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Tim Challies

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April 29, 2008

Mark was determined to die. And in retrospect there was really nothing anyone could have done to stop him.

His first attempt came when he was 18 and it left him with scars running the length of his arms. His sister found him sitting calmly in the bathtub, a razor blade lying in the pool of blood. Help arrived in time to save him. When he was released from hospital his parents took him to the finest psychiatrists in the city. Each one of them diagnosed him with something different: one said he had a personality disorder and another schizophrenia. One even told him that he was “just a punk” who was bent on defying his parents and making their lives miserable. I think this one may have been on to something.

Mark overdosed on pills on his sister’s birthday. She had invited a few friends to spend the night and they were in the family room watching a movie when he came down to the basement, delirious from the medication cocktail he had consumed. Another call to 9-1-1 and another stay in the hospital once again saved his life. This time he was admitted to a psychiatric institution where he spent several months resting and recovering. Upon his release, ominously, he told his parents that if he wanted to kill himself there was nothing they would be able to do to stop him.

So what was the family to do? Sure, his family could have tried to ensure that someone was with him every hour of every day, but that would have left his entire family in a state of bondage. They hoped against hope that he had, indeed, recovered, and that he had found some reason to live. They prayed that he would find something worth living for. They grew to trust him, believing at last that he had found reason to go on living. Perhaps his artwork or even his writing could give him the inspiration to face life.

But his artwork was dark as death. His room was filled with dolls, covered in blood and in various states of torture and dismemberment. It sends chills down my spine just to think of it.

One Sunday in July Mark finally won his battle. No one knew he was still so determined to die. His plan was elaborate. It was cruel.

Sunday morning his mother climbed into her car, planning to go to the store. On the steering wheel was a note from Mark saying that he had taken his life, that it was too late to save him, and that he had left clues about his suicide in places they did not expect. His mother, hysterical, ran into the house. After quickly skimming the note, his father ran upstairs and into Mark’s room. Mark lay on the floor, already stiff and cold. A mask ran from a tank of helium to his face. A block of wood had held the valve open as he breathed in the poisonous gas. Mark was dead.

I was asked to come and be with the family just hours after Mark’s death. The coroner had just left when I arrived. The phone was ringing as neighbors called to ask why there had been police cars and an ambulance outside the house. My wife and I sat with the family as they poured out their grief and their guilt. Shouldn’t they have known that he was going to try this again? Shouldn’t they have been able to prevent it? If only they had decided to walk into his room the night before! Mark’s father, searching for meaning in the face of tragedy, spoke of Mark’s death as a gift to the family. Maybe, he said, just maybe, Mark had seen how his problems had contributed to the troubles the family had experienced recently. Maybe Mark took his life so that the family could put aside their differences and renew their commitment to remaining together. Maybe, in some bizarre way, Mark sacrificed himself for the good of others. Maybe this was Mark’s gift. Maybe there was just a little bit of light amidst all the darkness.

Mark gave his family another gift. He left little notes in unexpected places. After his death the family would open a book and find a cruel note he had left there just before he died. His sister opened her Bible and found many passages highlighted. Mark had asked to borrow it and had highlighted passages throughout the Gospels and through Romans that outlined the way of salvation. I’ve often wondered if he understood the passages he had highlighted. I hope he did.

Aileen and I and the members of the church we attended gathered around the family, which has no relatives in North America, providing them with food and taking care of the funeral planning. One of the strangest experiences of my life was returning that helium tank to the store Mark had rented it from. The clerk was quite upset that I did not have the receipt for the tank and told me I could not return the tank until I found it. He finally relented when I told him that there had been a tragedy within the family and he was not going to get a receipt, ever.

In the days following Mark’s death, his parents did reconcile, at least for a time. His mother, who had been living a few minutes away, moved back in with his father. His sister moved home from school, and for the first time in many months the family was truly together.

