The grass at Glen Oaks Cemetery had already begun to fade from its bright summer green to its drab winter brown on the day we first visited. The November breeze blew cold upon us as we walked the rows of graves to choose the spot where we would bury our son. We eventually chose a plot near the end of a long row, beneath the shade of a young tree. A few days later we watched his coffin be lowered into the ground in that very spot. We heard the pastor, my dearest friend, say the dreaded words, “Dust to dust.” We stood together as a family, arms linked, tears flowing, hearts breaking.
And now we have come to the next November and I find myself standing in that very same spot reflecting on a year that has come and gone. I have heard some people refer to this as a “deathday,” a morbid parallel to “birthday.” I prefer to stick with the wordier and more formal “anniversary of his death.” And, indeed, today is the first anniversary of the day Nick went to heaven. A full year has passed since we received the news that he had collapsed, since we heard that he had been rushed to hospital, since the doctor called to say, “We did everything we could.” A full year has passed since Aileen and I looked each other in the eye and said, through sobs, “We can do this.” A full year has passed since a night so traumatic that most of it has disappeared from memory, or perhaps been buried in a place beyond remembering.
The last year has brought the deepest sorrows I’ve ever known. I have had to say farewell to my firstborn child, my only son, without having said a proper “goodbye.” I have witnessed the people I love most in all the world passing through their darkest valley. I have sat awake long into the night to soothe sorrows and dry tears. I have laid awake through the wee hours preaching truth to myself meant to counter waves of fear and anxiety. In the darkness of night I have awoken to the cries and sobs of hearts that have been so badly broken. I have learned to grieve, I have learned to weep, I have learned to lament.
But though the last year has been one of so many sorrows, it has also been one of so many blessings. As I look back on the most difficult of years, I also look back on the most blessed of years. As I ponder the year since my hardest day, I find my heart rising in praise to God. I find my eyes wet with tears, but my heart filled with gratitude.
I am grateful for the gift of a son. And though he was taken from me so soon, I wouldn’t trade those years for all the riches of all the worlds. Had I known I would have him for so short a time, I would still have considered it a blessing to know him, to love him, to raise him. I thank God for entrusting to me so fine a son, so godly a young man.
I am grateful for the gift of love. My family has been so well cared for this year—loved by family and friends, by neighbors and strangers, by those who know us best and those who barely know us at all. We have not for a moment been alone, not for a moment been deserted.
I am grateful for the gift of providence. God has often used “coincidences” to minister to us on our hardest days and in our most difficult moments. Chance encounters have proven to not be chance at all. God has sovereignly woven together a set of circumstances that have proven his love, his care, his presence.
I am grateful for the gift of heaven. Never has heaven been more real, more present, more precious, more close. This year has given me a whole new longing to be there—to be where Christ is, where Nick is—to be in that place where all fears are stilled, where all sorrows are soothed, where all tears are dried.
I am grateful for the gift of faith. God has given us faith to believe in his character and promises, to acknowledge his right to take as much as to give. Not one of us has turned on God. Not one of us has charged him with wrong. Not one of us has refused to bless his name. Our hearts have been shattered but, by his grace, our faith has held strong.
I am grateful for the gift of comfort. God has comforted us by his Spirit and his people, by word and by deed. Not once have we been without truths to rely on, gospel to cling to, shoulders to cry upon. God has made good on his every promise.
I am grateful for these gifts and so many others. I love God more than ever. He has proven worthy of my confidence, my affection, my deepest devotion. I honor him, I trust him, I bow the knee to him.
A recent journey led me through the local countryside, and as I drove, I observed fields that until recently had been green and full. But now they were now stark and bare. The farmers had gathered their crops into their barns to supply them through the long winter to come. And in much that way, as I reflect on the year that was, I can see that the God of all grace had gathered great stores of goodness and mercy for us. And he then dispensed them at just the right time and in just the right ways. We have known his abundance. He has met our every need, he has spoken comfort to our every sorrow, he has ministered truth to our every fear. He has been most present when most needed. He has not left us. He has not forsaken us. He never would. He never will.
(I will take this opportunity to remind you of the Nick Challies Memorial Scholarship at Boyce College and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary—a scholarship in Nick’s honor meant to enable others to carry out the ministry that was so important to him—to minister the Word of God in Canada. The scholarship is now receiving funds from donors and distributing them to students. We would be honored if you would consider making a donation.)