An email from a friend arrives. It has been sent to many people at once. The greeting begins "Dear family and friends," and the writer asks for prayers. Her sister-in-law, 47 years old, has suffered a massive stroke. She is in a coma. The family is making funeral plans. The dying woman has children--a daughter who is only 11, a son who is 20.
What do you say in reply? You say you will pray. You say I am thinking about you. You speak of faith, hope, comfort.
But what do you say to God during the rest of the day, as you move about the house, doing laundry, washing floors, cleaning up the kitchen? I hear very formal words in my mind, the words we would pray in church. Be with them, Lord. Comfort and uphold those who mourn. Receive her into your everlasting care. Your will be done.
Wait. Was this God's will? What is God's will when awful things happen? Just what is the theology of what God wills for me? What clever things have I heard or read for getting around the idea that everything that happens is God's will? Did God will this to happen? And are we talking about a grand and general will of God, or the will of a personal God for every breath, every step, every circumstance of his creatures' lives?
How do you answer such questions? How do you piece together the puzzle of anyone's life and ultimate purpose? These things are so hard to know, so hard to feel certain of. It's impossible, really.
We look to what we do know and have experienced of God: small things--hopeful presence, love shown to us through creation and creatures, God's constancy. Still, these sound like tired cliches from a white-bread, Hallmark-card generic religion. How can a few pretty words stand against sudden and premature death? How can they fill in for a mother, a friend, a real person who is no longer?
Where there is terrible, awful loss, there is also awesome power--divine power. I am convinced of this, just like Paul, who was convinced that even life's most extreme situations will not separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. God is present in great majesty in our suffering, just as in the suffering of Christ on the cross. It is hard to comprehend, hard to recognize while we are wrapped up in fear. Yet in death, in grief, and in going on we can be certain of God's presence and God's good will for us.