I talked about the beginning of my journey with doubt in my first post like it was a conscious decision, and on one level, it was. I had a bit of an, “Ok God, don’t forget I’m a rebel now!” attitude. I stopped reading my Bible and didn’t care. My attention span in church (when I went) was shorter. Singing in church didn’t feel very honest. I wanted to see what would happen. Instead of dipping my toe in a sea of doubt, I put both feet in… and found out that it was a puddle. I discovered I could stand. Life without paying attention to God wasn’t so different.
Then my friend Ty died of brain cancer.
My experience with death was pretty well-rounded already. When I was eight my youngest brother, who was born with a heart condition and had many operations and hospital stays during his two-year-lifetime, passed away. When I was a kid and a young teen, I watched my grandpa die through a long battle with Multiple Sclerosis. In college, my Yiayia, who I felt very close to since I’ve always been described as her “mini-me”, declined swiftly from a blood infection. The same year, my brother’s roommate fell from a cliff while hiking. So I fully understood that death could come for anyone – young or old. Slowly or unexpectedly. Yet, for some reason, as I read the news about Ty in a Facebook post on the way to my brother’s wedding rehearsal dinner, I felt shaken. For the first time ever, perhaps because I was practicing distrust of God, I felt afraid of death.
What a wonder of a wholly Christian upbringing – not feeling afraid of death until I was 24 years old. But it’s true. I think because of Adam’s death when we were very little, I looked forward to and believed in heaven with a greater hope and assurance than most kids. Maybe I never questioned heaven because it meant more to me – I had a little redheaded roommate up there. And I never believed that death should be “fair.” My brother’s friend was so full of love and life that his memorial service blew me away. He was in his early twenties, studying to become a nurse, good-looking, was going to marry his girlfriend one day… People said that it wasn’t fair for someone like that to get taken to heaven so early. Because of Adam, I never felt like that when young people died. Sure, it wasn’t “fair,” but death wasn’t supposed to be.
Yet, Ty’s death was a shock, and I felt the injustice of it. He was another popular, funny, good-looking Christian guy. He left a large legacy of strong Christian men whom he lead in Bible studies and spent a lot of time with. He sang and played guitar. He was the kind of guy who made you feel like a cool, good person if he took some time to talk with you. His wife, Carrie, was a year above me in college, and she was my favorite friend from the pool of young married women I sought out relationship advice from while Brett and I were dating, engaged, and newly married. They became part of a ministry called the Traveling Team, where they adventured through the northwest region, visiting colleges and speaking about world missions along the way. This was something I saw myself possibly doing in the future. The last time I saw Ty was about a year after his cancer diagnosis, when they drove hours out of their way to see Brett and I, just to encourage us with our missionary goals.
I read that the brain tumor had won, and I sucked in tears and anger, went to the rehearsal dinner, and greeted cousins and aunts and uncles I hadn’t seen in years. I tried not to think about Carrie. I tried not to think about cancer. I had a wedding to get through. I made boutonnieres and corsages as I questioned my belief in heaven. I got my hair done and read Facebook testimonies from his friends, all of them half if not fully joyful and celebrating that Ty was pain-free, tumor-free, and with Jesus. I stood at the altar next to the bride becoming my sister-in-law, looked out at the crowd, and saw more friends from college who knew the news and held back sad and happy tears.
It was an emotional weekend.
When it was all over, I sat awake at night, imagining if I was dying of cancer, and someone was holding my hand telling me to “go to Jesus,” would I fight to hold on? Would I really believe, in that moment, that I was going… anywhere? I tried to take a break from my doubt and find comfort in God.
God, how am I so far from you? Where am I? Have you lost me? Don’t I know that Adam is up in heaven? Don’t I know that Yiayia is there? What about Grandpa, running around with strong muscles again?
I don’t even know what I believe
I don’t even know if I believe
Everything you’re trying to say to me
Open up my eyes
Tell me I’m alive…
Say something, say something like you love me*
I thought about Brett and my fear grew. Brett had just turned 26; when Ty turned 26, he found out he had a tumor the size of an orange in his head. Could I hold Brett’s hand in two years and tell him to go to Jesus if he was suffering?
I decided I did not have that much faith. And that, no matter the faith of my hundreds of Facebook friends eulogizing Ty, I could not behave like I did.
Brett left for a business trip right after the wedding, so I drove myself up to Lake Erie College for Ty’s memorial service. I sat with my friends, who all had someone to hold their hand, and felt so lonely. Lonely without Brett, and lonely with my own shaken faith. I watched Carrie walk down the aisle between Ty’s parents, head tall and softly smiling, and I felt this courage radiate off of her. The service was about faith and suffering. It could have been funnier.
After the service was over, we stood around, old friends who rarely saw each other, and had this awkward hesitation as to whether or not we should hang out. Was it appropriate? But we made the best decision and went out for burgers and shakes, sitting around one long table swapping Ty stories and laughing. It was healing and wonderful. Then, about half of us decided to take advantage of the nearby beach. We ran through the sand with our shoes off; we collected smooth, round pebbles and spelled Ty’s name in the sand. Everybody left, but I stayed behind, not wanting to drive the two hours back alone to an empty apartment. I happened to have a blanket, my journal, and a biography of Rich Mullins in my car, and that and the sunshine were perfect medicine.
During my time on the beach, I realized that there were two things I didn’t question or need to question: that God was real, and that Jesus is who he said he was. From there, I wanted to start from scratch. I knew I had forgotten to pay attention to Jesus in all of this, and that, if I still trusted Jesus, I could try to trust what Jesus said about God. Other than that and my own life experiences, I wanted to delete everything – all the confusing and conflicted messages I got from the Bible, church, and other peoples’ experiences. My big question wasn’t, “God, are you there?” but, “God, what kind of guy are you?”
Ty’s death ended up motivating me to delve deeper into doubt. Weirdly, though I was questioning whether I liked God, I wasn’t questioning whether I still wanted to become a missionary one day. I needed to figure this out, because I couldn’t go through life sharing Jesus half-heartedly. I couldn’t say, “Look! Here’s Jesus, who will save you and be your friend and give you all the love you need,” if I didn’t really believe that the One who sent him is Good. Death had made me wish I could take a break from my doubts, only to find out that this was a ride I was on – there was no getting off voluntarily. But I felt like Ty and Rich Mullins were my odd-couple guardian angels, and as I drove home I had hope.
In this wasteland
Where I’m living
There is a crack in the door filled with light
And it’s all that I need to get by **
*Song lyrics from “Believe” by Mumford and Sons
**Song lyrics from “Wasteland” by Needtobreathe