At the start of 2010 my life was going better than ever. I’d got a great new job, which meant I was able to get a better car and exchange contacts to buy a bigger house. I’d taken on shared leadership of my local church and was excited about what we could achieve. Best of all, after a difficult upbringing, I had my own family – a wonderful wife and two cool boys. It felt like my time had come.
In April 2011 we buried our youngest son, Ben, who we’d lost after a year’s battle with a brain tumour. My understanding of faith as a series of obstacles for God to overcome was smashed to smithereens.
The way I got my head around all of this was to write. The end of the process has been a book called ‘What Happens Now?’ published by River Publishing. A few months on from the launch night at my church, people’s reactions to reading the book are starting to come in and one word is being used a lot – honest.
In many ways honesty is the biggest thing we have to offer. We have been to a place no-one would want to go and we can tell people what happened. I hope that will help others when the dark times come to them or their mates. Most of us would admit that generally, we’re not very good about talking about this stuff but it’s there so I really think we should. Suffering and death are part of life whether we like to acknowledge them or not – the question is what we do about them.
The book is written from a Christian perspective but as someone who stood at the edge of faith after Ben died and wasn’t afraid to ask the difficult questions – is there really a God and if so what the heck is he doing sometimes? I hope the book will show God has something to offer in all this and that it helps those of us inside the church to have some honest conversations about what we do when things don’t work out the way we’d hoped.
Ben’s death stripped away my inhibitions when it came to talking about life and faith and how messed up my head was about it all. We were welcomed into a church community that was okay with that and provided a safe place to start putting the pieces back together.
Part of my reflection about this gift of honesty is to admit that it’s not always been like this. When my wife was trying to tell me she was struggling with her mental health years ago, I didn’t really want to hear it. It didn’t fit the idea of a God who just sorted things. When she told me she needed to step back from serving in church my first reaction was to ask who else she thought would do it. By the time I took over leadership the penny had dropped that she was more important and that we couldn’t run church based on a sense of duty, which had fear of what would happen otherwise underneath it.
It took Ben’s death to break the idea that God will fix everything if you follow him. It sounds ridiculous now but it’s a seductive warping of the truth that God is a loving, faithful provider. I absolutely believe that, I just don’t believe that it means God promises a Disney ending to every battle – you don’t find that in the Bible.
It’s not that I was being dishonest before, more that at times it was easier to be in denial. When you hold to a tidy theology that God will always make everything okay stuff that isn’t okay is a big inconvenience. I’m afraid in the past I pushed the problems aside at times because they didn’t fit. I hope I do that less now.
Without Ben we are scarred. We haven’t got over it, we never will. Faith gives us hope and help to deal with the fact that things aren’t okay. One of my main conclusions is that God doesn’t stop life being messy he offers to step into the mess with us. Our story is that he has stepped in and he walks the road with us. I am pleased to say amidst the pain there is a lot of good stuff too. Most importantly whatever comes we don’t face it alone.