Alice’s Story: Graveside Epiphany

My friend Alice Wisler lost her four-year-old son to cancer treatments in 1997. Though she wrestled with deep grief, it was divine grace that kept her from losing faith in a loving God. Jesus is able to hold together all the pieces of a mother’s broken heart, and to give meaning to even the briefest of lives. Here is Alice’s story…

Daniel'sPlaceOakTree The cemetery was decorated in fog that morning when I pulled my Jeep to the usual parking place under the oak. Some think cemeteries, especially when foggy, are spooky spots. For me, the cemetery is a classroom. Revelations happen there.

When my son died at age four, I wasn’t interested in much of anything, especially not a lawn with buried bodies. It seemed strange and empty to honor a grave that held what was left of Daniel. I wanted him with me. Four years was not enough time.

While Daniel was going through cancer treatment, I had hoped for a normal family life again.  For healing, health, and kindergarten.  More trips to the park for picnics, and pausing to hear train whistles. More hours of reading Maurice Sendak’s books and laughter over wild things.

I had prayed, clung to Bible verses, and had faith that Daniel would beat the malignant tumor in his neck.

After his death, I cringed at the platitudes neighbors and friends offered.  “He’s in a better place.”  “You’ll see him again.”  “Don’t cry, don’t cry, Alice. Daniel’s with Jesus.”

Time passed, the platitudes continued, but, surprisingly, the cemetery changed for me. Instead of a place of sorrow, it became a setting for family traditions. My husband, three children and I had picnics on the grassy slopes, tossed Frisbees—even played softball. On Daniel’s birthday we let go of helium balloons with messages attached to the strings. They sailed beyond our reach into the August sky.

Now, on an October morning 21 years after Daniel’s death, I came to the cemetery alone. Once I parked by Daniel’s grave, I did my usual mothering—brushing away twigs and wiping bird droppings off his marker with a wet toilette.

The cemetery hawk circled overhead—most likely looking for a critter to surprise—but I rather liked to think he was protecting the gravestones. As he showed off his wing span, I continued with my ritual of walking around the grounds, pausing at markers to read the familiar epitaphs. There was Audrey who lived one day. Taylor, another infant, was just steps away. According to his stone, his parents were so glad he had come into their lives, however briefly. Peregrina, who had been a beloved mother and grandmother, had an armload of red roses in the vase on her stone. I continued my trek, breathing in the morning air.

Solomon’s grave was new to me. The scripture on his epitaph was well-known, but it was the first time I’d seen his gravestone. I took in the words written in bronze: I have finished the course. I have kept the faith.  II Timothy: 4:7.

My first response to this stranger’s epitaph was, Well, Solomon, you had 75 years, so the passage makes sense to put on your resting place.

Daniel?  He had four.

I thought of how Daniel wore a Jesus Loves You pin he got in church. I remembered how he wanted me to read to him about the vine and the branches in the book of John. He told me that you give gifts to your friends. He recited jokes from a book, memorizing all the punch lines, because he didn’t know how to read.  When we crossed the swinging bridge at Grandfather Mountain he held my hand because I am afraid of heights.

He had lived.

It was much too short a life.

But my mind didn’t stop there. I don’t know if it was something in the morning air or in the wispy patches of fog, but God got my attention.

Daniel’s life had a purpose and he fulfilled it. He ran his race with bravery, becoming a Brave Cookie to us. He had cherished his faith in God.

It was the first time in 21 years that I could apply this passage from II Timothy to the life of my boy. And from memory I recalled the rest of the passage found in that verse: I have fought the good fight.

It fit Daniel perfectly. As a cancer patient, he had fought hard through chemo, surgeries, radiation treatments, infections, and invasive needles.

I walked back toward Daniel’s grave as Jesus’ love weaved into my broken mother’s heart.

“You were created for a purpose and you lived it,” I said in the way mamas talk to their child’s grave. “I don’t know why you had to go so soon, but your life was every bit as profound as someone who got to live to see 75 or 85 or 92.”

The fog still hovered; there was no burst of sunlight, no sound of angel wings or trumpets, absolutely no physical indication that I had had an epiphany.

