Few sorrows in life can come close to the loss of a child. Yet even in such a tragedy, God's Word promises the hope of life beyond the grave - a future resurrection in a much different world.
My wife and I sit next to the tiny tombstone on the grassy knoll of the East Lawn Cemetery in Sugarcreek, Ohio, on the eve of the 25th birthday of our youngest son Jonathan, pondering—pondering what might have been and what shall yet be.
We remember all too well the painful day when we laid our one-year-old son to rest in a tiny white casket. Time and chance, in the form of an auto accident, had visited our young family and ripped one third of what we held dear from our nurture and care. Now, as we sit in the dusk of evening on a warm summer night where he has been at rest for more than two decades, we wonder what might have been.
Three apples; same tree
Yes, "What might have been?" The question seems palpable this evening as we sit in silence keeping him company. The old saying "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree" may have some application here. For two other "apples" have come from the same "tree." Perhaps what the missing one might have been can be seen by looking at what the two remaining have become.
Of all the blessings God has bestowed on us, none compare to the children He gave us to nurture and develop. Both Daniel and Mary Ann were on the scene the day Jonathan died. At the tender age of two and four they learned about loss—in this case their brother whom they loved. Both found comfort in the real and tangible promises of God even at that early age.
Their childlike faith in the promise of God carried them through tragedy to become the "apple" of our eye. Tonight both of them are well-adjusted and successful contributors to society, both with a capacity to empathize and care that comes only through cherishing life through knowing loss.
Daniel volunteered one year during his college career to teach life and computer skills to underprivileged hill tribes in Thailand before he graduated with honors. He and his wife have become our business partners in a company that serves customers around the world.
Mary Ann is the academic of the family who studied domestically and abroad to prepare herself to both understand and to care for people of all backgrounds and cultures. She and her new husband volunteered their first year of marriage to teach English and math at an international school in Jordan. Now she has completed her graduate studies and is applying her skills in a job that helps the underprivileged the world over.
How we cherish them and who they have become! This warm summer night, we cannot help but wonder what the one we lost might have become. Would he have been another engineer like his older brother? Or desired to change the world for the better like his sister? Perhaps he would've been a combination of both? We just can't know—at least not yet.
A world of great suffering and loss
Tonight the hole he left reaches out to touch us as we sit by his grave. As we ponder the blessing his brother and sister have become, it becomes apparent that the real tragedy of his loss is not just the loss itself but, more importantly, the unrealized contribution of what he might have become.
The wind whispers in our ear as we sit alone in the darkness, but we realize we are not alone in our experience. Our loss might be seen as a microcosm of the loss suffered by individuals, nations and the entire world since the creation of man. So much of what might have been has been tragically cut short by accidents, disease, violence and war.
While much ado is made of these losses, our experience and the history of the world indicates that the real loss may have escaped our notice.
Consider the colossal loss of life during the great wars of the century just past. Countless millions were slaughtered on the battlefields. Millions more perished in concentration camps. Unspeakable pain and suffering and loss were inflicted on those that remained to remember. Additional millions starved or died of disease.
However, the real tragedy lies not just in the lives lost but in the unrealized potential of what those millions might have become. How much technology was never developed, how much music was never written, how much art was never painted because so many lives were cut short with the bombs, artillery and gases that sent these people to
a premature death?
We can only ponder what might have been.
Tonight, as we sit in the darkness, the hope of "what shall yet be" still burns within us. We remember how the hope that saw us through on that day 24 years ago has kept me and my family on a positive journey these 24 years since. I remember holding my son at the scene of the accident when Christ's words in John:5:28-29, "The hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth," came to my mind with new meaning and significance.
Christ's promise of a future resurrection from the dead was no longer just an encouraging theological concept. It became a real date with destiny, at which point I would meet again the son to whom I was bidding a painful farewell.
That blessed assurance has carried us forward on a positive path to this very evening. One day, "what might have been" will be transformed into what shall yet be when the grave at which we sit opens and our son comes forth as Christ promised.
A promise of life beyond the grave for all
As the night deepens, my wife and I stand and walk away from his grave where we had paused to remember Jonathan's short life and to ponder his future. Tonight, we leave him behind once more as we have done many times before. But we leave with the same confidence, hope and assurance that carried the day 24 years before. What shall yet be is so powerful that it overshadows our pain of what might have been!
We walk into the night talking about why this assurance has meant so much to our family over the years—but more importantly what it means for the entirety of mankind. Our family reunion with Jonathan—as we have come to call it—is not really "ours" at all because it extends to all of those with incomplete families down through time.
We rehearse the promise of the resurrections— plural because the Bible reveals more than one—to life and why they are the last best hope for mankind. God has a plan in which no one is forgotten or left behind.
"Those who are Christ's" will be brought back to life "at His coming" in a remarkable resurrection to immortality (1 Corinthians:15:23). But what of all the rest who ever lived not knowing Christ—including those who died prematurely? What about Jonathan? What shall yet be?
We remember the hopeful and compelling prophecy by Zechariah about a time yet future when "the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets" (Zechariah:8:5). Jonathan safe? Playing in the street! It's as compelling as it is comforting.
We remember the words of Isaiah describing a new and different world—a Kingdom of and ruled by God—in which "the nursing child shall play by the cobra's hole, and the weaned child shall put his hand in the viper's den" (Isaiah:11:8). Now that's a different world!
What's more, "The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them" (Isaiah:11:6).
"What shall yet be" gives us assurance and hope that we can count on: "They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (Isaiah:11:9).
Ezekiel's amazing prophecy of the resurrection of the dead
The prophet Ezekiel provides vivid details on how "what shall yet be" comes to pass. The cemetery through which we walk will not remain "filled with dead men's bones" with no future hope of life. Ezekiel's words replay in our minds: "And He said to me, 'Son of man, can these bones live?'" (Ezekiel:37:3).
Good question. The answer: "O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 'Thus says the Lord God to these bones: 'Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live'" (Ezekiel:37:4-5).
What he says next comes to us across the millennia with compelling clarity in the stillness of the darkened cemetery: "So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and suddenly a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to bone. Indeed as I looked, the sinews and the flesh came upon them, and the skin covered them over" (Ezekiel:37:7-8).
The prophecy's promise is overwhelming. So much "will yet be," and it will happen right here. Jonathan's future is not lost, and neither are the Schweitzers', the Smiths', the Bitikofers' and the Bakers' and the hundreds of other names that beckon us in the night—bodies will be reassembled, covered with muscle and flesh, prepared to meet their Maker!
"Thus says the Lord God: 'Behold, O my people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up from your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O My people, and brought you up from your graves. I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken it and performed it,' says the Lord" (Ezekiel:37:12-14).
The words seem palpable in the night air. We pause; we ponder; we hesitate. Then we turn and leave the village cemetery and walk down the street toward our home. So much more "will yet be." It extends so far beyond the future of our dear son, beyond the names that beckoned us tonight, beyond even the children of Israel of whom Ezekiel spoke, because Jesus Christ extends the promise to all who ever lived!
A coming time of "no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying"
We arrive home, at peace. Whatever "might have been" is so far overshadowed by "what shall yet be" that our loss is overcome by the anticipation of the day described in the Revelation of Jesus Christ:
"And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, 'Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying; and there shall be nor more pain for the former things have passed away.' Then He who sat on the throne said, 'Behold, I make all things new.' And he said to me, 'Write, for these words are true and faithful'" (Revelation:21:3-5).
May God speed the day of the fulfillment of these magnificent prophecies—when "what shall yet be" becomes "what now is," the joyous reunion He has promised having at last come to pass. More importantly, may we believe and live by His words of Truth until that awesome day!