One early morning a couple of weeks before Christmas when living in Austin I was having breakfast with several friends and my fire department pager buzzed. It read: "Priority 1 Cardiac Arrest. Chaplain needed. 331 Sycamore Avenue." Taking a few final gulps of coffee, I excused myself and promptly headed to the address.
A cardiac arrest rarely ends with a “save.” When the chaplain is dispatched, it usually means a death has occurred, and they need me to console the family
I assumed this call involved an adult, most likely an older male which is a common cardiac arrest scenario in the early mornings. My assumption was wrong. I cannot ever remember a scene as eerie as this one as I pulled up to the house. There was a sea of flashing lights from several sheriff vehicles, firetrucks, and an ambulance. Most striking was the Lifeflight helicopter which had landed and was shut down. Never a good sign.
The fire chief came out the front door, and as he approached me, I asked, "What do we have?" A grim expression filled his face, and he said in a low and somber tone, “This is a bad one, Nick. The Taylor family. A 10-year-old boy died suddenly from an unknown cause. His mother and father, along with two younger sisters, are inside the home. It’s not good.”
My heart sank. The death of a child is always the most intense and disturbing. And it is right before Christmas. I braced myself as I stepped through the open front door. How people display severe grief varies. You never know what to expect. The scene of every tragedy feels like holy ground. The personal space where a person is cracked open by catastrophic loss is one in which you tread lightly, respectfully, and humbly.
The first thing that caught my eye was the sight of a mother draped over the body of her son laying in the middle of the living room floor. As a first responder chaplain of twenty-four years, there is a part of every tragic scene that becomes a part of me, usually in the form of images like this. At the most inopportune times – sitting at a stop light, at a dinner party, the middle of the night, at a Christmas Eve service – these snapshots will intrude upon my mind.
The house was full of first responders: sheriff’s deputies, firefighters, paramedics, and the flight crew, all standing around the perimeter of the room and into the kitchen with looks of unbelief written on their faces. They had tried their best to revive the young boy but to no avail. Grief and despair were the outcomes through no fault of their own, but that does not mitigate some measure of remorse they feel for failing to resuscitate the young boy.
Everyone looks in my direction as the flight nurse steps over to brief me on who is who and what happened. I can see the relief in the eyes of the first responders that someone “official” had arrived to deal with the distraught parents. I stood motionless, uncertain how to begin a dialogue with a mother who is hemorrhaging with heartache and undone with grief, laying over her son. Who am I to even consider interrupting this? Searching the room for the father, someone points out that he is down the hall making phone calls. For the moment he is preoccupied with the task of communicating with relatives, but I can hear his anguish as he explains this nightmare to loved ones. The agony in his voice pierces the whole house.
Over the years, I have learned to fight the urge to interject myself into a situation, and patiently wait for an opportunity to be meaningfully present. As a chaplain. you must be attentive to what is occurring in the moment. I was not sensing it was time to interrupt the grieving mother and continued scouting the room, noticing the pictures hanging on the walls and the Christmas decorations.
After a few minutes, the mother turned her head in the direction where I was standing, and we made eye contact. I moved closer to introduce myself, reverently bending down on one knee beside her on the floor. For the first time, the boy came into my full view. I studied his face, his features, his pale soft skin, his wavy blonde hair. For a moment I saw my son, Trenton, in the boy’s face. They looked to be about the same age, and the resemblance was chilling. There are moments when it hits you that the same tragedies that strike others every day could just as likely be yours.
I reached out and gently placed my hand on the mother’s shoulder and introduced myself, “Mrs. Taylor, my name is Nick, and I am the chaplain for our police and fire department. I am sorry about your son.” She could hardly respond as she looked up with swollen, tear-filled eyes, grimacing with anguish. Since that day I have seen this look far too many times that I care to remember.
There is no script for a first responder chaplain. You go with your intuition. At that moment I feel an openness to lay down on the floor next to her son. She says, “I don’t know what to do? What do I do?” Letting her question sink in, I respond, "Right now you are doing what you need to do. Just be here on the floor close to your son.” She protests, “How can I go on? I can’t do this. My sweet Sean. Why? This can’t be real.”
Gently stroking my hand through her son’s blonde hair, I said, “Sean is such a handsome boy,” holding back an onslaught of my own emotions. I slowly reclined on my side next to him, while she laid on his other side. With his body between us, I could see both his face and hers, as she kissed his forehead and tears of heartbreak dropped from her cheeks onto his. I eventually broke the silence by asking her a few questions about her son, their family, and the two younger girls.
The living room was fully decorated for Christmas and laying on the floor as we talked, I noticed on the fireplace mantle – in separate big brass letters – the spelled-out word
“B-E-L-I-E-V-E.” It is such a common word; a simple verb, which means to accept or have confidence in something as true. The word felt discomforting as it towered above the scene on the floor. “Believe what?” I thought to myself. Was this a religious family who believed in God? Was it a Christmastime sentiment for the children, the anticipation of Santa’s goodies on Christmas morning? And what was the relevance of this word for a mother grieving the death of her son?
