Reflections on my brother’s twenty-fifth birthday.
I set out this morning with the goal of writing a thoughtful essay on what would be my brother’s twenty-fifth birthday, the second birthday he has missed since his death in January of 2021. I went to a coffee shop to gather my thoughts and start writing, but my thoughts have been all over the place, hard to wrangle. My mind has been spinning about deeply philosophical and theological concepts, of astronomical and religious conundrums and paradoxes. I want to write, but I am unsure of where even to start.
That in and of itself is a bit ironic, because much of my thoughts these last few days have been upon the start of everything, the “beginning” of all things. I think I’m prone to try to get to the start of all things as I ponder death and our “end,” (both our own ends and the end of all things). That naturally brings me into the realm of the big concepts: of God (called the “Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End”) and the universe, of time and space, the infinite and the finite, of life and death and the meaning of it all. And faced with these big concepts, I have a few questions, I assume we all do.
I think we generally ask questions hoping to get answers. But the biggest questions we can ask don’t necessarily have answers, and sometimes we have no way of truly knowing any of the answers. Perhaps worst of all is even if we were able to get the answers to our most deeply soul-nagging questions, I’m not sure they would actually satisfy us, but rather aggravate us all the more.
I’m unsure that it is wise to ask perhaps the most universal and seemingly simple question of “why.” As time goes on, and I experience more of life, and having sat with grief a while, I don’t think many of us would be satisfied by answers to our why questions. Answers to our biggest why questions are rare, and if we do happen to get any of them answered it’s best to brace ourselves, because they are often unsettling to say the least.
Supposedly, in the quantum realm (if I’m understanding things correctly), the simple “act” of observing something changes it. Ultimately I think that is happening all the time — we look at the universe and marvel at it’s potential infinitude, but really, it is our own finitude that still seems more daunting and unexplored, even more than that of the outer edges of our observable universe. To look at the images that the James Webb telescope has been taking is a marvel, a wonder, no doubt, but we ourselves are still all the more marvelous, and the more we can see each other in that way, the closer we can be to making this planet a better place for us all to live. The poets have been beckoning us to do this for ages. We contain multitudes, it’s not just a lovely or poetic thought, it’s a scientific fact.
We look to the sky and observe its bigness; we look for answers in the death of stars and galaxies, in moon phases and colliding rocks. The meaninglessness of these deaths and cold realities, which seem to have no real purpose, amaze us. Then we go about our days and interact with other human beings who each have deeply meaningful experiences and lives, people who have experienced deaths of friends and family and loved ones which have helped shape and define their own lives, and we think little of it. Instead we choose to not think about these sorts of details, and quickly get annoyed by each other.
We look into the eyes of another human being and are less in awe by their arguably greater bigness than that of our universe, which although it is huge and beautiful and inspiring, lacks the meaning that even one human being has. In the trillions of stars that exist, including the handful of constellations in which we ascribe all sorts of superficial meaning to, there is not more meaning in all of the them combined than of the individual barista who served me coffee this morning at the coffee shop.
(I think this is helpful as I try to understand what it means to love our neighbor.)
The universe is cold and mostly empty, despite its trillions of stars and countless planets and black holes and whatnot, and so to attribute any sort of meaning to it, any sort of divinity seems kind of silly when this planet is filled with people who contain the imago Dei, the image of God.
What is God? Who is God? I am not exactly sure, to be honest, but it’s not the empty universe. God is much closer than that. Emmanuel — God with us — is much more awe inspiring to me, much more confounding, than any description of deep space or zodiac signs.
Oftentimes we look to space, its bigness, and see our place on this floating rock as small, but my response these days is the opposite. I see how big our world must truly be. If we each contain multitudes, then the number of stars is a small number in comparison to what we are as a human collective.
That we can connect with each other as human beings, that we can love, that we can feel that and describe it will forever be much more of a miracle to me than any technological advancement or new revelation about the universe. We can share in each other’s grief, we can love people who are no longer living, miracles that I don’t think we fully appreciate.
