The second of the guest posts on the theme of pain and suffering comes from Nigel Freestone. Nigel is the Dad of a friend of ours (Matt) and wrote this a few years back about his granddaughter Abby. We met Matt & Nix and their family 5 years ago and they have become good friends of ours. Although we never met Abby we have been inspired and humbled by how Abby is still a big part of their lives. The way they talk of her, her illness and her part in their lives, is simply inspiring.
Even If He Never Tells Me Why
Once or twice in during Abigail’s little life my wife Ronnie and I were asked by our church to say something about how Abby’s condition affected us and our family. What follows is largely my story, in my words. But while different family members would use different words and examples I believe they would each reach very much the same conclusion. To that extent therefore, this is also their story. I’ve called it Even If He Never Tells Me Why.
I want to start with a brief story. One that impressed itself on me many years ago, long before I realised that it might ever have any relevance for me. My parents were missionaries in the Belgian Congo. They left that country in 1960, just as the civil war surrounding that country’s move to independence began. But they had a friend and colleague who stayed behind to continue her work. Her name was Dr Helen Rosevere. One day the mission station where she was working was overrun by rebel Congolese troops. Among the many atrocities that happened that day, Dr Rosevere herself was severely beaten and gang raped. In the weeks and months afterwards Dr Rosevere says she asked God “Why Lord? Why did this happen?”. She wrote later that she started to come to terms with those horrific events when she felt that God was asking her “Helen, can you thank Me for trusting you with this experience – even if I never tell you why?”.
I have three photos I would like to show you.
This is my granddaughter Abigail, and this is my favourite picture of her. But I have to tell you that the picture is a lie. Abby was born two weeks early after some kind of trauma in the womb. She was severely brain damaged, had cerebral palsy and epileptic fits. She was blind. Even when this picture was taken early in her life we knew there was something seriously wrong. She didn’t have a proper swallow reflex and had to be fed through a plastic tube into her stomach, via her nose. The tube was secured to her cheek with sticking plaster. The picture is a lie because I have manipulated the photo on my computer, to remove the tube and the plaster. It’s a lie because it is how I wished her to be, not how she really was.
This is a photo of Abby a few years later. We can tell you a number of things she did, most of which you would probably not have noticed, they were so slight. Yet we rejoiced over every little item of progress she made. Abby mostly existed in the calm eye of what was, at times, a hurricane of pain. Under the regime of the drugs she was given Abby was mostly comfortable and peaceful, she didn’t know any different. But around her, her parents Matt and Nix bore the force of the pain and strain day by day. They faced the difficulties of bringing up a disabled child, watching other people’s children develop and progress, crawl and smile and laugh, when your own child does not. We cried not only for our own pain, and Abby’s, but theirs too.
Abby has been, indeed perhaps still is, a severe test of faith. At one stage Matt gave up leading worship at their church. They have asked – we have asked – where is God in all this? Why doesn’t he answer? Why doesn’t he care? Different members of the family were often at different places spiritually over Abby. When one was strong, or stable, someone else was weak and despairing. One day’s emotions are not necessarily those of the day before, or the next.
Finally, here is another picture. It’s of Fizz, one of the Tweenies, a children’s television character, also available in jigsaw. The idea came to me one day when I was clearing up the children’s toys. It seems to describe me quite well. Let me highlight for you three things in this picture.
In amongst a mostly pink jigsaw puzzle there is a bright blue piece. It’s the wrong colour, the wrong shape. It doesn’t fit. It doesn’t belong here. This is our Abigail piece. We don’t know where, or how, she fits. We haven’t got answers and it doesn’t make sense. “Why? Lord, Why?”. Yet just as in reality we know that blue jigsaw piece belongs to another Tweenie character puzzle, we expect that one day, when we see the whole picture, perhaps then we’ll understand where Abigail fits.
We try to make Abby fit because we have a number of pieces of our own faith-puzzles missing anyway, just as there are some pieces of this jigsaw puzzle missing. When it comes to even simple matters of faith and understanding God, even after 40 years in my case, we still don’t have all the answers, all the ends tied, everything neatly sorted.
But I cannot allow myself (or you) to miss the third thing in this picture. Here is a recognisable, albeit incomplete, picture of Fizz. There is a temptation to say the puzzle is all rubbish, to behave like a three year old and kick it across the floor in temper and forget it. And yet there are pieces that do fit, pieces that do make sense, a pattern that is understandable, logical, reliable, one piece joined to another. Our faith and Christian experience is like that too. Despite our rogue piece, and our missing pieces, much of it does make sense, it is logical and trustworthy. We know a God who loves us; we have a Bible that can be relied upon; experience of answered (as well as unanswered) prayer. We have a Saviour who died to deal with our sin, and rose again from the dead. We belong to a church, universal as well as local, which loves us and supports us and encourages us to keep going – and where we can sometimes do the same for others.
There may be good reasons to throw it all away, like a broken mixed up jigsaw. We still keep on asking for insight, for understanding, for strength for ourselves and our loved ones for today and tomorrow, for answers to “Why? Lord Why?”. But we choose to believe there is a bigger picture we cannot yet see. Where is God in all this? At the very least he is in the love and care of his people. So, we choose to go on, holding on to what does make sense, to what we have found to be true, to the pieces that do fit, ever thankful to God for giving us Abby – even if He never tells us why.
Nigel Freestone (Written in March 2007)
Nigel is a 67 year old husband to Ronnie, a father of three and grandfather of ten. He works as a computer programmer for a local firm of solicitors and is a Baptist lay preacher. He lives in Charlton, south east London.
Our daughter Abigail defied the doctors’ bleak outlook many times but died from a severe chest infection brought about by chicken pox in March 2007, aged just three and a half. We give thanks for the joy and compassion she brought to our family, and she taught us all a great deal without ever saying a word. And when the pieces of the puzzle don’t seem to fit on that difficult road marked with suffering, we still say ‘Blessed be Your Name’.
Matt Freestone, Dad to Abigail and son of Nigel Freestone