Exactly one year ago to the day, my family and I suffered the loss of my younger brother, Daniel. He had been infected with a very aggressive cancer that ended up claiming his life in just a little over a year at only the age of 24.
I remember so vividly the chronology of events that took place that day. I was working at my desk just like I would on any other normal day, and suddenly my phone started ringing. I answered to the voice of my mother telling me through the sobs in her voice that Dan was in the hospital, and the doctors have said that he will most likely not recover from the infection that had set in – his immune system had been so weakened by the chemo-therapy treatments that his body was no longer able to fight. They said that he had only hours to live, maybe a day or two at best. Immediately my wife and I dropped everything, drove home as fast as we could, packed a suitcase of bare essentials, fueled up our vehicle, and drove from Indianapolis to Midland Michigan at about 95 miles per hour without stopping. Through tears and heavy breathing, I prayed that the Lord would mercifully grant me to have just five minutes with my brother before he passed – just five minutes.
God did not give me the five minutes I asked for. God graciously gave me nearly an hour with my brother before he passed. I will forever praise God for his incredible mercy and kindness for granting me that request. I didn’t say much to Dan while I was with him – in situations like this, quality is certainly to be preferred over quantity. My words were few, but very carefully and intentionally selected. No time was wasted on superfluous and meaningless banter. What was said between us will stay between us – not because of anything to hide, but simply because that moment was a moment just for my brother and I to share together. But one thing I never said was “goodbye.”
I didn’t say goodbye.
I’m not expressing regret over something I wished I had said but didn’t – I intentionally decided not to say goodbye to my brother. There was, and still is, hope in the deepest core of my soul that someday I will see my brother again. There is still hope that one day I will see my brother again in an eternal and perfected state of abundant life completely free from the evils of cancer, disease, or death. This is not mere wishful thinking or blind faith on my part, but rather a hope that is founded upon the promises of the eternal decree of God. A promise that God has made to one day right every wrong, restore all that is broken, heal all that is wounded, perfect that which is corrupted, and completely re-create the world as it was intended to be from the beginning. I read aloud this promise of God in Dan’s funeral sermon one year ago, and these words are still as real today as they were then:
The Revelation of John 21:1-6: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’ And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment.’”
But the truth of the matter is that our hope in the future fulfillment of this great promise of God does not entirely alleviate the tremendous pain of loss and emptiness that still remains, and will remain for the rest of our earthly lives. Visiting home is just not the same anymore, and it never will be. Thanksgiving dinner just doesn’t taste the same anymore, and it never will. Christmas just doesn’t seem right with one less gift to exchange, and anyone who has suffered the loss of a family member will testify to this as well. The pain still remains. Sometimes this pain causes a deep anguish and sadness (I weep with grief as I compose this article at my computer right now). Other times this pain causes anger, sometimes even white-knuckled clenched fists accompanied by a primal-natured rage desiring to just cry out until my throat bleeds. Why? Why do these things have to happen? Why him? Why not me? Why so soon? Why? Why? WHY???
The strange thing is that I know the answers. I even wrote about the subject of God and suffering and sickness in a previous blog article, which you can read here. The truth is that knowing “why” in our heads doesn’t take away the pain that we feel in our souls. Sometimes our cries of “why” are not really demands for answers or explanations, but rather just expressions of raw grief and an instinctive acknowledgment that this world as it is now, in all of its pain and suffering, is not what it is supposed to be. Whether we experience the suffering of others second-hand or suffer ourselves, we instinctively conclude that “this is not how it’s supposed to be,” and our instincts are correct! Those of us who take God at his Word know that this world is not as God intended it to be in the beginning, but is rather a fallen and broken world, corrupted by sin. This is why our hope is not in this life or in this world, but in the life and the world yet to come.
I want to share with my readers a hymn of hope that I sing to myself and to the Lord in the midst of the pain of the void in my life left by Dan’s passing. It’s an old hymn written by a man named Horatio Spafford. Spafford was a wealthy Christian businessman who lived in Chicago in the mid-1800’s. He owned a significant amount of prime Chicago real estate along the coast of Lake Michigan. Spafford was married to his wife, Anna, and had five children – 4 daughters and a son. Life seemed to be prosperous and promising, but the Spafford family would soon suffer a series of unimaginable tragedies. In 1870, the Spafford’s only son came down with Scarlet Fever and died at the age of four. Only a year later while the wounds of the loss of their child were still fresh and vulnerable, the great Chicago fire of 1871 destroyed nearly all of Spafford’s investment properties, and their entire life savings was gone in a matter of days. Seeking to relieve themselves of the pain of their recent family and financial losses, Spafford decided to take his family on a vacation to England and spend time with his friend, the famous evangelist, D.L. Moody. Just before they set sail for England, a last-minute business engagement required Spafford’s attention, so he sent his wife and four daughters on ahead of him with the intent of following shortly behind on another boat as soon as his business was resolved. So Anna and the girls boarded the French steamship, the Ville du Havre, and departed for England. While at sea, the Ville du Havre collided with a Scottish vessel, called the Loch Earn, and sank into the sea in under 12 minutes. Many have described the incident as the worst disaster in naval history prior to the sinking of the Titanic in 1913. 226 passengers’ lives were lost. Once she arrived in England, Horatio’s wife, Anna, sent him a telegraph to inform him of the accident, and that all four of their daughters died at sea. When he received the telegraph, Horatio immediately boarded the next ship bound for England out of New York to care for his grieving wife. During his voyage, the ship’s captain called Horatio to the bridge and said, “a careful reckoning has been made, and I believe we are now passing the very place where the Villa du Havre sank.” It was there as he stared downward into the watery depths where the lives of his four beloved daughters had been lost to the sea that Horatio penned the words to what would become one of the greatest Christian hymns of all time; “It Is Well With My Soul.” It is the words of this beautiful yet bittersweet hymn that encourage me to cling to the hope of the world to come even when suffering through the seemingly-unbearable pain of loss. It is in the hope so beautifully described in this hymn that I find comfort in the midst of the anguish of the loss of my brother Daniel. I pray that my readers, especially those who knew Daniel personally, will find the same comfort in the beautiful words of this hymn as we suffer through this loss together.
It Is Well with My Soul
By Horatio Spafford – 1873.
“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
It is well with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.
My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!—
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.
But, Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul!
And Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.
It is well with my soul.”