that we no longer hope for the day when Peter will become the man of God he was meant to be. The collateral damage is that it is hard to pray for deliverance from anything else like Teckla’s dementia. And, of course, Teckla’s dementia has many implications for our immediate future.

I have not decided if my grim outlook is bad or good—or just an expression of my tempermant. I quit teaching sooner than I expected, and we will be selling the house and giving our dog away. We have hauled much to the dump and given away much. Everything feels like loss. Even memory.

But this is still true. I have never been able to out-give God. Again and again, I have made sacrifices—jobs and homes—only to discover God giving me far more than I sacrificed. I suppose the difference now is that I am at an age where I am uncertain if the “far more” is now or in eternity. I may be surprised.

Faith for intercessory prayer. My zeal for praying for people has been blasted. Teckla and I prayed for Peter so long, so often, without seeing any result. Some would say this is because of Peter’s freewill and others will say it is because of God’s sovereignty. Whatever the case, I have no heart for petitionary prayer. Sometimes I just feel that people will do what people will do. Other times, I feel that God will do what God will do. Either way, why pray?

Of course, the simple answer is because, over and over, God says to ask. I don’t have a problem with prayers of praise and adoration. I worship whole-heartedly, though often with tears. But asking God is hard because asking seemed to do so little for Peter. After a person dies, the exhortation, “Hold on! Believe in God! The answer is on the way!” seems hollow and unintentionally cruel.

My answer has been duty, perseverance, and endurance—not concepts popular on the teacher/preacher circuit. I wish I prayed with greater expectation—with real faith and greater energy. But I pray because I ought. Because God is good. Because He commands me to pray.

It may be that the damage done here will be repaired with some answered prayers. Or it may be that perseverance in praying even when hope is wounded is just what God wants. I don’t know.

A personal relationship with God. This sounds worse, I think, than it is. I still have a relationship with God and my commitment to God is body, soul, and spirit. I would like to say that through these last four difficult years, God’s abiding presence has encouraged and strengthened us. The truth is that I could not sense God’s presence or hear him saying anything about the things that were breaking our hearts. It is certainly okay for God to be silent and invisible, after all we walk by faith, not sight, but it is not what one would expect of a personal relationship. A friend who is invisible and silent when you are going through the worst time of your life is not a very helpful friend.

I am sure God was and is there. It is not simply that He did not answer questions about Peter. He said nothing about him. There was no conversation despite the testimony of many fellow believers about all the conversations they have with God.

It also is true that my faith that God will never leave me or forsake me can be a comfort. But unless His presence is made know in some way, it is simply my faith that is comforting me—not God himself. Experientially, God’s absence and invisible presence are not much different. I have felt, and still feel, alone. By faith, I believe I am not. Again, it is right to walk by faith, not feeling—but this does not make for a personal relationship.

So, I don’t know if my relationship with God is damaged. Or if the real damage is to the language I, and many others, use to talk about that relationship. As much as I love, and have even taught on, the concept of friendship with God, I am not experiencing it. Nonetheless, I have the warmest regards for God.

The explanation for this lack of personal relationship could simply be, “It’s you, Wilson!” Some would say, “God is talking to you all the time. You simply aren’t listening. Humble thyself and hear the word of the Lord!”  Others would point out that God speaks through the Bible, and you just need to get into the Word. All this may be true. But I have taken time to listen, and I have stayed in God’s Word and yet that personal, conversational relationship with God is missing.

Hearing God. Because we had, we thought, so many promises from God concerning Peter, it is easy for us to wonder if we heard God rightly or were victims of our love and wishful thinking. Before he was born, Peter’s birth grandmother told us she believed Peter would be adopted by someone in Kansas City and would become a mighty man of God. When he was one, I wrote a prayer for him and pushed into a crack in the temple wall in Jerusalem. I felt strongly that God had a purpose for him in Israel and with the Jewish people.

A few days after Peter was born, I held him in my arms. As he opened his blue eyes for the first time, the first words I spoke were, “Feed, my sheep.” From that moment in the county hospital in San Bernadino, I believed that in one way or another God would use Peter to shepherd the lost and scattered flock of God. But after all his struggles with addiction and all the vices that came with it, and then his death, it is hard to believe we heard God rightly. I now hesitate to claim any promises except those given to all believers everywhere.

Yes, it is possible, maybe even probable, that all the promises concerning Peter were only invitations that Peter was free to refuse or accept. After all, God promised to make Israel a light unto the nations, but often they rebelled or refused. So maybe my prophecies and promises weren’t simply fantasies spun out of our hopes and love for Peter. I am, nonetheless, damaged here. Only rightly hearing God concerning something can repair my faith in my ability to hear God.

Faith in the power of God. I certainly, in the abstract, have faith in God’s power, but with Peter and many others, it seems darkness is winning. I see more drifting away from God than coming to God. I see families broken, saved addicts returning to addiction, and large numbers of young people sprinting from God. The church appears to be in full retreat. I have prayed for a visitation of God in most of the places I have lived, but not much has happened.

Peter’s death feels like such a resounding defeat. I would like to see the victory of people surrendering their lives to Christ, chains of addiction broken, the lost and wandering finding their true home in the arms of their loving Father. Right now, I feel like I am cringing before the enemy, afraid for whoever else might be snatched away.

The damage done here is serious and needs repair. My only answer is to hold fast and keep advancing by speaking God’s love and His power to deliver from sin, Satan, and death. But I am weary. My voice unconvincing.

This is my preliminary assessment of the collateral damage—I suspect there is more. It is also possible that the damage is less than I think. I am probably still seeing the ruins from the bottom of the crater.

I should add, however, in every way the church, the body of Christ, has been the hands and feet of Jesus ministering to us. Through them, God has been a present help in our time of need. So, even though much has been torn down, my belief in the importance of community as a means of grace has grown stronger.

I wonder if much that we hope to experience individually as believers, God means for us to experience only in community. I am certain that is where God will rebuild what can, or ought to, be restored.  

About Mark

I live in Myrtle Point, Oregon with my wife Teckla and am the father of four boys. Currently I teach writing and literature at Southwest Oregon Community College. I am a graduate of Myrtle Point High School, Northwest Nazarene College, and have a Masters in English from Washington State University.
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