Suffering, death, and the work of grieving

Suffering, death, and the work of grieving

(The past several weeks since the death of our dear brother and fellow elder, Adam Spaetti, I’ve been thinking a lot about my father’s prayer reproduced at the bottom of this post, “A Psalm on the Death of an Eighteen-Year-Old Son.” Please pray that God will be everything needed for the sanctification of Adam’s wife, Dawn, and their six children—day by day, then year by year. In a slightly altered form, this post was first published a decade ago on Baylyblog.)

Back in 1964, my brother, Joe, went off to Swarthmore on a (rare) full ride National Merit Scholarship. He was a philosophy major, ran on the Cross Country team, and loved the Lord. He planned to go on for a Ph.D. and serve in foreign missions.

Meanwhile Dad, after many years with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship serving as director of I-V’s Eastern region, editor of “His” magazine, and publisher of Inter-Varsity Press, had just left I-V and spent the next two years doing freelance writing and itinerant preaching. In the previous six years, Dad and Mud (our pet name for Mother) had lost two of their children–Danny to Leukemia and Johnny to Cystic Fibrosis. Following Danny and Johnny’s death, David was born, then Nathan (who also had Cystic Fibrosis and barely survived birth).

Life was hard. I-V had paid Dad enough for us to live in a small duplex in Havertown. While directing the Eastern region of I-V, Dad also edited “His” magazine, which meant he spent two weeks every month out in Chicago away from his wife and children. Summer vacations were the family driving out to Cedar Campus or Bear Trap Ranch for Dad to speak.

Pay was at a godly level requiring faith, so Dad worked to supplement our income by having us take orders for hoagies at Delaware County Christian School. Wednesdays he and Mud spent a good part of the night making the hoagies which we kids delivered to classmates at school the next day. In time, the Pennsylvania Department of Health shut the hoagies down. Our kitchen didn’t meet their specs.

After twenty-five years, when Dad left I-V, he had no pension. Although The Gospel Blimp sold well and he was busy itinerating, ends didn’t meet so Dad took at job as Managing Editor of David C. Cook Publishing Company in Elgin, Illinois. For six months he travelled back and forth between Philly and Chicago. The plan was that right after Christmas we’d leave our beloved fellowship at Delaware County Christian School and Blue Church, and move to Bartlett, Illinois.

Then my older brother Joe died.

Occasionally I attempt to describe our home after Joe’s death and it’s always mostly a failure.

Joe had been out sledding Christmas night with Deborah (his two year younger sister) and other friends when he fell off his sled. He was a Hemophiliac and started hemorrhaging, dying about a week later. We’d already packed our home up and shipped it out to Bartlett, so our family stayed with the Russ Kents until Joe died. Then a memorial service where Dad spoke, followed by a graveside service at Glenwood Memorial Gardens where the other two sons had already been buried.

Immediately after the graveside service, we said goodbye to all our loved ones and got in the car for the cross-country drive to Bartlett and our new home.

Cheap faith knows no difference between summers and winters of a family’s life. It’s plastic and has abused words like ‘grace’ and ‘sovereignty’ and ‘providence’ to inure itself to filling up the cup of Christ’s sufferings and taking up the cross and following our Savior.

Living faith is faithful to do the work of mourning and grieving God has set out before us, and in Dad’s case that work took the next ten to fifteen years.

Christmas was awful. Dad was out on the road speaking for Cook at least half the time and Deborah was gone to University of Illinois (Champaign-Urbana). S0 Mud and I were alone out in the country, eleven miles from anywhere. Home wasn’t our happy place, but something like a cross between a dirge and Job talking to his wife. Mud sometimes hovered over despair, but more often Dad was the wounded one. Joe had been his eldest son and the loss of that son is a wound that has broken many godly men.

There were other pressures. Mud’s parents came to live with us and died a few years later. Then, shortly after arriving in Bartlett, Deborah and I went tree climbing and she broke her back and was in a full body cast for a number of months. We started attending College Church eleven miles away in Wheaton and there was little to no fellowship there since all the Evangelical muckety-mucks resented Dad’s satire, The Gospel Blimp. They thought it was about them.

