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Where is Jesus when a Child Dies?

How a friend’s worst nightmare became the greatest Gospel proclamation I’ve ever seen

“The Devil is firing a gun that has no bullets.”

These words didn’t come from a rockstar megachurch pastor. Not a hotshot Christian blogger tweeting out clickbait, either. These were the words spoken by a man standing over the motionless frame of his ten-year-old daughter, mere hours before removing her life support. Little Maggie wasn’t going to wake up, and my friend—no, my brother, Frank, was proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a room full of friends and family, many of whom were not believers. As they mourned, he proclaimed. Oh, don’t get me wrong, his heart was broken, his tears uncountable. But with boldness, he stood holding open his Bible to John 20, insisting their hope was in the resurrection of Jesus their Lord. Though the enemy would attack us all with everything he has, Easter reigns. “Death, where is your sting?”, indeed. Jesus has confiscated his bullets.

On Saturday May 5th, this sweet child, one of five belonging to Frank and his wife Jenifer, had a seizure. This was the first time anything like this had happened. Aside from some typical flu-like symptoms, she was, as far as they knew, completely healthy. Before that long night was over, they would learn a tumor had engulfed most of one side of her brain. She was asleep now; the only real question for them was when to turn off life support and let her move on. In the scope of 29 hours, they would go through a whirlwind of life—from the bliss of unknowing to a permanent hole in their family.

But they were not ordinary mourners. Truthfully, I have never witnessed faith in the midst of horror like what was on display those final hours and in the days that followed. They weren’t in denial; not faking a joy that masked true despair. No, they believed. And in the moment of their greatest trial, these Christian parents stepped up to honor their King. After my friend declared the Gospel to the twenty or so people packed into that little ICU room, I told him out in the waiting area he’d been a truly excellent husband and father back there. He simply responded, “We’re supposed to mourn differently…”

Having rested at home for a bit, preparing for what was coming, Frank’s wife came back up to the hospital with him Sunday afternoon. Someone asked me to lead in prayer for her as supporters gathered around her like a great wall around a city. Having served in a number of ministry roles, it wasn’t unfamiliar territory for me; but this was different. I tried to say the usual things: comfort for the family, God’s presence in the mother’s heart, miraculous recovery if God so willed. And I meant it. I ran out of things I could mean, though. I trailed off. My voice whimpered. I was probably going to close it at that point, but I couldn’t get “In Jesus’ name” out before a different voice interrupted. It was a female voice–stronger, more confident than mine, and it spoke only of victory and worship. I must confess, I opened an eye, because it sounded like Jenifer, but I knew it couldn’t be the heart of a grieving mother I was hearing. It was. I’ll never lose the soul shock of hearing–with absolute sincerity–the words “Jesus, I thank you that my little girl gets to meet You today”. You’ve never known spiritual humiliation until you get out-prayed by a mom who’s about to turn the machines off for her little girl. And lest anyone doubt the legitimacy and force in her words, the next day, after all was said and done, she posted this message online: “When miracles happen, blessed be God; when miracles don’t happen, blessed be God.” An echo of Job. But surpassing Job’s wife in every way.

That sort of entrusting of life to a God who is sovereign over all things became a recurring theme throughout the process of their living nightmare. In Frank’s bedside “sermon”, he would speak with grateful reverence of God’s “sovereign grace” (he’s not Reformed, by the way; he’s a Christ-loving Catholic). In the funeral service, we sang “Blessed be Your Name” by Matt Redman. At no point was God’s hand in all of this or His justice called into question. Both mom and dad just kept praising God that He was glorifying Himself through Maggie’s life.

And make no mistake–He has been glorified. As Frank shared with me this week, numerous people have expressed to him and his wife that they have received Christ or come back to the faith after long periods of unbelief, simply compelled by the joy and hope elicited from this family’s intense sifting.

Moreover, the Spirit’s work in the lives of these friends has spilled over a hundredfold in the Christians around them. On that final day of Maggie’s sojourn here, Christians of all stripes gathered for hours to pray, to comfort, and to just wait. They say there are no atheists in foxholes. It may well also be said that there are no denominations in children’s ICU waiting rooms. We didn’t need to agree on polity, infant baptism, eschatology, or the metaphysics of communion; sharing the faith once for all delivered to the saints, Christ’s people united in His name to be His body out of love.

The funeral only magnified the effect. Hundreds attended. The manifold varieties of biblical faith rejoiced and wept together, jubilant in sorrow. The lost stood in confusion and awe–one atheist friend of Jenifer’s told her she’d never seen anything like it, and she was powerfully inspired by her faith. But it didn’t stop there.

The moment was Frank’s, and he gave it to the Lord. Frank gave the eulogy (something I can’t conceive even attempting), and if I were to find out in eternity someday that these 7.5 minutes were the entire reason he was given a lifetime here, I wouldn’t be surprised at all. He reminded us that his daughter was named after Mary Magdalene–fittingly, the first to get to see the risen Jesus. He told of his child’s quiet, joyous piety–how she would get emotional when she saw the cross, how she would often seem to be elsewhere, lost in a silent conversation the rest of the world wasn’t worthy to hear, and how, just a few short days before her passing, she told her mother how she was going to go to heaven–how she would float above her little body, an angel leading her by the hand, and she would walk across the Earth until the Earth faded away, and then she would be there. When Jenifer asked her why in the world she would be talking like that, she simply said, “Because it’s cool.”

Most poignantly, Frank shared that Maggie, trained in the Gospel and full of faith, was set to receive communion for the first time on Saturday, May 5th. “Instead,” he said with a gulp and a smile, “She received it on Sunday night from the hand of Jesus Himself.”

Where, then, was God? Was He an absentee father? Was He off the job that weekend, or actively cruel to these people who had trusted Him? No, quite the opposite. He was right there in the center of it. His voice was louder in an earthly dad’s quiet strength at an undesired podium than a hundred Sinais. His face, more visible in the love radiating from a heartbroken family and the hope with which they mourned than in a thousand tales of healing or longer life. Our hope is not life without trial; it is life without end. Life of the Resurrection. Without this hope, we are, as Paul declares, “of all people most to be pitied”. But Frank will not have your pity. At most, he will accept your sympathy, but not as the final word; be assured you’ll be told the same answer I saw him give time after time to countless individuals, whether lost or saved, to both loved ones and strangers:

“Christ is risen.”

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