When It All Falls Apart

white sheet-death-body

As a young officer, I was faced with a situation that would forever alter the direction of my ministry path. The office where I was assigned received a phone call from a desperate mother inquiring if a Salvation Army officer could go visit her son who was in a local hospital. Calls like this often come into Salvation Army centers. The normal protocol is to follow through immediately with a requested visit.

As I planned my visit to the hospital, I only knew a few things about the backstory of this man’s life: he was estranged from his family, he had been an alcoholic, and he had been living on the streets in Los Angeles. When I got to his bedside, I was shocked to discover how close he was to death’s door. His body was already hemorrhaging. His skin was ashen grey. His eyes were wide in panic. He looked at me as I entered the room and began to make sounds that were unintelligible. I noticed that he could not speak, for he had no tongue in his mouth. It had been surgically removed due to cancer.

Working quickly, I told him who I was and why I was there. I told him that his mother loved him, and The Salvation Army came at her request. I asked him if I could read him some Scripture, and he nodded yes. Reading from Psalm 91, I noticed when I spoke the words “You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day” (Psa. 91:7 NIV), his countenance changed, and he suddenly became more at peace. I told him the time had come to make his peace with God. Gently, I reminded him that God truly loved him. Mercy abounded for him. The fear immediately left his eyes, and a smile came across his face. A sense of tranquility invaded his entire body.

Suddenly, all the warning alarms of the medical devices attached to his body sounded, as I began to see him fading faster. The nursing staff came in and asked me to leave the room. As I was leaving, he looked at me and mouthed two words: “Thank you.” He died shortly thereafter.

I often think of this man I visited on his deathbed. I wonder what choices he made that led up to him being in that situation. I wonder about his heartsick mother who no doubt worried about her adult son for decades and longed to just be with him. I am sure that at some point in their lives, they both uttered, “Why me God? Why is this happening to me?”

Sometimes, life is cut short. Sometimes, we do it to ourselves by making choices that have natural consequences. Other times, there are no explanations. The young die before their time. The old outlive their friends. An innocent person killed at work by a lone gunman, a sudden car accident, a freak plane crash, a tragic fatal injury while at home—all newsworthy events that drone on every day to the point that we become numb emotionally, and we wish to not think about them anymore. None of it seems fair or just.

The age-old question arises every time a natural disaster strikes, or an insane act of humanity occurs that results in the loss of human life: Why? Why did this have to happen? Why him? Why her? Why me?

All the warning alarms of the medical devices attached to his body sounded,
as I began to see him fading faster. The nursing staff came in and asked me to leave the room.
As I was leaving, he looked at me and mouthed the words:

“Thank you.”

World-renowned thinker and theologian C.S. Lewis struggled with the sudden loss of his wife, Joy. He wrote an entire book, in which he sounded out his pain. In A Grief Observed, Lewis wrote, “Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.” Page after page, you can see how the loss affected him deeply and led him to ask probing questions of God and even of himself. He came to a simple conclusion: “We cannot understand. The best is perhaps what we understand least.”

In those times that heaven goes silent and nothing makes sense, no words of logic or religious phrases can bring comfort. The simple fact remains: good people are not immune from tragedy. Horrific moments of pain and suffering come to the most innocent amongst us. We must find ways to cope and get through it all.

Time has a way of bringing a sense of renewal and hope. Getting to that point may mean having to endure periods of doubt and darkness. Yet, there is the promise of strength that will and does come in the midst of these bleak moments of tragedy. The Apostle Paul writes: “All praise to the God and Father of our Master, Jesus the Messiah! Father of all mercy! God of all healing counsel! He comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, He brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us” (2 Cor. 1:3-5 The Message). Paul found that when sufferings abounded in his life, he found God’s comfort even greater.

I have often reflected back to my first experience dealing with pain and suffering in that lonely hospital room, as that man’s life was coming to an end. That encounter forever shaped how I would help those in pain and how I would deal with my own sufferings. There are no easy answers, but there is this simple truth: God is with us in our darkest of days. Our challenge is to remember that fact.

Lt. Colonel Tim Foley is currently the Assistant National Chief Secretary. He will become the Editor-in-Chief and National Literary Secretary effective July 1, 2019.