Finding the Peace and Presence of God in the Midst of Suffering

prayer-chapelThis past week, I traveled to Chicago to represent Westmont at the Christian College Consortium Presidents Colloquium. The 13 colleges in the consortium discussed the challenges facing Christian higher education in the 21st century. An unexpected joy was seeing Dave Green, a trustee at George Fox University in Oregon, a corporate law attorney with Stoel Rives in Portland, Ore., and the brother of Don Green.

Don was my favorite pastor. He was highly intelligent, charismatic, eloquent, a first-rate debater and an all-star human being. He was ambitious for everything good, true and beautiful. He attended Princeton Theological Seminary for his Master of Divinity, and Dr. Timothy Smith accepted him into the doctoral program in history at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He chose to postpone his doctorate and accepted a pastorate in Portland with hopes of returning to Baltimore later in life to complete his graduate education.

I first heard Don speak in 1980. I still remember the message, a riveting exegesis of Romans 12 and a great challenge to pursue the glory of God through the full exercise of our natural and spiritual gifts. During the summer of 1982, I did an internship with him and followed in his footsteps, attending Princeton Seminary later that fall. Before leaving Portland at the end of the summer, I made arrangements for Don to visit me in October.

I loved that summer with Don. There were four of us in the internship program, and he let us see everything: how he prepared sermons, called on the sick, ministered to the elderly, conducted church meetings, coordinated worship and tended to his young and vibrant family. He was a dazzling blend of intellectual, spiritual and relational gifts, unsurpassed in his capacity to work a room and leave people wanting more. He had that rare gift to make you thankful for any time you spent with him. His view of life was striking, honed as it was by his love of God and his hope for humanity. He traveled that summer to Kaimosi, Kenya, to deliver the keynote address at an international conference. His words were immortalized in A Part of My Heart Left Here, the title of his memoirs taken from a phrase he uttered to his wife, Ellie, as they boarded the plane in Nairobi for their return home. It symbolized his hope to return to Africa to continue the work he wanted to accomplish there.

My first semester at Princeton got off to an incredible start. I had signed up for four classes, including “Modern European Church History” with world-famous James Hastings Nichols, a class Don had especially wanted me to take. Every semester at Princeton, including my first, featured a speech practicum and a pastoral internship. Life was full, busy and fascinating. As we neared the mid-semester mark, Don confirmed he would come in two weeks, and we looked forward to connecting. But before the week ended, I learned about the tragic accident that befell him. To get firewood for the winter, Don used his day off to go up to Zig Zag Ranger Station on the west side of Mt. Hood to harvest a cord of wood. Unfamiliar with the Oregon forests, Don didn’t realize the danger of “widow-makers,” trees that looked alive from the outside but were dead on the inside and mortally dangerous because of their propensity to break apart and crash down on people.

While he was working to get firewood, Don was crushed under the enormous weight of a massive trunk. Miraculously, he survived the initial accident and was flown to a trauma center in Portland. A medical team worked to stabilize him. For several days, we hoped and prayed he would make a reasonable recovery with his brilliant mind intact. But Don suffered significant brain damage that eventually took his life.

I still remember where I was at Princeton when my dad called to tell me the news. No words can describe the sadness that engulfs you when a great saint and scholar dies out of sequence. Don was 32 and a husband and the father of four children, ages 10 years to 16 months. When I saw Dave for the first time in years, my heart felt heavy. But then I thought of all the good Don accomplished in my life.

Because of Don, I decided to attend Princeton. After his accident, I went to my faculty adviser seeking solace and care, and he recommended I talk to another professor, Dr. Diogenes Allen, who had just written a book on the problem of evil and suffering. Desperate for help, I found Dr. Allen to be one of the most caring and thoughtful teachers I have ever known. Our initial encounter led to a lifetime of friendship. Not known as a kind or patient person, Dr. Allen remained a source of incredible genius, remarkable insight and profound wisdom and understanding throughout the rest of our professional and personal friendship. He introduced me to Pascal, invited me to study the problem of evil and suffering, and taught me how to understand the nature of faith, the right use of reason and how we can know God. I have never felt happier or more joyful as Dr. Allen guided me in finding answers to life’s most perplexing questions.

He taught me how to frame questions and search for answers. I learned how to differentiate between evil at the hands of nature, evil at the hands of other humans, evil that we self-inflict and evil that evades all understanding. He explained that evil and suffering are part of this life and direct us to the next life, helping us realize we weren’t created for endless life on Earth but for an eternity with God in heaven. This life is not all there is. Through Simone Weil, I saw evil and suffering not as a barrier to God but as a passageway. Through Irenaeus I understood the way in which evil and suffering shape our character—the only action we control is our response to evil and suffering. I loved this period of time and found my study with Dr. Allen incredibly enriching. He helped me deal with my present distress and also prepared me for the future.

As I recovered from the shock of Don’s passing I embraced a full wealth of conviction about my own faith. I graduated from Princeton in 1985, became the pastor of Sherwood Community Friends Church (a bedroom community outside Portland) that July and moved back to Oregon to be near my family. Nearly seven years after Don’s tragic and unexpected death, my own father died quite suddenly. To my utter surprise, as devastating as his passing was for me emotionally, it only deepened my love and knowledge of God spiritually. The work done seven years earlier prepared me for the shock and disorientation that occurs when a parent dies early or out of sync. I discovered that challenges come to everyone, and the response we make determines whether they become redemptive and enriching or damning and destructive.

My father’s death was hard and disorienting for me, but I responded to this tragedy so differently than to Don’s accident and passing. Seeing Dave Green this past week reminded me that we all face obstacles that challenge our view of the goodness of life and the graciousness of God, and they can utterly destroy us. But they can also become the channels by which we encounter the deeper realities of God. I’m so thankful to know God and find through my faith in Him the strength I need to face the challenges that come every day in my life and work. Don could have accomplished so much good if he’d been given a natural life span. But we can’t change the nature of the tragedies we experience. We can only control the response we make as we seek to find God and know Him in a deeper and more profound way.

As you face the challenges before you, I hope you discover a deeper sense of the presence and love of God. To God alone be the glory.

 

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