Have you ever wondered if God knows about your suffering, if he cares about you and the struggles and the afflictions that overwhelm you? Do you wonder if he’s forgotten about you, and left you alone to drift on the on the stormy seas, where the evils of this world are closer to you than the hand of God?
Jesus’ disciples wondered the same thing, and to calm their hearts and allay their fears, Jesus chose to encourage them with a small bird — the sparrow.
The ancient patriarch Job said “man is born to trouble as the spark flies upward.” Trouble can be momentary and manageable. It can also be an unimaginable horror that completely changes our lives.
But when the sparrow falls, whether quietly, or tragically, we find hope in knowing that God’s eye is upon us, his hand is involved in our pain. We may live life singing in a minor key, but our voices will rise to give praise to our God, in joy, either in this life or next. This is our hope.
My wife and I have weathered many forms of suffering, from ill health, to financial loss. During our long years of hardship I found great help in studying and preaching through the psalms of lament. I often wondered if God was using this study to prepare me for something far worse.
And he was. God was preparing me for something that would turn my world inside out.
It’s a cold evening on Feb 8, 2022. We’ve gathered with friends to launch sky lanterns. These are dear people who walked with us through the darkest days of our life. They weren’t just companions. They also shared in our suffering.
The lanterns that drift quietly across the barren winter sky commemorate a tragedy. Two years ago, today, on February 8th, 2020, my 18yo son took his own life.
His name was Tristan.
Tristan was loved by many. His loss is not just our loss. His suicide impacted a community.
Tristan struggled with depression — not the kind you and I sometimes find ourselves in when things go badly. The depression he had is not well described by the term depression. Tristan was diagnosed with “major depressive disorder.” It caused him to crave death — a promise of peace from his inner pain.
I’ve never suffered from depression, but my son’s death gave me my first real taste of what HE must have felt. In one swift stroke, I was emptied of all my worldy ambition, all my hopes this side of the grave. Life became a cold, barren landscape of choking fog. The pain was so consuming, so unrelenting, that I understood something of my son’s anguish. The pain that took his life through death, had now taken my life in my living.
And then, comes the morning. And it comes again, and again.
That first morning, after his death, I woke up in my familiar bed, put my feet on the cold familiar floor, put on my familiar robe, and walked down the familiar hall into the familiar kitchen. Everything was familiar — nothing was the same.
This was a completely new world. It was like I had been transported into a parallel universe, that had a crushing atmosphere of horror. Every part of my body, my mind, my soul, was weighed down with an invisible weight, suffocating my heart and mind. When I looked into the mirror, I didn’t know who I was looking at. It wasn’t the man I had seen before.
I opened my Bible — this book that I had spent most of my life reading, studying, teaching. It was unrecognizable.
I knew I had to start over again. I had to relearn the basics — only this time it would be in the school of suffering. What is this Bible I had trusted? Who was this God it led me to? This God who, when Job lost his ten children, he cried out to God, “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
I knew this was the right prayer to pray. This same God who Job blessed, is the same God who brought me to the precipice of eternity with the death of my son. I stood there in horror, and I stood there in awe in the presence of God. It was like David lifting his eyes to see the Angel of the Lord on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite — I knew the Angel of the Lord visited my home, and carried my son into his eternal presence. My home was hallowed ground. And I prayed as Job did, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
I opened my Bible to the book of Genesis, and my training for this new world began. First thing every morning I spent an hour in this divine book. I prayed through every chapter, journaled every prayer. I prayed every promise, every blessing, every aspiration. And I examined myself against every sin, every condemnation, every evil, to see if they fit. I plead with God to remove his wrath, his hand of discipline AND I asked him to show me if this horror befell me without cause, as it did Job. I didn’t make any assumptions of my innocence. I wanted the truth, no matter how hard.
And I realized something was different. Everything I read — I read with new eyes. The lenses of pain and horror gave a new perspective — a new clarity to God’s Word. Every day I scoured the words of God as if my life depended upon it — because it did — and it still does. All of the love and support and acts of kindness from friends, family, neighbors, and church, help to salve my soul, and give momentary respites from my turmoil. But the Word of God is the only thing that is healing my soul, and giving me strength to face each day.
And this is what the psalmist experienced in his suffering when he wrote —
This is my comfort in my affliction,
That Your word has revived me. (Psalm 119:50)
This one verse, verse 50 of Psalm 119, describes the most important lifeline I had in the past 2 years of my life.
And there was something else I discovered in my pain — something we hear very little about. Suffering can bring us it into a deeper, more intimate relationship with God. It seems the deeper the suffering, the sweeter his presence. It’s as if the more we shed bitter tears the more clearly we are able to see God. We see his hand with more detail. We see his truth with more focus. We feel his care with more sensitivity.
David tells us that God knows the affliction of the afflicted. That doesn’t mean he just hears our cries, or knows about the facts of our suffering. What David is saying is that God knows our affliction intimately. He understands every contour, every facet, of our suffering. And he knows us, in the pain. He collects our every tear in a bottle. Every sigh and every groan is known to him. Isaiah tells us something remarkable — that in all our affliction, he himself is afflicted. He is not indifferent, nor is he distant — He — God himself is afflicted (Isaiah 63:9). This is how deeply he knows and cares about our pain.
It’s at these moments where God shows up to comfort us, and provide what we need. To the widow, he becomes a protector. To the fatherless, he becomes a father (Psalm 68:5). To the shepherdless, he becomes a shepherd (Ezekiel 34:1-16). To the afflicted, he becomes their comfort.
And through our suffering, our grip on this temporal life is loosened. My sons death wretched my tight grasp free from the things of this earth that I lived for. Even as a devout Christian, and a preaching elder at my church — it’s hard for us to see just how invested in this world we have become, until it’s wrested from our fingers. Then we see God more clearly — and we see how temporary and passing this world is.
As horrid as our suffering is — for as much as it takes from us — it doesn’t come empty handed. Suffering bears gifts — gifts that we can give thanks for.
The road of suffering is still hard. It isn’t a path that is pleasant to walk. You may feel you’ve lost your way, that you may never laugh again, sing again, or live again.
It’s my hope that Sparrow Falls will be a place you can stop and find rest for your weary heart, and nourishment for your weakened soul. A place were you will find encouragement from others who have trod the same terrible path you find yourself on. And I hope it’s a place where God will renew your hope and revive your soul as we visit his Word.
You don’t have to have lost a child, or experience something traumatic to find something here to feed your soul.
Solomon tells us
It is better to go to the house of mourning
than to go to the house of feasting,
for this is the end of all mankind,
and the living will lay it to heart. (Eccl. 7:2)
My only hope for ever seeing my son again is bound up in the person of Jesus Christ, the one who conquered sin, my sins, Tristan’s sins, and the death that took my son, and will one day take me. That’s all I have. And that is enough. This is how I grieve with hope.
Sparrow Falls is my house of mourning, and the door is open. You are invited into my world, where I search the Scriptures, and talk with others who have faced severe afflictions of life, and have thrived.
I don’t know what will come of this ministry effort. All I can promise you is, that whatever you find here — will be drenched with my tears, palpitated with my blood, and born of the cry that inhabits my soul.
Welcome to Sparrow Falls.