Then, shortly after arriving at Cook, Dad overheard the CEO talking to a man and realized he’d only been hired to clean up some problems; that no one had intended to keep him on, permanently, when the problems were solved.

Now I don’t want to be maudlin. I haven’t had anything to drink and it’s still the morning as I write. But, good reader, I wish you to understand that, as John Cardinal O’Connor once said, “My theology begins and ends with suffering.” Almost nothing that builds up our immortal souls in our most holy Faith is mid-wifed through social media or celebrity podcasts and conference, and certainly not the best-seller lists of Christian publishers. Sadly though, many of you are going to attend a church tomorrow where you won’t suffer and become humble through the preaching of God’s awful holiness, your own depravity, and the coming Judgment. You attend a church served by a pastor who thinks a shepherd shouldn’t “beat up on” his congregation; that he should “leave the conviction of sin to the Holy Spirit” and preach grace.

So when God calls us to suffer our children being molested by their uncle or one of two of them dying, we find ourselves incapable of grief and mourning. We hide our tears and keep a stiff upper lip Lord’s Day mornings so we’re not a blight on a church of clean vans and SUVs and pickups, handsome mothers with bright, cute kids, and rich fathers.

How has the Reformed church turned into a place where that simple statement of a Roman Catholic Cardinal, “My theology begins and ends with suffering,” has become incomprehensible to us?

I often tell our congregation to watch words that become popular, but especially words that die.

When a word dies it often points to a culture’s attempt to hide its shame. When speaking of the biological bifurcation of man, no one is allowed to use the word “sex” today. Rather we must call it ‘gender’. Similarly, effeminate Bible scholars have removed the sin of effeminacy from 1Corinthians 6:9—now even in the ESV and the updated NASB20.

Across the centuries, church fathers often condemned scholars and pastors for being “effeminate” in their doctrine and preaching. But today, one never hears such an accurate and helpful criticism of any graceful, missional, and perfectly nuanced and contextualized pastor claiming Reformed street cred.

And popular words? The words presently in vogue point to the shape of our emptiness. For example, note the explosion of “passion” these past twenty years. What’s that about?

Mass media, the internet, hair coloring, fornication, serial polygamy, custody battles, Prozac, alcohol, happy/clappy/gracey churches, chemical abortions, rock star preachers, and giggling-excitement-over-fashion conferences have left us incapable of passion. Being hopelessly superficial, now, our talk never rises above facile.

We have no passion in Church or home or our marriage beds because we’ve turned to idolatry and that idolatry has destroyed our capacity to feel. I defy you to show me a man claiming Baxter or Calvin as his hero who preaches or shepherds his flock in any way remotely similar to Baxter or Calvin. Our preachers have zeal for nothing. We’re dispassionate in our theological disquisitions or hokey poems and stories given each Lord’s Day from pulpits which have a bronze plaque facing the preacher on which is written Baxter’s description of his own preaching: “As a dying man to dying men.”

But really, where in any Reformed church do we hear the preaching of a dying man to dying men?

So when God calls us to suffer our children being molested by their uncle or one of two of them dying, we find ourselves incapable of grief and mourning. We hide our tears and keep a stiff upper lip Lord’s Day mornings so we’re not a blight on a church of clean vans and SUVs and pickups, handsome mothers with bright, cute kids, and rich fathers.

But I repeat myself…

The principal blessing God gave David and me in preparation for shepherding His flock was the privilege of growing up in the midst of death and grief and suffering. My favorite liturgical reading of all those I use in worship is from the graveside service of Cranmer’s prayer book. It’s been passed down to us from those who grieved and mourned and were comforted by the Holy Spirit—comforting others as they themselves had been comforted:

Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.

In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased?

Yet, O Lord God most holy, O Lord most mighty, O holy and most merciful Saviour, deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death.

Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts; shut not thy merciful ears to our prayer; but spare us, Lord most holy, O God most mighty, O holy and merciful Saviour, thou most worthy Judge eternal, suffer us not, at our last hour, for any pains of death, to fall from thee.

Then, while the earth shall be cast upon the body by some standing by, the Priest shall say,

Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed: we therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our vile body, that it may be like unto his glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself.