The funeral was a study in opposites. Or perhaps it was a study in unity. Mark’s friends mostly occupied one side of the church. They dressed in jeans and t-shirts, mostly black. Many of them wore the distinctive makeup of so-called Goths. Many wore pentagrams. Yet these people, so obsessed with death, seemed unable to deal with death’s stark reality. As they stared at his body, lying at peace in the coffin, they broke down. Many of them felt the need to touch him, tousling his hair or touching his shoulder. One or two of them pushed little baggies of marijuana into his coffin.

The friends of Mark’s sister occupied the other side of the church. These seemed mostly to be clean-cut businessmen and churchgoers. His parent’s colleagues, largely professors and scientists, were mixed among them. An overflow room was needed to hold the members of his sister’s church (my church at the time) who came to show their support for her.

These two groups, so different from each other, were united in their grief. Some grieved for the loss of a friend. Others grieved for the grief their friends were feeling. Two of them grieved for a son they were unable to help. One grieved for her only sibling. Throwing herself on her brother’s body, Mark’s sister wept as she poured out her grief that she would never be an aunt. She was now an only-child.

I love her as a sister. She spent countless hours with my family when she was younger and seemed to become another sibling. I told her then that if she ever needs a big brother I am only a phone call away. But I know I’m a cheap substitute for the God-given gift of a flesh-and-blood brother.

The family asked me to read from the Bible and pray at the funeral. What could I say about a young man who hated God and did all he could do to defy Him? What could I say that would provide some comfort to the family and help them through this terrible time? The answer, obviously, was absolutely nothing. So I prayed that God would comfort them. I prayed that God would make Himself real to them and provide them with the strength to go on.

I carried Mark’s coffin to the grave. We laid it down beside the little patch of plastic grass, placed there to cover the stark reality of freshly-dug soil, and solemnly stepped back. His friends soon surrounded the coffin, pulling out their cigarettes as if to share one last smoke with their friend. While they tossed their cigarette butts to the ground beside his coffin one or two placed a flower on top. The pastor led us in a prayer. And then we turned and walked away.

Years have passed since Mark’s body was laid to rest on a hill in a quiet cemetery. Mark’s gift has been forgotten. His parents have gone their separate ways. His sister has moved to Australia where she is involved in ministry, rescuing girls from a life of prostitution. Her mother was baptized about a year after Mark’s death, having been led to the Lord by the simple love of the Christians who surrounded them during those dark days. His father has moved away and remarried.

Mark left pleasant memories of his childhood, but little more than heartbreaking memories of his teenage years. The family has fractured, unable to find grounds for reconciliation. His death was senseless; purposeless. Mark left his family no gift.

But the light still shone even when all seemed so dark. God, who specializes in working good from evil, was able to take what was senseless and purposeless and use it to build His kingdom. All credit goes not to the person who caused the pain, but to the One who used it for good.

Yes, I did post an article awfully similar to this several years ago. Somehow it just seemed timely to post one like it again…

January 07, 2008

A few years ago Chris and Rebecca, close friends of ours, shared with us that her grandfather, Art, had been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. The doctors considered it terminal and inoperable, saying that it was one of the most aggressive forms of brain cancer. He would have only a couple of months to live and for much of that time, especially as the end approached, he would be in agonizing pain. Like the rest of their friends and family, we prayed for this family, asking that God would strengthen them and that He would either heal her grandfather or take him home before the pain became too much to bear.

Rebecca’s family is spread across three provinces, one state and thousands of miles. Yet in the weeks following Art’s diagnosis, he was able to spend time with each of his children, with his nine grandchildren and their spouses and with his four great-grandchildren. Soon he and his wife found themselves in small-town Saskatchewan visiting Chris and Rebecca and their immediate family. Their little daughter, only a couple of years old at the time, loved to hug him, to sit on his lap and to rub his face between her hands. She squealed with delight when she saw him and the family was able to capture some wonderful pictures and video of them together. Art also delighted to meet his newest granddaughter who was only a few weeks old and who was named after his wife. Rebecca was able to spend some precious, quality time with him; sitting at his feet and listening to him recount God’s goodness and faithfulness in his life. He and Chris sat together playing the piano and singing hymns to the Lord.

Art was at peace with what he knew was coming. He was ready to die. Still, he never doubted that if God saw fit, He might send the cancer into remission and extend his life here on earth.

