I could tell you that there’s plenty of beauty in the world too. I could tell you that all the evil you see is the result of the devil’s work in this world, and because of God’s grace to let us have free will, we bring it on ourselves with our sinful nature. I could tell you that there’s a perfect Kingdom waiting for us beyond this life, and our joy will be complete when we navigate the mines and pitfalls of this world. I could tell you it’s a test of character, a test of faith, or a test of will. I could tell you that it’s to strengthen you for blessings to come. There’s a grain of truth in all of these things, but you’d still call crap on me because it’s not really an answer. So let me smash this stereotype right now: Christians don’t get it, either, and the truth is that we’re just as puzzled about it as you are.
Several years ago, I went to a funeral for a friend’s mother and the hymn of choice was “When Peace Flows Like a River.” People were swaying and waving their hands, saying “oh yes, Lord, it is well with my soul!” and I thought you people are full of crap. Just minutes before, my friend greeted me with tears in her eyes and told me how devastated she was over this sudden loss. Death, I thought, is not well with my soul, and I’m not ok with it. In fact, I’ve never once met a person who really and truly had a “whatever you want is alright with me, Lord” mentality. For all the faith I’ve seen, I’ve heard plenty of whining and tears and “why?” Nobody’s that well adjusted that just anything is alright and they’ll roll along as if it’s no more than picking apples at the grocery store. I’m sure that song has the best of intentions on how we should be, but nobody’s well with anything that happens. At least I’m bold enough to admit it. I have plenty of problems with plenty of things in this world, and I’m not afraid to admit it: to God, to myself, and to others. I don’t know why people of faith believe they have to hide their pain behind false piety.
I’m a Christian just like the others, but I can tell you that the pain of the world has no answer that will satisfy the soul. Some things just don’t make sense, and there’s no way to wrap our heads around it. Anybody that tells you they have the answer to this riddle is lying.
On June 24, 2010, Rick brought home a precious green and yellow parakeet from the school he works at. The vice-principal found the little fellow in the outside courtyard, completely exhausted, hungry, and confused. None of Rick’s co-workers knew what to do with the little fellow, and nobody was stepping up to claim the loss. Rick felt sorry for the bird sitting alone in the school all night and weekend, so he brought him home, believing that we and our two parrots, Zack and Chloe, would be good for him.
Before too long, that parakeet was our third bird. We named him Oliver, and he eventually opened up and became a great companion bird. Plus, he sang beautifully. I’d never heard anything like it! We took him to the vet for a “well check,” and the vet told us that he was less than six months old, and the singing was probably from being in close contact with a canary during his early days.
Ollie was great. He got along with our parrots well and was an outstanding companion. Family and friends adored him and loved hearing his songs and watching him bounce around his cage. The only issue was that he seemed to be camera shy. I only have a couple of videos of those beautiful songs, and a handful of pictures. More often than not, I’d get a picture of the wall because Ollie would jump away just as I took his picture.
In October 2013, I noticed that Ollie seemed to be gimpy on his left leg. Zack had just recovered from an upper respiratory infection, and I wondered if Ollie had fallen and banged his foot one day when I wasn’t around. Zack and Chloe had both done this, and were usually fine anywhere from a few minutes to a day later. A couple of days later, I was alarmed when I noticed that Ollie stumbled and was trying to avoid use of that leg altogether. I called the vet. Our regular vet wasn’t available, but another one in the practice took a look at him. He diagnosed Ollie with a kidney infection and said the infection had caused nerve inflammation that was affecting that leg. He gave Ollie a shot and some antibiotics and told me that the infection would clear up in a couple of weeks, but the nerve inflammation could take as much as six months to heal.
Ollie seemed to improve, but after Thanksgiving, I noticed that he was having trouble perching. Now his right leg seemed to be bothering him. I took him back to the vet. I asked for our regular vet, but he was tied up in emergency surgery. Another vet with the practice came in and said she thought the inflammation had spread, and maybe the infection didn’t clear up completely. She gave Ollie another anti-inflammatory shot and more antibiotics. The vet that saw Ollie the first time came in briefly and agreed with this assessment. They asked that Ollie come in two weeks later for a follow up. Ollie had perked up some by the follow up, but still had trouble moving. At this time, I had put him in a smaller cage and set it up with a large “corner perch” and other flat areas instead of perches so he could get around better. Rick took Ollie to the vet that time, and his regular vet came in for that visit. He said that a tumor was a possibility, but he doubted it because that’s more common in older birds, and Ollie was only three and a half. He said he could do an X-Ray to know for sure. Rick and I talked about it and decided against it. Ollie was stressed out from all the vet visits, and Rick had just been through a two month ordeal with a tooth infection and root canal that had to be redone. Christmas was upon us, and frankly I was overwhelmed – so much that I came down with the flu on New Year’s Eve, even though I had a flu shot. Plus, I just wasn’t sure if I could handle what that X-Ray might reveal. It had been a very stressful time between work issues and Rick’s tooth problems, and frankly I just couldn’t take anymore.
