We were packing our final articles of clothing that evening for a morning flight that would take our group on a tour to Israel. We had planned it for a year. Maryellen and I are seasoned tour teachers and we were ready to go. I was already snoozing and Maryellen was about to zip her bag closed when the phone rang with a call that every parent dreads…“Is this Tom Stipe, the father of Brett Thomas Stipe…‘Yes’…Your son has been in an accident, he was hit by an SUV while riding his bicycle…” If you have never received that kind of call, as a parent you probably have imagined the horror of it and I hope it never happens to you.
We raced our way to the trauma center where I found my son lying in the Surgical ICU bleeding profusely out of his right ear with fresh abrasions covering most of his face. Over his right eye was an impact wound that the surgeons were preparing to stitch closed. The CT scan showed bleeding on the brain that they deemed “not critical.” My first thought as a typical non-medical civilian was, “How can a brain bleed not be critical?” The scan showed a skull fracture that ran from the base of his skull through his middle ear thus the bleeding and the discovery of hearing loss.
Then I heard it for the first time–from somewhere behind me–in the hustle of medical staff, “It could have been so much worse.” I was stunned by the statement that I had heard applied to so many other people in the past. But I was game for the journey into the land of Oz…“He cudda and then it shudda and you know it cudda been worse.”
Indeed, I pondered the newly introduced non-realities. Yes, he could have died. He could have had many broken bones but didn’t. He could have injured his spine but was spared. He could have had internal bleeding but no such sign. He could have had serious brain damage instead of a “brain injury.” It could have been a lot of things but instead it was what it was…just really horribly bad.
During the next five days, four of which were in the SICU, we heard “It could’ve been worse,” a hundred times. “Some people never leave this hospital” we were reminded again and again. After a while and with considerable guilt, I made a decision about all the imagined scenarios meant to make us feel better. I determined that trying to live in that mindset for comfort was really an act of blind gratitude and not faith. It was a false Neverland of what might have been. A mysterious LaLa Land of “there-there” that distracted me from the obvious truth…what is, is really, really BAD in and of itself and that is what I have to take to God.
It was not someone else’s bad or worse but my own set of reactions to real time suffering. The Bible calls these feelings “lament” and there’s even a book in the Good Book that bears that name, Lamentations. This is the real time, current, actual, in front of your eyes panic and fear at the sight of a loved one suffering and facing life altering consequences. “It could have been worse” does nothing for me at that point because it is NOT what is. What is, is what we take to God in a panic of prayer, nothing more, nothing less. The rest is religious decoration.
David bares his soul to God in Psalm 55,
My heart is severely pained within me, And the terrors of death have fallen upon me. 5 Fearfulness and trembling have come upon me, And horror has overwhelmed me. 6 So I said, “Oh, that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest. Psalms 55:4-6 (NKJV)
“Praise the Lord, it could have been worse” is a fine place to visit for thanksgiving, prayer, praise, thought’s of angelic protection, the imaginings of spiritual warfare and all of the rest. Where you live in the moment I’m describing, however–is, “Oh God, Oh God, Oh God have mercy”–and that is where honesty and authenticity with God meet.
The tendency for people, especially Christians, is to try too hard to say the right spiritual thing. “You lost an arm but at least you have another one”….”Look, your son is eating his Jello this morning in the ICU, Praise God.” Or in another personal example “Your granddaughter has Down Syndrome but at least she has the very best kind.” While well meaning, many believers don’t understand the many different levels of lament and sorrow. We are so accustomed to surface communication in the church today that “I just don’t know what to say” turns into saying something dumb albeit spiritual.” We need to go deeper than the shallow “Christianese” language that dominates the landscape of believers and their fellowship of suffering (more to come on that).
A lesson can be learned from Jeremiah,
“For these things I weep; My eye, my eye overflows with water; Because the comforter, who should restore my life, Is far from me. My children are desolate because the enemy prevailed.” Lam. 1:16 (NKJV)
This may not be theologically true but it is how Jeremiah felt at that moment of pain and abandonment. If my faith in the sovereignty of God is supposed to be a fast acting opiate, meant to mood alter me through the hurt and outrage of the moment, then that drug will have to wait. I will eventually become the “Romans 8:28 boy”, I’m supposed to be. But for now the fear, worry, anger and the host of other parental emotions must flow freely, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death”… reminds me, “LIFE… is not a fly over“!