On the second or third evening he spent with Chris and Rebecca and their family he began to feel tired and went to lie down in the living room. The family slowly migrated to his side and they spent the evening there with him. He sat on the sofa, holding his wife’s hand, reminiscing about how they had met and had fallen in love. He told about his young son who had died many years before. Then he took Chris and Rebecca’s baby in his arms and read her a blessing from the book of Numbers. “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” And shortly after, in mid-sentence, as he was answering a question Rebecca had asked him, his head settled back, his chest rose and fell once or twice more, and he was gone.

Perhaps it is more correct to say that he had arrived. He had left his wife’s side—his wife who had shared his life with him—and had gone to the side of His Savior, who had given His life for him.

The family found out later that at the very moment he died, but on the other side of the country, a prayer meeting was underway. The church that Rebecca’s uncle attends was praying that God would take him home soon, to spare him an excruciating end. God saw fit to answer innumerable prayers. He spared Art so much pain, but first allowed him to spend some precious moments with his family—moments that will never be forgotten. Imagine how precious the blessing will be to Chris and Rebecca’s daughter when she is able to understand it. While she will not remember her great-grandfather, she will know how he loved her and will know how he held her up before the Father.

And it was such a blessing to me to hear about this man of God. I do not mean to glorify death, for I know that however and whenever it happens, it is an unnatural passing and a consequence of human sin. Yet sometimes even something so unnatural can excite the heart. To know that a man who loved God and lived life in His service has gone to his home! He escaped all that is unnatural in this life and went to be with the One he was created to be in communion with. He has gone where his heart ached to be. His desire, like Paul’s was “to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” Such a death is an occasion for both joy and sorrow—sorrow for the departure and the necessity of it, but joy for the arrival and all the blessing that brings.

Though I never met Art, he has often been on my mind. When I heard of his death I prayed for Chris and Rebecca and the family that the Comforter would bring them peace. And I prayed that God would let me stay strong, just like Art. Oh, that death might come so gently when my time approaches. That in a moment I might be able to go from the hand of my wife to the hand of the Savior is almost too precious to believe. Thanks be to God that we can all have such hope and such assurance of eternal life, if only we will trust in Christ, just as Art did.

November 16, 2007

One of the unexpected blessings of writing this blog is that it sets in stone (so to speak—it’s actually more like pixels) things that I’ve believed and things that I’ve felt. I use the blog, in some ways, as a record of spiritual development. I return quite often to articles I’ve written in the past to challenge myself anew or to recount God’s grace in my life.

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine who was a former co-worker and manager, succumbed to leukemia. It had actually been a few years since Mike and I had worked together and we had seen each other only occasionally since the company we had both worked for shut down. I found out about the leukemia through his wife who included me in the updates she would send out every week or two in order to keep friends and family appraised of his condition. I read these with increasing delight as he began to show positive signs of recovery, and with horror as the disease rallied and began to destroy him. I went to his home once to fix his wife’s computer. Mike was in the hospital at that time and his wife was nearly overwhelmed. “You know God, right? Tim, you’ve got to pray for us!” she cried out at one point. And I did.

I got in to the hospital to see Mike just once. Because of his weakened condition only visitors who were very healthy were allowed to visit him. We sat and talked and recounted old times. I wanted to know about Mike’s spiritual condition. It was obvious by that point that he was unlikely to survive his illness and I was concerned to know about his standing with the Lord. But before I could really ask him, a nurse swept into the room and told me the visit was over—Mike had to have some kind of awful but all-too-regular procedure. Mike soon took a turn for the worse and, after ten days in the palliative ward, he died. The day after I received the notice from his wife that he had been admitted to the palliative ward I sat down and wrote an article that continues to haunt me. It went like this:

How does a man say goodbye to his little girls, knowing that he will never see them again? And how does he do so without letting them know that this is the last time they will see their daddy? Does he look them straight in the eyes and affirm his undying love for them, or do words fail him so that he can do little more than hug and kiss them for the last time and then send them on their way? Does he still hold out hope that he will see them again? Or does he know in his heart of hearts that this is the end? Maybe he is so worn down from his long fight with cancer that he can barely feel or express emotion anymore. Maybe he just wants to be gone.