When the medical examiner pulled up to the house, I encouraged the parents to spend a final few moments with their deceased son, and then tend to their two younger girls. It is torturous for a parent to watch their child taken away. By the time the medical examiner was finished, friends and extended family members had arrived to offer their emotional support.
With their friends and family members present, it was time for me to consider how to depart the scene. You never leave a situation feeling like your work is done or that things are “okay” enough for you to go. Losing a child is not “okay.” It will not be “okay” tomorrow or the day after that. It will not be “okay” next week or next month. It will not be “okay,” ever.
There is an intimate bond that is forged in the crucible of suffering. I felt particularly attached to this traumatic event, being a father myself of a son the same age as Sean. The theology I learned in seminary and preached in church often falls short in the tragedies I encounter as a first responder chaplain. A safe distance removed from the suffering of the world, I sliced and diced the hardships of life into the theological categories of God’s “perfect will,” and God’s “permissive will.” God’s “perfect will” is God’s perfect plan for each of us and the entire created order.
God’s “permissive will” means that an all-powerful God chooses not to prevent or intervene amidst life’s hardships and suffering. Suppose I had tried to explain this concept to the Taylor’s as some sort of defense of God and faith, in light of the death of their son. Most parents will not have to bury their children, so why was Sean’s death on God’s “permissive will” list?
Those block letters displayed across the mantle in the Taylor home, confronted me: B-E-L-I-E-V-E. Believe what? What is a heartbroken mother swathed over the body of her dead ten-year-old son supposed to believe? Should she have faith in a God who saw fit to have the death of her son on his permissible list? Should she be afraid for what else she loves that made it on the list? There is a Bible verse that states that God will not give you more than you are capable of enduring. Seriously? Is it necessary for God to test the theory to this degree? Is that what a merciful and loving God would do? Is our God a perpetual tinkering God?
When I got back to the house, Heidi was on the phone discussing plans with her sister who was coming to celebrate the Christmas holiday at our home. I poured myself a cup of coffee and sat down at the kitchen table to return a few emails. I peered over the top of my laptop screen and my eyes caught a wood pallet sign Heidi had hung on the front room wall for Christmas. The sign had the word “Immanuel” stenciled across it.
For a few moments I pondered this word. It is used in the Bible in association with the birth of Jesus. The twenty-third verse in the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel reads, “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel – which means, ‘God with us.’” God with us.
Too often, the traditional view of God comes off feeling like God is a superhuman being somewhere over the rainbow and off yonder in the neverlands, managing the cosmic affairs of the universe. Two common beliefs about God that I view as false and detrimental, is that God is somewhere up in the sky and we are separate from him. God was pleased to accept the term “Immanuel” for a name to reveal the truth that God is with us where we are, and there is no separation.
I have studied the Bible that my Christianity is based upon, and I cannot find any place where God says that our human journey will be or should be absent of hardship, adversity, tragedy, loss, and suffering. To the contrary, God tells us that our lifetime on earth will include difficulty. The hardship, difficulty and suffering that Jesus himself experienced is evidence of this fact. Saint Paul, who authored the bulk of the New Testament, endured many severe trials and tribulations.
Rather than some cosmic deity up in the sky somewhere, dispassionately seeing human suffering as a function of his permissive will, God joins the human journey in the flesh as Jesus and he is not spared this same suffering. Too often, Christianity makes the story of God about how he is going to save us from the world but overlooks the story of how he joins us in it. “Immanuel” does not mean “God distant from us,” “God separated from us,” “God looking down upon us” or “God insulating us.” No, Immanuel means, “God WITH us.”
Jesus often proclaimed, “The kingdom of God has come.” People looked around, taking note of all the hardships of the world and their own difficulties, and said they could see no such kingdom. To which Jesus responded, they were looking in the wrong place. He told them they had to look within themselves to find the kingdom of God. Jesus said, you find the love, goodness, grace, compassion, strength, and peace of God inside yourself. In other words, God is not only “with” us, God is “within” us. He breathed Himself into us from the very beginning.
Charles Dickens’ novella, A Christmas Carol, is a classic Christmas story. But I am also reminded of his other well-known book, A Tale of Two Cities, which opens with these words, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” That about sums up the human journey, don’t you think?
Sean was a gift to the Taylor family for ten years – it was the best of times. His life was tragically cut short – it was the worst of times. The joy of his life does not spare them the heartache of his death. But their tragic loss will never diminish the happiness of the time they had together. God was there for all of it, both the joy and the grief.
To “believe” may not mean expecting divine intervention from on high when we struggle, but expressing that kingdom of compassion, empathy, solidarity, and tenderness within ourselves, to one another in moments of grief, heartache, and suffering.
The most important questions about God are not answered in creeds or sorted out in elaborate theological constructions. People are often searching for answers outside themselves, but maybe the answers we most want, and need are within us where God from the beginning breathed His life, His Spirit into us. Those answers may not be clear all at once, and we must live ourselves into them.
Maybe this is what it means to B-E-L-I-E-V-E: I-M-M-A-N-U-E-L.
(adapted from the book "Used to Go to Church")