Remembering My Grandfather

Today would have been my grandfather’s 94th birthday, and I’ve been thinking a lot about him today. I’ve often said that he’s the best man I ever knew, and I really mean that. I wish everyone was able to meet him.

Below is the eulogy I wrote for him last November. Godspeed, granddad, I’ll see you soon.

William Thomas Martin of Winston-Salem, North Carolina passed away on Sunday November 24, 2019 after reaching the age of 93 years old. He died peacefully beside family and went home to be with his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

William (Bill) was born on April 16, 1926 in Spencer, NC to George and Julia Martin, the oldest of four children.

At five, at a camp meeting in God’s Country, GA he heard a Pastor read a verse from the Gospel of Matthew: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Bill became a Christian that day, and it would define him the rest of his life.

Later, not yet 18 years old, Bill volunteered for the Navy during World War II, requiring a signature from his parents to do so. He served on the USS Lacerta as a radio operator in the Pacific Theatre, and served on that ship from the time it was commissioned until it was decommissioned. He served as Chaplin, encouraging his crewmates in their faith while doing so.

When he returned he went to Mars Hill college and eventually went to work on transportation logistics for both Southern Railway and the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. He became President of Delta Nu Alpha, a professional network for transportation professionals and retired from R.J. Reynolds at 55. He taught classes on this profession at both Wake Forest and Forsyth Tech.

In 1959 he married Ann Martin at Hebron Church in Winston-Salem, NC and remained married to her for 60 years until his passing. They lived in Winston-Salem and raised two daughters, Susanne and Nancy.

Bill’s legacy is one we might all aspire to. To be a devoted and loving husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and friend is admirable. To be a patriot and willingly put your own life at risk for the sake of your country is inspirational. To be a superb professional, and work diligently to make the world a little bit better, day by day, is praiseworthy.

But the thing that made the life of Bill Martin so extraordinary was his faith, and how it made all that possible, and created the legacy that continues on even though he is now departed. Because of Bill, two children, 3 grandchildren, and 5 great-grandchildren (so far!) will grow up in the teachings of Jesus. Because of Bill, scores of soldiers were taught the Good News in the darkest hours of World War II. Because of Bill, countless churchgoers were instructed on the relentless love of God, as he taught Sunday School for over 55 years.

Bill was struck when he was 5 years old by the idea that the pure in heart will see God. And that is why, we have no doubt, when he stood before God the first words he heard was “Well done, my good and faithful servant”.

Meaning And Pain, Final Thoughts

This is a continuing series about meaning and pain. To read from the beginning, start here.

So what am I to do with all of this? My wife and I have lost a child. This pain can’t be denied, ignored, or found trivial. It’s meaningful to me, but in a negative way. Shall we stop there? Is that all there is?

To ask whether the universe as we see it looks more like the
work of a wise and good Creator or the work of chance, indifference, or malevolence, is to omit from the outset all the relevant factors in the religious problem.

Christianity is not the conclusion of a philosophical debate on the origins of the universe: it is a catastrophic historical event following on the long spiritual preparation of humanity which I have described.

It is not a system into which we have to fit the awkward fact of pain: it is itself one of the awkward facts which have to be fitted into any system we make.

In a sense, it creates, rather than solves, the problem of pain, for pain would be no problem unless, side by side with our daily experience of this painful world, we had received what we think a
good assurance that ultimate reality is righteous and loving.

CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain

I’m attempting what Lewis is suggesting here. To square the facts that I know with the pain that I feel. If you’re reading this and experiencing something like what we have, know that my attempt may not be adequate. In fact, if you’re looking for something to make you feel better, I can guarantee it won’t be. This is a post about grief and pain, and the fact that it matters. I am not trying to fill all of the silence.

The day we received this news, I came across Stephen Colbert’s interview with Anderson Cooper, where he paraphrases a certain quote from Tolkien:

I thought this a good word in itself, but this quote does a little better with some extra context. Tolkien was answering questions about death in his writing. In Lord of the Rings, men were given the “gift” of death. Elves were immortal by design, but men had expiration dates. Men in Tokien’s tale, as they do here on earth, dreaded death. So why did the elves call this the Gift of Ilúvatar (God)? Tolkien answers this question in an unpublished letter with this statement, which Colbert is paraphrasing:

“A divine ‘punishment’ is also a divine ‘gift’, if accepted, since its object is ultimate blessing, and the supreme inventiveness of the Creator will make ‘punishments’ (that is changes of design) produce a good not otherwise to be attained”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R Tolkien

There are two things that stick out to me about this:

  1. He refers to it as a punishment, but I don’t think that’s necessarily what he meant. It’s more like suffering that must be endured. Men didn’t cause mortality in Tolkien’s world, at least explicitly. They were given it from the beginning. They simply had to endure it.
  2. Ilúvatar never gives the answer to what happened ultimately in death for men. It remained a mystery, even to the reader.