And yet my heart still has tough questions:
Who are we to God? Does a loved one’s death have more meaning, more significance than the death of a star? Is God indifferent to our suffering?
I am personally confounded by the contrast of how meaningless one death is in the grand scheme of the universe, yet how meaningful that same death can be to any one living individual.
What does a meaningful or “meaningless” death do for our own understanding of our own meaning? How do our answers to these sorts of questions impact how we live? How do they inform how we see and treat others? How do they inform how we understand God and his seeming indifference to us at certain moments but not in others? What can we attribute to him of our days?
We might ask “Who are we to you?” to God, but who is he to us? Who are we to each other? In this light, what does it mean to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, strength?
Who am I to me?
Are we merely houses made of clay, with dust as our origin and as our destination?
The whole universe has led to this point in time – tens of thousands of millions of years, billions, have led us to where we are now. Is the birth of the universe more amazing than the birth of a human? Are they just parts of the same story?
The birth of the universe is still only one step in our own creation. Lovers, no matter how brief or intentional, are participants in a much bigger creation story, a very old one. Every human being has been about 13.7 billion years in the the making, no matter when the love-making took place.
If you know the story of Job (I’ll mention more about this in a moment), you’ll remember that Job eventually asks God the nagging question of why. God’s response to Job’s question of why was a reproach. God responds by asking Job “Where were you when I created the world?
Today we are trying to see some of the details of the creation of the universe via the James Webb telescope. We are trying to see the things God seemingly implied we could not see.
Is the James Webb telescope a modern day Tower of Babel?
If we see some of those details, have we somehow overcome the limits of God?
The mysteries of the the universe still seem to be less mysterious than that of our own lives, our own deaths.
I still have a lot of questions about my brother’s death. Many of them, I will admit, are why questions.
But I think we do ourselves a favor to not ask the why questions. As a parent giving instruction to my children, why, if asked by one of them of me, is a question that challenges my own wisdom as a parent. If I tell my son to clean his room and he asks me “why?,” how am I to respond? There is not a simple answer to the why question. The source of my instruction to my son comes from my own experience and wisdom, of expectations passed on to me as to what it means to be a responsible human being in our society today. We discipline ourselves to clean our rooms. But there is no answer to the question of why that would satisfy my son. And we all know that giving an answer based on my authority, “Because I said so.” will not satisfy him either. And my understanding and wisdom as an adult makes little or no sense to a child. I have a bigger understanding, more lived experience. A child isn’t capable of understanding that, so an answer simply will not satisfy.
I think that is why knowledge often lacks the power we desire it to have over our curiosities. We are much too small to understand the bigness of the answers to our why questions.
Love, hand in hand with trust, is much more powerful. There are things we just have to accept, there are principles and even commands that we just have to follow in faith. Jesus told us, “If you love me, keep my commandments.”
To love is to participate in something practically infinite. To only seek knowledge is to only aggravate our own ignorance. To trust someone, to love them, is to have faith in them and their wisdom. And to love God, to trust in his wisdom despite our desire for answers, means to believe what he has told us already. That is the only way I’ve found contentment in light of my questions, not any more knowledge.
Why did Job lose everything he had and why did his family die? Why does my son have to clean his room? — the actual answers to these questions will not satisfy the asker.
In life we learn that we must be content with accepting many various things we do not fully understand. I’ve heard such contentment described as a sort of achievement. It does not come naturally to us. Even though our tendency is to continue searching for a firmer foundation for our very limited knowledge, finding contentment by means of simple acceptance, that is wisdom, that is faith, that is love.
When Job eventually works up the courage, perhaps the arrogance, to ask why of God, demanding an answer from him, God admonishes Job for his question.
“Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone — while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy? “
He then continues with a retelling of the creation of all things, big and small. That’s God’s answer.
