And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to His purpose.
My dear friend, Whitney, was born 38 years ago today. Instead of posting a Happy Birthday! message on her Facebook wall or meeting up in Atlanta for dinner in honor of the day she was born, I am bracing for another landmark, a solemn observance that is three weeks away – the 20th anniversary of the night God called her home.
Whitney was beautiful and silly. She was quick to befriend. Quick to forgive. She was a gifted musician. A bright student. A cheerleader. She was a devout Christian with a servant’s heart. A much-loved daughter and sister. Someone’s girlfriend. My best friend.
The world was a better place for having her in it. She loved. Served. Was part of the solution. That God would let her die when there was still so much she could have contributed here on Earth, that has been the most formidable opponent my faith has ever faced.
I wish I could give the perfect answer when my children question me about tragedy. About war and natural disasters. About diseases and death. About God and what He does for us. And what He doesn’t do. The story below is the best I can do. I share it in memory of my friend and in honor of her parents, Larry and Rhonda, who are the personification of Romans 8:28.
Pictured above is a pendant of mine. It was given to me 18 years ago when I was a junior in college by a boyfriend that I would go on to marry, and it is made from Roman glass.
Romans have a long history of glass-making. They made it from resources on hand – beach sand, mostly. During the 1st century AD, the Romans transitioned from casting glass, which yielded small, thick objects, to blowing glass, which allowed them to create a product with a thinner wall. Blown glass was commonly formed into vessels such as cups and bowls, and while cast glass items tended to be opaque and intensely colored, blown Roman glass was colorless or, as with my pendant, aqua.
I love Roman glass jewelry, though I have just the one piece. It is not just the look of it that I love – the irregularity, the tiny bubbles, the color variation – though all those things are appealing to me. I love the idea of it. I love that someone would come across something so old, so useless, a fragment of something that had once been whole and useful, and find beauty in it. That they’d pick it up, dust it off, and take it home to be re-purposed. It is so optimistic, when you think about it: that the shard had been worth saving even though the vessel had shattered. The glass-maker long gone.
I remember seeing this piece of jewelry for the first time, finding out what it was, and being intrigued by it. I described it to Todd, the aforementioned boyfriend. He was working in the Archeology lab at the time, and I thought he’d find it interesting, too (though only in the material, not the jewelry itself).
“How much is it?” he asked. “It sounds cool.” He told me to go back and pick something out. Said he wanted to buy it for me.
His sweet offer came as a complete surprise to me. I had not been hinting. Todd was paying his own way through college by working 10 to 12-hour days on his parents’ asphalt-paving crew during the Summers. He was careful with his money, and the amount I’d needed, $70.00, was half a month’s rent. There was upon us no special occasion, and I certainly didn’t need it – jewelry isn’t really ever a “need” – but he loved me and he offered.
So now you know most everything about the pendant. It’s composition. The circumstances under which it was given to me. The age I’d been. What you don’t know, what I am just now getting around to mentioning, is that it wasn’t a pendant when I received it. It was a pair of earrings. That dangly thing in the picture: there were two of these. My “it” had once been a “they.”.
You’re guessing that I lost one of the earrings, and you are right. Lost it within a couple of months of receiving the pair. Who knows how. I discovered after class morning that it was gone. It must have slipped out of my earlobe when I pulled off a jacket or gathered my hair into a ponytail.
I looked everywhere for that earring. I checked the classroom with great care. Sifted through garbage cans. I searched the walkway between the bus stop and the building. Asked all the janitors if they’d seen it. I looked all afternoon, until I’d run out of places to look, but I never found it.
“It isn’t a big deal,” Todd said. “You’ve still got one. Put it on a necklace or something.”
It was a big deal to me, of course. More than the loss of the earring itself, a material possession I enjoyed and wanted to wear, the earrings were a sort of reminder. They were a souvenir of a happy time in my life when I loved a boy and was loved in returned. Loved so much that he had spent money he very-much needed on something I had not needed in the slightest.
If the earrings, as a pair, had been a symbol of romantic love, the remaining earring, as a singleton, was a symbol of regret. Every time I saw it in my jewelry box I remembered the loss. Blamed myself for not searching longer. For not having been more careful. For accepting them in the first place.
As you can see from the picture, I did eventually make a pendant out of it, but I waited a couple of years to do so. Useless as it was to me, I really didn’t want to change it.
To take that step of bringing the remaining earring to a jeweler, to actively hand it over and give him control, to let him break it apart as he saw fit so that he might turn it into something new, was to give up on my fantasy that I would, against all odds, find the other. That I’d run across that long-lost earring in the pocket of a jacket or at the bottom of an old purse among loose change and an ibuprofen.
I no longer have a pair of earrings that remind me how deeply I am loved, and I don’t have a single, useless earring that reminds me I am careless. I have a pendant that has come to remind me that I was and am worth saving.
When I consider loss, not the insignificant loss of a 35 dollar earring, but the re-defining losses that people experience; the loss of a child that made life joyous, the loss of a marriage that began in love and produced a child, when I consider the loss of one’s health and the indignity that comes with illness, and when I ask myself how a loving God could allow for such sadness, I remind myself how similar God is to the jeweler. God takes the broken pieces from our tragedies, and he fuses them together into a life that is somehow still functional. A life that we can get back to wearing.
Loss isn’t from God at all. God is only in the business of giving. Healing. Restoring. If I truly felt that God went around causing pain to teach us lessons, I would be a very different person. It is true that He teaches us lessons when our hearts are broken, but He doesn’t initiate the fracture. He simply helps us make something beautiful with the shards.
The next logical question, I suppose, is this: If loss isn’t thrust upon us by God, what is it’s source? In my way of thinking, loss is simply the natural consequence of free will. We have all been blessed with it, and it is carries with it a tremendous capacity for love and creativity, but it also equips us with the means by which to harm.
Another issue, and something I wouldn’t trade any sooner than my free will, is that we live in a world which is ordered, held together and made manageable by laws of Science.
Sometimes free will and Scientific law collide in ways that are catastrophic. Consider the motorist that chose to operate his vehicle while intoxicated on night she was killed: Do I think God should have suspended that man’s free will to spare my grief? Would I want God to suspend my free will every time I was poised to do something hurtful?
And what about Science? Should God have momentarily done away with inertia to prevent that vehicle from entering the intersection? How chaotic would our world be if Science ceased every time someone earnestly prayed for a miracle?
How can a loving God let us suffer? Maybe that is the wrong question. Maybe we should ask how God is able to love us so much that we don’t suffer any more than we do.
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” For the “good,” not for “perfection.” Read it again. We were never promised perfect lives. Perfect is where Whitney is now.
I will learn to be satisfied with “good.” I will try to remember that “good” is not something I will be able to cobble together on my own. I will need His craftsmanship. I will try and remember that “works” is a verb, and that if I truly want God to “work,” then I have to give him something to work with. When things get tough, I will have to turn over the remnants of my life, whatever the circumstances, and let him skillfully turn them into something good. It is no different than the jeweler who made a good pendant out of a useless, lone earring (but only after I asked him and gave him complete control).
Maybe it is helpful to consider that there is no loss at all. Only change. Shells that are changed by the force of waves and time into sand. Sand that is changed by a skilled glass-maker into a cup. A cup that is shattered, collected, one shard at a time, and set into earrings. Which change into pendants. And with every change, and God’s grace, there is something good to be found.