So if we make a leap and grant Tolkien his point: that suffering is also a gift, and if we accept it it comes with something that could not otherwise have been attained, the natural response, in my mind, is “Okay, let’s assume that’s true. Why should I believe that the gift is worth it in the end? I might be willing to accept this bargain if the pain is small. But what about the loss of a child? I’m just supposed to move forward in the definite and visceral pain with the promise that there’s some gift that is worth enduring all that?”

And this is where Christian faith comes in. Faith is often, in the modern debate about religion, construed as “irrational belief”. That is, belief without (or in spite of) reason. Interestingly enough though, it’s not often how we use the term “faith” in everyday life outside of the religious context.

I believe my wife is faithful. In other words, I believe she’s worthy of trust. A parent might have faith that their children can find the right spouse, make the right decisions, and otherwise grow into functioning adults upon leaving the home. We trade paper for goods and services “in good faith” that the paper isn’t counterfeit and neither are the goods purchased. When we use it in this context, “faith” seems more like trust. Rational trust.

So, then, if we’re to take Tolkien’s position that this suffering comes hand in hand with a gift, why should I have faith (trust) that the gift is worth it? In any bargain, any trade of this manner, the real question has to be “Who is this gift giver? Why should I trust this exchange? Why ought I have faith in this system of immense suffering?”

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize…

Hebrews 4

This is where I find only the gospel has an answer to that question. The scandal of God becoming man, entering into this suffering, was done for us. God Himself being hungry, tired, seeing friends die… himself being beaten, tortured, and ultimately killed… It was all for us. If that is the God giving the gift that accompanies the suffering, that’s a God I can trust. That’s a God I can have faith isn’t exposing me to suffering that’s not worth it, despite how painful it might be, because He’s been through it. Despite the fact that in times of immense pain, I wonder if my faith is justified.

I will end my thoughts on this topic with a story that has always stuck with me: A lawyer named Horatio Spafford wrote the words to the 19th century hymn “It Is Well With My Soul” while on a boat traveling to Europe. He was supposed to meet his wife and four daughters, but the ship carrying his family sank and all four of his daughters were lost.

When he set out to meet his wife, he asked for the boat’s captain to tell him when they were crossing the approximate location where his daughters perished, and that’s where he penned his famous hymn:

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

The pain I am feeling regarding my unborn child is real. I won’t diminish it. The meaning behind that pain is real. I won’t deny it. The fact that in a very real sense this Should Not Be is indisputable. I won’t trivialize it.

But the reason that Spafford could write those lyrics are as true for me as they were for him: My Savior loves me. He knows all this. I will have faith that this suffering comes with something truly good that could not have been attained without it. I won’t minimize the pain, but I’ll endure it as best I can. Because He has earned my trust.

Meaning And Pain, Part 2

This is Part 2 of a post about Meaning and Pain. Part 1 can be found here.

So I didn’t leave that last post wrapped tightly in a bow, and to be honest I don’t really know if this one will be either even as I write it. It is my firm conviction that we don’t leave enough space for things like silence, pain or unanswered questions.

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not
afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same
fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the
yawning. I keep on swallowing.

At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or
concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be
about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.

There are moments, most unexpectedly, when something inside me
tries to assure me that I don’t really mind so much, not so very much, after all. Love is not the whole of a man’s life…

CS Lewis, A Grief Observed

It’s my observation that we, perhaps both intentionally and unintentionally, tend to speed right past suffering. We often say things like “This reminds me of the time when I also went through…” or “Everything happens for a reason.” This may all be well and true, but it seems to me to serve often as a way to say “Don’t let this get to you. This is bad, but it happens to everyone, and either way it’ll all work out in the end. You’ll see. Now can we stop talking about this?

And this brings me back to the meaning question. It seems to me that there’s an inseparable link between meaning and suffering.

