I hardly know where to begin. I wrote briefly about a friend, a young mother, who died suddenly, unexpectedly. That was last December. Then in July I was surprised to find that a fellow blogger, a woman with whom I'd had brief correspondence, had also died -- suddenly, unexpectedly.
Then in August, another friend died. Sandy was a good friend and neighbor of mine during our husbands' days in seminary. Sandy was funny, chatty, honest, and generous. She was beautiful, with clear light skin and dark (almost black) thick hair, a contagious smile and bright eyes. We lived across from each other. During our time as neighbors she had two little girls and I had my first baby, a boy. We were poor together, cooked and grilled out together, talked about ministry and seminary and marriage and being women and a multitude of topics that women thrown together in a tight community will chat of, on long days watching toddlers play while waiting for husbands to come home. She laughed good-naturedly at my extreme frugality, how I would save used tin foil for later use. I thought she was fun and lively. She was a few years younger than I. That was over twenty years ago. Sandy developed a brain tumor in recent months, and after treatment she passed from this life, leaving her two daughters and a young son. She and her husband had divorced a few years ago. Sandy was heart-broken and tried to avoid the break-up of her marriage. It crushed her. I was crushed for her.
While at the farmers market this morning I got a call from Adam telling me of yet another death. A friend from the Midwest, Tom, died last night -- suddenly, unexpectedly. Again, Tom and his wife (and 8 children!) and Adam and I and our 4 kids, worked in ministry together at a Christian boarding school. Such work is grueling, taxing, exhausting, filled with challenge and conflict, and in the end binds together those who struggle together under the common yoke. Tom was a big man, many inches over six feet. He had a rolling laugh. He was a serious theologian. When I fell and broke my foot, he and Adam carried me to the car. I recall drives with his wife to town to grocery shop in their massive van. They lasted at the school longer than we did, but eventually left as well. Tom struggled in recent years with chronic unemployment, in spite of diligent attempts to find work in this awful job market. And then, as the last crushing blow, his wife left him inexplicably -- at least it seemed inexplicable to me. I was deeply saddened to watch his struggle, his heart-break, his confusion at her actions and the radical, sudden change in her, his late attempts to win her back. Never have I seen a man mourn the loss of a wife so. Through it all, he praised God and remained strong in his faith in God's goodness. Finally ... finally! ... Tom was accepted to work with a mission agency. I know he hated the idea of going overseas away from his children, whom he dearly loved, but he pursued the path. Then, another blow: he developed a seeming grocery list of health complaints. He was in and out of the hospital with abdominal troubles. This past week, ill again, he was shockingly diagnosed with leukemia. And then, in the hospital for that disorder, he suffered severe brain bleeding and died last night.
Perhaps some of you will think it gauche, rude, or improper of me to mention the severe testing that both Sandy and Tom suffered when their spouses abandoned them. That's a strong term, "abandon." I could have said "divorce," or simply, "the loss" or "the failure of their marriages." Except I don't think they felt that way. From corresponding with them I know that they grieved and mourned and struggled with their spouses' rejections and departures. And now that this bizarre scenario has happened twice, I find myself wondering what many must wonder: how would things have been different, if Sandy and Tom had had the spouses they adored and longed for by their sides during the last trial? What is in God's mind as He orchestrates these events, these deaths, so close on the heels of these, the greatest grievings Sandy and Tom had experienced? Which death is more horrible -- the death of a love, or the death of a body? If I could ask Sandy and Tom, I think I know what they would say.
Because I know exactly where Sandy and Tom believed they would find themselves, in the moment of death. Now they both await us all in heaven. Whatever imperfections they possessed that their spouses found so unacceptable that they had to leave, those imperfections have vanished. Both the departing spouses profess still to be Christians, so now we have the waiting game. Well, we've always had the waiting game, but now that two participants have crossed the finish line, so to speak, it makes me wonder this: what will it be like for us all to meet in heaven, knowing how we have crushed and hurt one another? Our sins are covered by Christ's blood, I know that. But here's the thing -- while we're still on Earth, we tend to make mighty excuses and claim our sins really aren't sins. We hurt those who love us, and we sugar-coat the sin against them. We say, "Here, take this bitter pill. I've sugar-coated it in excuses, so even if it feels like I'm stabbing you in the chest and you're in intense pain, it's not really a sin on my part." In heaven, after we've all crossed the finish line, lies like that will be shown for what they are.
I'm not privy to other people's marriage secrets. I'm only privy to my own. I know marriage is chock full of disappointments, and spouses change over time, and tastes and preferences change, and life takes sharp u-turns and sometimes just drops you off the cliff. I know all this. I know people fall out of love. That's when marriage vows, which are taken before God, become most sacred. They're not necessary when you're head-over-heels. They're necessary when you're not. "Till death do us part" means something. It means you stick with your partner through the nastiness so that neither you nor your partner have to face death alone. Sandy and Tom needed the persons they loved most beside them -- not just by the hospital bed, but beside them in life. It wounded me to see them both face hospitals and doctors and surgeries alone. It shouldn't be thus.
This post is not some diatribe against the spouses. It's really a struggling in my soul on this issue of Christians and their deaths and what they signify. I'm not grieved that Sandy and Tom went to be with Jesus and left their failing bodies. We all die. We grieve the losses, but they're so very temporary. As we age, we realize this clearly. And perhaps that's the terrifying thing, that in a few short years we'll all face each other again, and the fragile, geographical barriers we've set up to separate ourselves from mean ex-employers or petty ex-friends or unsatisfying ex-spouses will be unavailable to us in heaven. We will face, for eternity, the very ones we've wounded and broken faith with. I guess these thoughts are simply a warning to us all to not be so in love with this life and Earth that we do damage to those we'll spend eternity with. How futile it is to walk away from those to whom we've made vows, when an even deeper vow -- the blood of Jesus -- eternally binds us to them!