These two lines make me pant after God:

In the midst of life we are in death: and of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased?

O Holy and Merciful Lord, most glorious Judge of all the earth, suffer us not at our last hour, for any pains of death, to fall from Thee.

My ninety-two year old mother lived with us for several months. She was barely able to walk and lucidity came and went. But what a precious gift to have her blessing our home as she grew increasingly feeble and longed for Heaven! (David and Cheryl were blessed by her also since Mud lived with them most of eight years.)

Last week, I was going through a box of envelopes Mud had saved, one for each of her children. (We sent Nathan’s to his widow who shared it with their children.)

One envelope was for my dead brother, Joseph Tate Bayly the Fifth. Inside the envelope I found this scrap of writing from Joe to his college girlfriend, Janie Grossman, written shortly before his death:

I think that Dad is about as wise a man as I’ll ever meet. He’s in touch with kids my age, knows our problems, feelings and weaknesses, and has an unfailing instinct for communication. (Some men, you know, make fools of themselves when they try to talk to high school and college kids.) He has very strong beliefs on many subjects, most of which I know, and with which I am (in principle and hopefully in practice) in complete accord. Finally he has a sense of propriety in every matter which I am afraid I will never be able to emulate. You can see I respect his opinions very much. As a matter of fact, I don’t know what I should do if I ever could not go to him for advice. I should feel pretty lost. As far as communication between me and Mother and Dad is concerned, their wish is literally my command. (emphasis original)

What greater gift could a father and mother receive from their son? Imagine! “As far as communication between Mother and Dad is concerned, their wish is literally my command.”

But Dad and Mud never read this until God had taken their son to Heaven. Then Janie sent it to them and it added to the passion of their grief. It intensified their mourning.

It built their faith.

As I write, I think of several who have abandoned the straight and narrow path. Grieving such departures has led me to meditate on my godly father and mother who were faithful to walk the valley of the shadow of death in hope. They took no shortcuts, but came through with their faith refined and their (still living) children hearing them testify to two things over and over again:

We often felt the death of one of our children was more of a test for the faith of our friends than it was of our own faith.

And

We were never as certain of God’s love as when we walked away from the fresh dirt piled on our child’s casket.

Likely for many of you the path back to passion and zeal and the holiness without which no man will see God lies through taking up the work of feeling and grief and mourning. The work of bearing His yoke in your youth and waiting on Him for His compassion.

If you want to get a letter like my brother’s from your own eighteen-year-old son, do the spiritual work God has given you and take no shortcuts. It will be a painful road, but it leads to eternal life.

Here’s Dad’s confession of faith written when Joe died:

A Psalm on the Death of an Eighteen-Year-Old Son

What waste Lord
this ointment precious
here outpoured
is treasure great
beyond my mind to think.

For years
until this midnight
it was safe
contained
awaiting careful use
now broken
wasted
lost.

The world is poor
so poor it needs each drop
of such a store.
This treasure spent
might feed a multitude
for all their days
and then yield more.

This world is poor?

It’s poorer now
the treasure’s lost.
I breath its lingering fragrance
soon even that
will cease.

What purpose served?
The act is void of reason
sense Lord
madmen do such deeds
not sane.
The sane man hoards his treasure
spends with care
if good
to feed the poor
or else to feed himself.

Let me alone Lord
You’ve taken from me
what I’d give Your world.
I cannot see such waste
that You should take
what poor men need.
You have a heaven
full of treasure
could You not wait
to exercise Your claim
on this?

O spare me Lord forgive
that I may see
beyond this world
beyond myself
Your sovereign plan
or seeing not
may trust You
Spoiler of my treasure.

Have mercy Lord
here is my quitclaim.

– Joe Bayly

Back in 1991, we issued a compilation of Dad’s “Out of My Mind” columns that appeared monthly for twenty-five years in Donald Grey Barnhouse’s “Eternity” magazine. The articles were accompanied by personal reminiscences about Dad written by a couple of his closest friends. One of those friends was C. Everett (“Chick”) Koop, the doctor who worked on my brothers and me when we lived in Philly. Here’s what Dr. Koop wrote:

In the economy of God and in His sovereignty He puts certain people among us who will be up to the task He will place before them. Joe Bayly was such a man. He was my friend. He was the father of several of my patients. Three separate times I shared with him the bone-crushing grief when three of his children died. Indeed, as a surgeon I was involved in one way or another with each of these tragic deaths—deaths that to some people seemed as humanly unavoidable as they were tragic.