But my spirit knew. I think that it’s in these moments that Jesus’ love wraps us tightly. He gives us what we need, and it comes right when we are able to comprehend it, absorb it, and be thankful.

AliceWisler-2  Alice Wisler

The Gay Man who Met Jesus in a Pub

A War of Loves 2 David Bennett was a young man vehemently opposed to the Christian God, the Christian Bible, and to Christians themselves. So no one was more surprised than David Bennett himself when he became a Christian—and a Christian apologist at that!

In his memoir, A War of Loves, he tells the story of how he realized at a young age that he was gay. He came out to his family at the age of 14, and became radically involved in the gay rights movement in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. What he wanted for his life is what we all want: simply to love and be loved. He wanted to love someone, to have the right to marry him, and to raise a family with him.

But all his hopes and plans for himself were unexpectedly changed when, at 19, he met the love of Jesus in a pub in the gay quarter of Sydney. One might hardly expect Jesus to be in a pub anywhere, let alone in a gay section of town, though in truth such a place is exactly where Jesus reveals his love most powerfully. Certainly he did in David’s life.

~~~

That God would reach out to a gay man isn’t what amazes me. God loves those who are same-sex attracted as much as he loves anyone. This is a given, not a point to be argued.

But that God reached out to man who was radically opposed to him, that he would break through the barriers of erroneous thinking, of intellectual doubt, of the anger and bitterness that came from David’s encounters with God’s own followers—this is what amazes me. David’s mother, a new believer herself at the time of David’s conversion, put it well: “David, I prayed that if he was truly the God of the impossible, God would save you, because you were so impossible to save! Now I know he can do anything!”

~~~

Three things became evident to me as I read David’s story. First, he rejected God because he didn’t know who God really was. He envisioned God only as an “angry, distant deity,” a supreme being who created David as a gay man and then rejected him for being gay.

If this were true of God, then of course atheism would seem preferable. But when God broke in, he showed himself to David as he really is. As David wrestled to understand this unseen but overwhelmingly real Presence, he writes of a moment when “I realized…how tender and loving God the Father was! …He was close. He was kind. He was good and tender-hearted.” God, David discovered, was love. And his Word, the Bible, wasn’t an epistle of condemnation—especially for those who are gay, as David thought—but was instead a love letter, from a Father to His precious children.

~~~

Second, David saw God as condemning because he was condemned by Christians. In this, the church has been very, very wrong. What can be more shameful than allowing our judgments to stand between God and the people He is trying to reach?

The task of the body of Christ is not to condemn but to love. Only love can point to Love, and only God, once He has captured a human heart, can begin the work of holiness. We can no more cleanse another person’s heart than we can cleanse our own. To try is at best a waste of time, at worst a tragedy in the making.

As David himself put it: “Homosexuality is not an evangelistic issue. It is a discipleship issue.” No one will ever revere and be changed by God’s holiness until he first experiences God’s love.

~~~

When David Bennett encountered Christ, he became a new creation, but he did not become heterosexual. He remained same-sex attracted. As he studied the Bible, he came to the conclusion that he needed to live his life as a celibate gay Christian.

Those who think God should have made him heterosexual as part of the deal of salvation will be disappointed. To me, David’s choice is the triumph. And this is the third thing I took away from this book: In our humanness, so long as we are in this world, we are all broken in some way. Salvation brings forgiveness, but not perfection. Not yet. Our journey on this planet will always be a stumbling along on feet of clay. But God’s grace gives us the strength to choose sacredness over sin.

David will always be tempted by homosexual desires, just as the alcoholic might always be tempted to drink, the gambler to place a bet, the womanizer to cheat, the proud man to boast. We are all of us tempted to love this world more than we love God and to find our fulfillment in something other than him.

But David has chosen—with God’s help—to give up his greatest desire, earthly love and sexual fulfillment, in order to be in right relationship with God. And this is to me the height and the essence of living one’s life as a love story with God: choosing to love him above all things, no matter what it is we are tempted to love more.

~~~

Quoted material taken from: David Bennett, A War of Loves (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), pp. 83, 80, 193, 165.