Several years ago I was still deeply entrenched in Christianity when a tragedy struck one of the Christian families in town. I knew this family, or more accurately I knew the patriarch of the family whom I’ll call T.H. He was involved in a variety of ministerial pursuits, which to the best of my knowledge was the way he earned his daily bread. A lawyer by education, he held a loose partnership with other Christian lawyers that devoted time and talents to assisting churches and ministries with legal problems. I don't know how the group was actually remunerated for their services, but since the group was always promoting their agency as a ministry, I had the understanding that “love offerings” kept the organization afloat.
Beyond the legal-beagling, T.H. had big plans for doing something important for his God. He'd been writing hymns and church music, self-publishing children’s' stories, producing Evangelical tapes aimed at kids, and I don't know what else. His "god-given" talent for any of these endeavors was very limited – or rather, non-existent - and the quality of the products was low, but he was completely convinced his God had called him to do these things, and today he is still pumping the stuff out. He's written several hundred songs so far, none of which is likely to have been heard outside one small Independent Baptist Church building here in town. He markets his books and tapes on a homemade website which claims to have distributed the items to 25 countries. Exchange the word “distributed” with the word “donated” and the picture of what is really going on is made a bit clearer.
Regardless of his lack of material success, he believed then and still believes he is serving his God. He has a profound sense of significance, and seems to be relatively happy - at least that’s what he wants people to believe.
In 1995, although my theological understanding had taken some considerable turns in the years and months prior, I was still every bit the born-again, bought-and-sold Evangelical, fundamental, Bible-toting, verse-quoting, WWJD trinket wearing Christian.
Then the phone call: "Did you hear?" the caller asked. "So-and-so's daughter was killed in a car accident! The viewing is..."
T.H.'s daughter was 13 when she died. Her 17-year-old brother was driving a van when he broadsided an 18-wheel tractor-trailer at an intersection. The van was sent careening out of control and wrecked. The 13-year old was killed instantly while her brother and two passengers escaped without serious injury.
A terrible human tragedy, but that's not the point of this story.
I showed up at the funeral home and settled in for a long evening. The line was monstrous. Since T.H.'s various ministerial ambitions and projects had made him well known in local Christian politics, visitors crowded the funeral home.
Now, what would a person expect to see and hear at a viewing for a family that had suddenly lost a 13-year old daughter? I don't suppose there is a right thing or a wrong thing to see or hear, but what would one expect? Laughing? Crying? Weeping? Jokes? Quiet? Loud talking? Praise the Lords? What?
I've been to a few dozen viewings and generally what I've come to expect is sadness in eyes and faces of the bereaved, quiet crying from some of the attendees, soft music in the background, hugs, tears, empathetic comments, and pleasant stories and remembrances of the deceased. At least that’s what my experience has taught me to expect. The religion or lack of religion of the deceased never seemed to make any difference in the general atmosphere of those viewings; all of them have been pretty much the same.
This viewing for this 13-year old was different from any I'd attended up to that point and remains unique in my memory.
Far from being somber, sad, or sensitive, pastors and preachers were finding the occasion a perfect opportunity for what looked to me like politicking. They gave every appearance of finding the evening absolutely festive - loud talking, jokes, handshakes, introductions, and bold platitudes. It was more like a celebratory open house than anything I recognized as resembling mourning. T.H.'s pastor was there literally shouting welcoming greetings to those across the room, introducing himself to clergy he didn't know, and exchanging boisterous pleasantries with those he'd met before. I was amazed.
Remember, I was still a believer at this point - but I was still appalled. I decided to reserve final judgment until it was my turn to offer my own condolences to T.H. and his family.
"She's in a better place - God had another plan for her," T.H.'s wife said. Her eyes were bloodshot from crying, her makeup ruined by tears, her eyes vacant and lifeless. Her words were brave, but her slumping shoulders told another story.
T.H. grabbed my hand and shook it excitedly. "Jesus had another plan for my girl!" he was nearly shouting. He didn't look me in the eye. In fact, he didn't look like he was focusing on anything or anyone. Both parents looked like they were emotional wrecks. They looked like they were in shock.
Meanwhile the raucous party continued without skipping a beat. I got out of there as quick as I could. I didn't attend the funeral.
For the next two years T.H.'s wife struggled with a debilitating clinical depression. Though I've lost touch with the family since becoming an apostate, rumor has it that she's doing better now, though how much better is in doubt. T.H. created a simple website and a sad gospel tract to preserve his daughter's memory.
As I stated earlier on, I don’t think there is any "right" way to mourn, but there are some things I'd expect if my 13-year old daughter were lying still and lifeless in a casket. I'd expect empathy, sympathy, sensitivity, gentleness, not a party.
Could it be that because these "men of God" were so filled with the Holy Spirit and the confidence of a world beyond this one, that they could see nothing but a glorious celebration as the appropriate response to their friend’s daughter being snuffed out? That might be the reason - maybe. And I suppose that if a member of my immediate family dies I do have the right to make it into a party. That's an option I might choose. In T.H.'s case, however, it was fairly apparent that no one in his immediate family "felt" like celebrating. Most of the "Christians" in attendance didn’t seem to notice, or care.
For me, the final curtain on the entire affair is the belief T.H. has repeated uncountable times since, namely, that “God had another plan for my daughter.”
What was that plan? Was the plan to kill her before she reached her next birthday? T.H. has posted a detailed description on his website itemizing the tiniest minutia of the accident, concluding that there is no way anyone would have survived without God having miraculously intervened. In T.H.'s mind the accident has become a miracle of God.
I really don’t know what lesson I learned from all this. I do know the sad episode sickened me then, and it still sickens me now. Rather than being allowed to be openly sad, these parents were forced to hide their natural emotional devastation behind pious masks. I seriously doubt that is a mentally healthy approach to dealing with the loss of a child.
What do you think?
P.S.: I won't be posting a link to T.H.'s website because I'm not interested in having anyone contact him and bring any additional sadness into his family's life.
Online Reading List
- An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish by Bertrand Russell (1943)
- Bible Teaching and Religious Practice by Mark Twain
- God is Imaginary
- Is there an Artificial God? by Douglas Adams (1998)
- Skeptics Annotated Bible
- The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine (1795)
- Which Way? by Robert Ingersoll (1884).
- Why I Am Not A Christian by Bertrand Russell (1927)