We Are Not Forsaken

My daughter’s teeth were clenched from the brain tumor and so I would hold her for hours and dribble protein drink through their crevices with a thin-rimmed yellow sippy cup. Most would spill out, but some went in, and so this is how we stretched out her life.

To what end I am unsure, beyond suffering. When it is your child you have no choice, you can no more let her die than cut your own throat.

Sometimes when I fed her I raged silently at God for twisting a three-year-old into this vessel of pain. Other times I prayed for him to heal her. “Let this cup pass,” I would pray, lifting that thin yellow receptacle with the tooth-grazed rim to her lips.

In the afternoons my wife took over, and I sat in our living room and tried to eat. Mostly I looked out our window at the blazing Kansas summer. I watched people pass on bicycles, watched them drive past with music playing. Sometimes through an open car window I heard them laughing.

They didn’t know they were passing this dying house. I hated them for not knowing.

There are good and God-loving people who have never once felt his absence. There are also God-yearning people who have lain awake more nights than they can count, wondering why they are forsaken. I can’t discern whether the difference is due to an inner defect, or a mysterious ordainment by God, or simply damnation.

Maybe there is something wrong with some of us, for all we who have felt forsaken are broken as well. But isn’t everyone broken? This world is broken. Some of us it cracks, others it shatters, but no one passes unscathed.

A year after she died, I met a man who had recently lost his baby to the same disease. We talked briefly and then he burst into tears. He told me what he saw and heard and smelled when she died, because he knew that I knew, and so it was safe to say these terrible things, these things you can only know after you have watched the light leave your baby’s eyes even as she strains to see you.

There is a comfort in being near someone who knows.

I shivered as he related these truths to me, the same way I once shivered when I read, as a boy, that dread cry of Christ: Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? It is his point of greatest anguish, when he squints into the voiceless dark and knows Godforsakenness.

It is a great mystery to me, how God can know what it means to be forsaken, and because he is three-in-one, know also how it is to look on your dying child, hear the breath rattle in his deflating lungs, smell the shit running down his legs, see him strain to find your face, the only sight that will comfort him, your face, which is denied him in this moment of greatest need, because his eyes and this darkening world itself have failed him.

After my daughter died, people tried to comfort me by pointing to the fruits of her suffering. My own mother came to faith, she said, in the funeral home. My pastor took my mother into a side room and when she came out she wept and told me she’d accepted Christ as her savior. So much good, people said. Your daughter accomplished so much through her suffering.

I suppose that fruit is good but this is not a deal I would have made. I am weak and I miss her and you’d think a hole running through you would be light as air but it’s such a heavy load sometimes.

Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?

Why did he do this? What are we to him, that he would do this?

Good Friday, in the Christian faith, is the day our sins were put to death. An icon from the early Church shows Christ in Hades, pulling up Adam and Eve. He is “trampling down death by death,” goes the ancient liturgy, “and upon those in the tomb, bestowing life.”

He offers life and he offers forgiveness and he knows this present suffering. He knows what it is to watch his child die. He knows what Godforsakenness feels like.

Most important, even as he showed us, with his famous cry, that he knows this feeling, he told us it was a lie. “My God, My God,” goes the Psalm 22 (21 for Eastern Orthodox Christians), “hear me, why have you forsaken me?” This is the anguish all we of Godforsaken heart know well.

But hear the revelation to which Christ directs us, further in the same psalm:

For He has not despised nor scorned the beggar’s supplication,

Nor has He turned away His face from me;

And when I cried out to Him, He heard me.

He hears us, and he knows, because he has suffered as one Godforsaken. Which means that you and I, even in our darkest hours, are not forsaken. Though we may hear nothing, feel nothing, believe nothing, we are not forsaken, and so we need not despair. And that is everything. That is Good Friday and it is hope, it is life in this darkened age, and it is the life of the world to come.

  • Allison Backous Troy

    Tony, have you read Christian Wiman? So much shared between you both. Thank you for this. Trampling death by death indeed. Lord have mercy.

  • http://www.sarazarr.com Sara Z

    Amen, amen, amen. Thank you.

  • http://www.tonywoodlief.com Tony Woodlief

    Allison — only a little, and that little reminds me in turn that it isn’t enough, because his writing is indeed grace-filled.

  • Jessica Eddings-Roeser

    Thank you, Tony.

  • http://www.poetryretreats.com Peggy Rosenthal

    Tony, I can hardly imagine the pain of watching your child die, but your beautiful and honest writing here helps me imagine it. Thank you for this powerful meditation on godforsakenness –and on the deepest meaning of what we commemorate today.

  • http://writingwithoutpaper.blogspot.com Maureen

    “There is comfort in being near someone who knows.” I wish I could tell you how deep the truth of this runs for me.

    “This is what was bequeathed us: / This earth the beloved left / And, leaving, / Left to us. //…. // Turn me into song; sing me awake.” ~ Gregory Orr (Untitled poem)

    Blessings, Tony.

  • Merovex

    You were never foresaken, you were too numbed by pain to see him right there through it all. I was brought to Christ through my father’s death at a young age. I’ve lain away many a night wondering why I was going through whatever trial I was facing. But, I always knew God was there.