In my view, one of the areas of silence we should more often allow ourselves, and others, to sit in a little more is the experience of pain and suffering, and the fact that those things are real, and omnipresent, and meaningful. I mean by “silence” the solemn contemplation of this reality: we are all in pain. We all experience that fear-like-grief that accompanies this life. The meaning and suffering dimensions are, as Peterson suggested, completely intertwined. We cannot deny that the suffering is meaningful, and if it’s meaningful it needs to be meaningfully engaged.

So what to do, if we can’t race past it toward a distraction? If we can’t ignore it? We all have questions in times like these. We want to know the “why”. We want to demand an answer, or find who (perhaps even God Himself) is to be blamed for this catastrophe. What do you do when you experience that kind of pain?

I’ll apply these questions next to myself. I am in pain. I miss the child I never knew. This being I love and would gladly give my life for, even though he or she was scant the size of a blueberry. It is impossible for me to think this pain isn’t meaningful. And I don’t want to ignore it. If the world should be Shalom, if children should live to grow up before their parents eyes, and it’s not, we SHOULD be suffering. Because that isn’t the world we live in. And it means something.

Continued in Part 3, final thoughts.

Meaning and Pain, Part 1

This post will be personal, in a way perhaps that many blog posts I write won’t be. It’s also going to be a little raw, and less structured than I normally write. It’s more like a blog post crossed with a diary. Forgive me. It is hard to write about a painful subject when you’re actively going through it.

I want to tell you a story about a recent experience, the pain it has caused me and my wife, and why I think we ought to take life far more seriously, in all its suffering, joy, mirth, and despair, than we do.

“Is there meaning in life? That’s a stupid question… that’s not a question you ever ask yourself if you’re in pain. Because if you’re in pain you know that life has a meaning. And it’s the pain. And you can’t argue yourself out of that. And so when we’re asking about whether life has meaning, that’s not what we mean. What we mean is “in the face of life’s pain and suffering, does life have any POSITIVE meaning”

Jordan Peterson (emphasis mine)

My wife and I were married 10 years ago, roughly, and we both wanted children. It was baked into the cake, us being Card Carrying Christians and all. We wanted a family. But she had studies to attend to, and so for practical reasons we put off having kids for a while. To be honest this wasn’t such a big deal to me. I’ve never been much of a “kid person”. Or, in fact, a “person person”. I wanted a family, but there was no urgency, really, in my mind. It could wait.

In her final year before she graduated (#1 in her class at the University of Washington, btw, she’s soooper smart), we started trying to have our first kid. It was time, and we knew we wanted multiple. Basically as soon as we started trying, we were pregnant with our first, little Liam. My life would never be the same. Maybe I wasn’t a kid person, but I was a MY kid person.

Soon thereafter, we had a second child. This one took longer. Months went by. We were starting to wonder if something was wrong: Do we need fertility treatment? This was hard. What’s different this time? Does God want this for us? What is He trying to teach us? We didn’t expereience, really, a sense of loss, just one of delay. Why is God putting us through this?

But ultimately without treatment, and not really that long of a time (9 months of trying), we received yet another gift: little Teddy.

Words can’t express how much joy these two little boys give us. I never thought I’d want more than 2 kids until I had them. Now I wanted 3 for sure. Maybe more.

At this point you might be suspecting that what is, so far, a happy story has a dark turn. And you’re right. This post does have the title “Pain” in it, and not for nothing. We started trying for kid number three. And once again, just like our first, we were pregnant pretty much immediately. Whew! Teddy’s delay with just an anomaly. Getting pregnant was easy. And so, a few months later, we went into our first doctor’s appointment. This was supposed to be the first time we’d see our little one. We were happily talking about whether we wanted another boy, or a girl? Is this going to be the last kid for us? Do we want a fourth?

We were chatting away about these things as the ultrasound began…

….something isn’t quite right…

…this baby definitely isn’t that far along…

And then we were told the pregnancy wasn’t viable. Our baby would never be born. Within seconds, we went from joy to… well… that hollow feeling you get when something horrible has just happened, and you’re struggling to believe what you just heard.

It’s hard to describe the emotions we felt, and I’m not one to be good at such a description even if it were easy. But a soul, our child, was both here and not here. We’d not see his or her face. No hugs or bedtime stories. Just a canceled due date, and a procedure in a cold hospital room the next week to finish off what we were so eagerly anticipating.

Continued in Part 2