What was the real Joe Bayly like in the midst of drinking deeply from the cup of sorrow? He was like he always was—concerned for the spiritual welfare of others, available to go the extra mile for a friend (when it should have been the other way around), and apparently unflappable. Yet, entirely human.

No one could have lived through the sorrow of Joe Bayly’s life with such equanimity without an abundant portion of the grace of God—which of course Joe acknowledged. But I said he was human.

Joe reminded me of Jesus praying in the 26th chapter of Matthew. God the Son talking with God the Father, and while mindful of his divine mission, nonetheless talking about the suffering to come in most human terms.

Joe wasn’t a dishrag that said “Thank you, Father” as each new blow was rained down upon him. He was human. He knew it was part of a sovereign plan of God but he hated it—naturally. After all didn’t Joe write Psalms of My Life and like the biblical psalmist run the gamut of emotion from wonder to sorrow to questioning to rebellion. . .finally to acceptance and praise? That was Joe.

Joe’s eldest son always stood out from the crowd. When the boy wrote his essay for the National Merit Scholarship competition, it was about his faith in Christ. When he went to secular college, his testimony was strong and clear, while his winsome personality and personal achievement attracted not only those who shared his faith but also those who didn’t.

When he sustained a minor bump while sledding, his hemophilia allowed uncontrollable internal hemorrhage to threaten his life. When the young man lay dying in a suburban hospital near Philadelphia, Joe called me to ask that I see his son in consultation. It was too late. For the third time in my career I told the same friend that his child was just a step away from heaven.

As I drove home from the hospital, I was terribly burdened, saddened by the apparent unfairness of it all. I was only the surgeon; Joe was the father. What unspeakable thoughts must have been going through his mind. And yet as I left him at the hospital elevator, he was apparently stoic, certainly resigned, at once a figure most pitiable, but among his son’s attendants a tower of strength. That was Joe Bayly. No wonder he was the source of so much sage advice to the countless young people who sought his counsel over the years.

The memorial service for that boy in the Blue Church in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, was the most heart-wrenching, yet triumphant, hour I can remember. The church was packed not only with Joe’s friends, but also with all the new friends his son had made at college. These young people felt inexplicably deprived of a truly unique person to whom they had become unusually attached, but whose special view of life—and death—they could not understand.

After few preliminaries, Joe Bayly went to the front of the church. The lump in my throat was so large I could barely swallow. The lump in Joe’s throat was so large he could barely talk. But he did, and his opening words are burned forever in my mind: “I want to speak to you tonight about my earthly son and his Heavenly Father. . .”

Joe poured out his heart. Tears streamed down the faces of almost everyone present. That night, the message Joe brought to his son’s college friends started a large number of them down a path in search of what Joe and his son had—and many of them found it in faith in Jesus Christ. That was Joe Bayly.

C. Everett Koop, M.D.

October, 1991

The LORD is good to those who wait for Him, To the person who seeks Him. It is good that he waits silently For the salvation of the LORD. It is good for a man that he should bear The yoke in his youth. Let him sit alone and be silent Since He has laid it on him. Let him put his mouth in the dust, Perhaps there is hope. Let him give his cheek to the smiter, Let him be filled with reproach. For the Lord will not reject forever, For if He causes grief, Then He will have compassion According to His abundant lovingkindness. (Lamentations 3:25-32)


Know someone who would be helped by reading this?

Tags: , ,

About The Author

7

Pastor of Trinity Reformed Church since 1996, Tim and Mary Lee have five children and lots of grandchildren. Tim's books include "Daddy Tried," The Grace of Shame," "Church Reformed," and "Elders Reformed." Tim spent ten years in the PC(USA) and twenty in the PCA, and is now a member of Evangel Presbytery.

Support Out of Our Minds…

Love our content? Help keep it going!

Love our content? Help keep it going!

Join our newsletter