January 4, 2010

Arrows, Not Answers
by Pastor George Van Alstine

Devin Hussein, a 25-year-old member of ABC, died last night of a massive heart attack. How unlikely is that! Having survived an enemy attack in Iraq that killed one friend and maimed others, Devin optimistically began the next chapter of his life by marrying Carolina eight months ago. Then suddenly, on a sunny Sunday in Pasadena, his heart gave out, and his brief time on earth is over.

Both Pastor Connie and I spent several hours in the hospital waiting room providing pastoral support to family and friends. At one point, I was overwhelmed by the realization that I had no answers. Why should a 25-year-old have a heart attack? How could God tear this young couple apart so early in their marriage? Is it some kind of joke that Devin could survive Iraq, but not Pasadena? Why did this happen at a time when everything seemed to be coming together in his life? A pastor is supposed to have answers to these kinds of questions, especially one who’s been pastoring for 47 years.

The truth is, I have fewer ultimate and absolute answers than I had when I started in the ministry. Life is too complex for that. But instead of clear-cut answers, I have become aware of arrows that point to consistent truths about how God relates to his fragile human creatures. These arrows have become indelibly imprinted in my heart and mind, and, although they can’t usually be expressed with words, they seem to give very solid guidance in every situation.

One arrow that never seems to move or fade is that God cares on a very deep level. Often, the immediate circumstances don’t seem to support this. Prayers for Devin’s healing went unanswered; he never revived. But his family and their comforters seemed to have an underlying confidence that God loved him even more than they did, and that whether in life or in death, God would take care of him.

Another arrow that can be seen clearly during dark and difficult times is that Eternal Life is real. Surprisingly, this arrow becomes better defined and bolder when we or our loved ones are faced with death. Jesus’ powerful teaching, “I am the resurrection and the life,” was spoken when he was on his way to the funeral of his friend Lazarus. Somehow, in these moments we can feel Eternal Life engulfing us.

A third prominent arrow is one that we try to resist seeing, but it’s no less true: Believers go through all the same stuff unbelievers do. There are no shortcuts or exemptions. Jesus himself suffered and died, and we will all follow him. We pray for a miracle to the God of miracles, but God has always used miracles sparingly. His normal course is to allow his children to suffer from the same weaknesses and ultimate mortality as all others do.

Here’s another arrow to a truth that we have trouble accepting: Our lives are not as important as the bigger plan of God. We know this with our minds, but our hearts resist it, holding on to the idea that we are the center of God’s attention. Our “Why?” questions tend to focus only on our own agenda and goals. There are bigger “Why’s?” that would help put our little lives into perspective.

This final arrow is one that becomes clearer to me each time I go through a dark valley with families and friends of someone threatened with death. God’s comfort comes mostly through those who love us. It’s amazing how people care for each other in these moments, even people who don’t normally get along. You can just about touch the comfort in the atmosphere. Yes, God’s comfort comes directly to our inner selves, but waves of encouragement also flow through others to our outer selves, bringing food, giving hugs, relieving anxieties.

No, as pastors, Connie and I don’t have all the answers. Faced with death we’re just struggling humans like the rest of you. But we can help you see some important arrows that point to truths about God and us and Eternal Life.