  • http://www.excusemyexcuses.com Nathan Klose

    Tony, you are one human heart speaking its truths to us other human hearts, the least and best we can do in this state, in humanity — and your honesty blesses our deep dark places with air and light and God’s strange, suspicious love. You open us up, just enough, and that’s what I am saying thank you for. That’s what prompts me into all thankfulness for you, and for the odd-offered Christ-through-you I cannot pin but only intake like a breath, and for your own heart that speaks to mine and brings the light which is truth, which is good. Thank you, Tony.

    All thrive,
    Nathan

  • Caroline

    Tony- Thank you for this. My words fail me here, but my prayers are with you…

    Shantih shantih shantih

  • Sarah B.

    Thank You. I am now 29, mother to a 2 year old. When I was 7, I spent a year watching my mother die. It is as you say. The world cracks some and shatters others. But we are not forsaken. Thank you.

  • Nicki

    Although you speak it so poignantly, I can’t imagine the anguish of losing a child. My heart goes out to you.

    I think you might be heartened by reading Psalm 22. Beyond the appearance of anguish is the lesson that made the jeering Pharisees flee the cross; a detailed crucifixion prophesy, and a glimmer of hope from Jesus the Rabbi, teaching by oral tradition. (Oral tradition: I start, you finish from my prompt.) Even in our deepest despair, there is hope.

    Thank you for the gift of your words. You bless me.

    Nicki

  • http://davidclarkart.com David Clark

    Tony–Thank-you. Your essay reminds me hope exists despite unspeakable darkness and pain; this is a grace I cannot fathom but whose whisper I hear echoing from your words. Again, thank-you

  • Janna Perry

    Thank you for sharing this. It moves me beyond words… thank you for being open and allowing your experience to speak to others.

  • mrs_meers

    True and agonizing and beautiful and terrible. Thank you for pulling me out of myself for an evening.

  • Paul Ebert

    Tony, as someone who lost a son to cancer, please allow me to express the opinion that not being willing to make that deal is not a sign of weakness. Making such a deal, in my view, is to accept easy answers for mysteries that call us beyond easy answers. When you miss your daughter, which you will for the rest of your life, you are in no way being weak. Rather, you are being human, which means made in the image of God. My experience has been that the true power of the cross is how it validates the mystery, much more so than that it provides easy answers. I believe that I will be reunited with my son and that you will be reunited with your daughter. Then, the pain will be completely healed. Until then, it’s not about some balance sheet between the “good” and the “bad”. True joy requires us to receive both, not to try to balance them out somehow.

  • http://www.thecatholicbeat.com Gail Finke

    This is so beautiful and honest. When I was young and had no troubles (and didn’t believe in God), I used to wonder why people would get angry with God and blame God for things going wrong or being bad. After all, I didn’t believe in God and I could tell bad things happened all the time. Why would anyone expect anything different? Now I am almost 50 and I have lived through (and am living through) troubles of my own, and seen so many more. It is so hard not to blame God for not fixing things. But I was honest then and so I must be honest now: Bad things happen. Really bad things happen. The difference for the Christian is not that they don’t happen, but that God is with you while they happen. Why and how that changes things is a mystery we can’t plumb. But it does change things.

  • http://www.tonywoodlief.com Tony Woodlief

    So many wise and kind thoughts here. Blessings to all of you.

  • Christine

    Tony, thank you for this profound and wise meditation. I am 44 and living with advanced cancer, and there are times when I get very angry and bitter at God for putting me through this, especially since I have a young child. But I always taell myself, “God has not forsaken me.” It’s what gets me through the days. Since we can never truly understand why people suffer, I think that’s the only legitimate response to suffering as horrific as losing a child. I don’t believe that God took your precious daughter so that others could be “saved”; that kind of God sounds like a sadist. But there is a grace in good occuring in the face of the tragic.

  • http://www.tonywoodlief.com Tony Woodlief

    Oh, Christine. I am so sorry. You are not forsaken, nor is your little one. Persevere in hope.

  • Joshua Leland

    Tony,
    Thank you for sharing this–your words here changed my life.
    After reading this post several times I was struck by how similar it is to a poem I wrote several years ago. I wanted to share it with you.

    “Lama Sabachthani”

    It’s taken me quite some time to understand
    The outrageousness of the doctrine:
    Fully God and fully man,

    But I suppose some mystery is to be expected
    With one who claimed to be God ‘come Man
    To be by both rejected.

    The anguish of the dying God’s humanity
    Bled through his tormented final cry:
    My God, My God, why has thou forsaken me?

    I could not love God with all my heart
    Did he not understand and know
    My saddest and most lonely parts.

  • Katherine

    I had no right to see this; I did not earn this knowledge.
    I gazed with shallow eyes looking for a moments diversion from life.
    I’m sorry I left the Phineas and Ferb comment on your blog.
    Whatever burdens you’ve been given to bear, you’ve also been given a great gift with words. I am moved to tears. My prayers are with you.


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