Yesterday I heard from the wife of my friend Mike that he has been accepted into the Palliative ward of a local hospital. It was almost exactly one year ago that he was diagnosed with leukemia and since that time all treatments have failed. At this point all they can do is attempt to relieve his suffering as he succumbs to the disease. His body will probably not hold out for another week. Soon he will leave his wife and his little girls on their own.

Those little girls are five and three - the same as my children. Mike has been married as long as I’ve been married and is around the same age. A couple of years older, I guess. But he isn’t all that much different than me. I guess that’s why his approaching death is so real; so vivid.

I wonder if the girls knew. Sometimes we do not give children enough credit. Maybe their intuition told them that something was happening. Probably not. Hopefully not. I hope all they know is that daddy is going back to the hospital and that they are going to spend a week with grandma. How are they supposed to guess, after the hundreds of times daddy has gone to the hospital, that this is his last time? How can they know that they have given daddy their final kiss? Will they even remember him when they are all grown up? Or will daddy be only a face in photographs who brings a lump to the throat, even after so many years?

As far as I know, Mike does not know the Lord. We had plenty of opportunities to talk about spiritual matters when we worked for the same company and I don’t think Mike ever understood the value of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. If anything I’d say Mike was more a follower of Dr. Phil than of Jesus. There is not much I wouldn’t give at this point to be able to go and and ask him exactly what he believes. The imminence of death would surely give me the boldness I lacked even a couple of months ago when I last sat with him.

So now I sit here at the time when it is too late, wondering why I did not do more. Sure I told the family that I was praying for them and asked if I could pray with them. And sure I tried to get Mike to think about preparing for eternity. But I did so in such a pathetic way. Such a half-hearted way. I burn with shame as I write these words thinking of all I didn’t do and didn’t say. I feel burdened with guilt that Mike is days or maybe even hours away from standing before God, and that I did not make one clear, strong presentation of the gospel. I failed him. And I failed God.

Do you know what may be even worse? The likelihood that I’ll get over it. Two days from now I probably won’t even think of Mike. I’ll get busy with my life and the guilt will ease away. In a week or two I guess I’ll attend his funeral and feel this guilt again, but a few days after that I’ll conveniently put Mike out of my mind and go back to life. But you know what? I don’t want to get over it!

Truly I don’t.

This burden I feel right now - why can’t I feel this same burden for the lost all the time? Why is it a burden birthed from guilt rather than from a desire to see the lost be saved? I’ve asked God to tell me why. The only answer I find is the hardness of my own heart.

Still, with hope in my heart I pray for Mike, that maybe, just maybe, there will be someone in that hospital who can reach out to him with the message I failed to bring. Maybe God will bring to Mike’s mind some fragment of Scripture he heard as a child, or some words I shared with him years ago. Maybe. Hopefully.

With hopeful sadness I pray for Mike’s family, that somehow God would use this awful situation to draw them to Himself. That somehow God would make His presence felt and provide meaning through the pain.

And then with tears I pray for myself, that God would not allow this burden to disappear, but that he would use my shortcomings to teach me how I can do better next time, not simply to avoid this crushing, burning guilt, but to use the opportunities He provides.

Because I just don’t want to get over it. Oh God, please don’t let me get over it!

As I indicated, I return to this article fairly frequently. It stands as a reminder to me. It stands as a pillar of sorts, a reminder of a time that I did not take an opportunity that was given to me and a time that I feared men more than God. It allows me to remember the crushing guilt and the burning shame. It allows me to remember that I cried out to God not to let me commit the same sin again.

But it is also an opportunity to cast myself at the foot of the cross and to remember that Christ died to forgive even a sin like this. It is an opportunity to hope that someone, anyone, reached Mike with the gospel before he was called to account. And it is an opportunity to reaffirm that God is sovereign and that if Mike was to be counted among the people of God, the Lord would have used any means to reach out to one of His children. Despite my faithlessness, He is faithful.