I think you’ve figured out what happened by now. Ollie never recovered and in fact, he continued to deteriorate. On February 27, 2014, Rick and I took him to see his regular vet one more time. The vet found a large tumor on the base of Ollie’s spine. He as absolutely shocked. “He’s so young! I just don’t understand,” I remember the vet saying. And that was the end. There pretty much wasn’t a question. I told Ollie that we loved him and would see him on the other side (I always say this when dealing with death), and he was put to sleep.
I honestly believed he would recover, and it makes no sense to me why an innocent parakeet suffered like that. Ollie never hurt anybody or did anything wrong. We rescued him and intended to give him a long, full life. Why weren’t we allowed the time to do that? I don’t know. It didn’t make any sense to me on February 27, 2014, and it still doesn’t today. I can’t tell you why Ollie died, especially in such an awful, painful way. But he did, and I’m left with no choice but to accept the loss as one of life unexplainable and move on.
Later that day, after we cleaned up and stored away Ollie’s things, I logged on to my computer to check on a few things for my writing. As my background screen came up, a strange thing occurred to me: it was a picture I had taken at The Grand Canyon exactly one year ago that very day.
I see that picture almost everyday, but it really struck me that evening: both because of the irony of going from a magnificent experience to something that absolutely sucked in 365 days, and because I actually stopped to remember the moment I took that picture. Visiting The Grand Canyon was one of those paradigm-shifting experiences that really caused me to look at things differently. Pictures really don’t do it justice, because it’s incomprehensible unless you experience it – and it is something that you experience with your whole being. I remember looking at the red rock, blue sky, and sunshine and thinking: This is reality. This is as close as I’ll get to seeing the world like God sees it. That was the world as God created it, before people came along and started carving out our little places in the crevices. That is how the universe really exists. It’s not the 19 inch screen we’re limited to in our day to day living. It’s the unlimited panorama of everything.
The only thing about that view is that my eyes weren’t good enough to see into the valleys and crevices in that rock. I saw the Colorado River as a small, green blip at the bottom of one of those areas, and I only saw it because a sign with a telescope posted showed me where to look, and it was still small. I know that’s a huge river that carved out the very canyon I stood at the top of, but from where I stood at the top, I would have missed it if it weren’t pointed out specifically. And people rafting that river certainly couldn’t see me standing up there, looking down at them. The rock over their head blocked that view.
Human view is limited. Even if we try to step back and see the big picture, there’s no way we can see into all the valleys and pits way down there, and we certainly can’t see the sky well when we’re in one of them. Our vision is one way, and our minds can’t comprehend how it all works together for God’s greater good. I can’t tell you why Ollie died. I can’t tell you why I lost three friends to cancer during an 18 month period of time a few years ago. I can’t tell you why I lost two great aunts to dementia, and now my father-in-law has fallen prey to it. I can’t tell you why people get sick, or why the good suffer just as much or even more than the bad, or why things with apparently good intentions fall flat, or friends betray you, or people aggravate you, or why it just doesn’t work out. There are plenty of things I’ve seen and experienced that to this day, I cannot figure out what good came of it. Maybe I will understand one day, or maybe that reason will never come. All I know is that life isn’t fair, and that Eccleasiastes 9:11 is absolutely right: time and chance happen to us all.
Living with Questions
Being a Christian doesn’t protect you from the dark places; it simply gives you the courage to live with the questions, and the faith to trust that the answers are out there and will work together for good in the end (Romans 8:28). This also isn’t an instantaneous thing, but rather a process that we must work through. It’s perfectly natural to feel anger and grief over our losses and struggles, and there’s no shortcut to dealing with them. We must work through our emotions and take the time we need to come to terms with the questions that plague us.
I don’t believe God is happy when we suffer. Rather, I believe He suffers with us and doesn’t expect us to take it gracefully. Remember that He gave us our emotions so we would know when things aren’t right, and to not feel them means we didn’t obey that all important commandment from Jesus to love. The pain means that you did love, and that is always a right thing to do. These are the times when it’s imperative to have a relationship with the Lord. Believe me, He can take it. He can take your anger, your frustration, your fear, and your sadness. Rant, rave, and rage at him. You can’t hurt Him, but He can heal you if you’re honest with Him and yourself. This is a time when it’s fine to talk and talk and talk – and then listen for your comfort, in whatever small ways it can be offered. You might be surprised where you find it, too.
I know the outpouring of sympathy when Ollie died touched me as much as his loss. The outpouring of sympathy both from friends in person, online, and even strangers shocked me. It’s usually in tragedy that we bond, and common ground is found in comfort. You may not find the answers, but you could find many other gifts in your suffering that you never expected.
It’s not an answer, but it’s something. Thanks be to God.