Sometimes it’s tempting to boldly ask God after a tragedy we don’t understand, “Where were you?”
But God, like Jesus was known to do, like’s to flip things back to us. His response to our question of “Where were you?” is “Where were you?”
I said it’s likely unwise to ask why, but I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong. We just need to make sure that if we ask that question we must be prepared to brace ourselves for God’s response and know that whatever his answer may be (or further questions), it’s probably best to be content in accepting our reality as it is first, and our place in the grand scheme of all things, and that there is a paradox in the hugeness of our small details beyond that which we can comprehend.
The wisdom of God is much bigger than our small understanding.
I’ve been reading a book by Wendell Berry recently. It’s a fictional account of an old woman named Hannah Coulter reflecting on her life as she nears her own death. She lived as a young woman during World War Two and experienced the simple joys of life as a mother with a family, as well as the hard trials of grief that came during that time in history. I enjoy how Berry weaves his own worldview and insights about life and death, of grief and joy, throughout the book. I initially set out today to write about those insights, and my mind clearly went in a different direction. And so at this point I think it’s best to simply provide you with some of my favorite quotes from the book rather than writing something so long that no one will have the time or attention to read. Maybe I’m too late by this point. But nevertheless, these quotes I find very inspiring and helpful:
“I began to know my story then. Like everybody’s, it was going to be the story of living in the absence of the dead. What is the thread that holds it all together? Grief, I thought for a while. And grief is there sure enough, just about all the way through. From the time I was a girl I have never been far from it. But grief is not a force and has no power to hold. You only bear it. Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.”
“You think you will never forget any of this, you will remember it always just the way it was. But you can’t remember it the way it was. To know it, you have to be living in the presence of it right as it is happening. It can return only by surprise. Speaking of these things tells you that there are no words for them that are equal to them or that can restore them to your mind. And so you have a life that you are living only now, now and now and now, gone before you can speak of it, and you must be thankful for living day by day, moment by moment, in this presence.
But you have a life too that you remember. It stays with you. You have lived a life in the breath and pulse and living light of the present, and your memories of it, remember now, are of a different life in a different world and time. When you remember the past, you are not remembering it as it was. You are remembering it as it is. It is a vision or a dream, present with you in the present, alive with you in the only time you are alive.”
“The chance you had is the life you’ve got. You can make complaints about what people, including you, make of their lives after they have got them, and about what people make of other people’s lives, …but you mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be somebody else. What you must do is this:
Pray without ceasing.
In everything give thanks.”
I am not all the way capable of so much, but those are the right instructions.”
“The living can’t quit living because the world has turned terrible and people they love and need are killed. They can’t because they don’t. The light that shines into darkness and never goes out calls them on into life. It calls them back again into the great room. It calls them into their bodies and into the world, into whatever the world will require. It calls them into work and pleasure, goodness and beauty, and the company of other loved ones.”
Ok, so I’ve written a lot. And my ramblings about the universe and God might seem disconnected from my quotes from Wendell Berry, but they are very much connected in my mind, in my heart.
On my brother’s twenty-fifth birthday I am left wondering many things, but I am allowing my big questions to shape my appreciation for, my contentment in, the wisdom of God. My challenge is to then allow that to provoke my love and care for other people, stranger and friend alike. To understand that the brief time I have on this earth is far briefer than I can comprehend, but also much more meaningful. That even though this world is filled with all sorts of tragedies, the number of which can challenge my thoughts of our significance on this earth and in the universe, each individual human being’s magnitude is bigger than I at first recognize unless I choose to.
And as for myself, I still choose the way of grace, knowing that means I must not try to please myself, and I must not try to get others to please me, either. It means knowing that I will be slighted, forgotten, and disliked. It means accepting the insults and injuries that come my way. But it also means that I notice the world shining all around me, and that love is smiling through all things. And that to love the way of grace is to believe that I will not come to a bad end.
I will be true to you. Whatever comes.