I’ve struggled with how or if I would write this. It turns out I am compelled to write it because of the great example that has been set for me by some fellow Christians, who are best described as warriors of faith.
One week ago, I missed a call from my mom at 7:00 A.M. Waking up a half-hour later, I hit the ground running and reasoned I’d call her later. While I was in the shower, I had a missed call from my sister, Jill. I dialed her back, thinking that both of them calling in one morning seemed ominous.
Her words were incomprehensible, barely coherent between massive sobs. ” DREYSDJTSDFB is gone,” she wailed into the phone. I asked her to repeat and this time caught some of the person that was “gone”. She’d either said “Dad” or “Rhett”.. A panic started to rise as I near yelled into the phone “Dad or Rhett? What did you say, Jillian!?! DAD OR RHETT?” Incoherent garbled speech that she spat back did not sufficiently clarify so I spelled “RHETT? R-H-E-T-T? Is that what you are saying?” She finally got out a muffled “yes.”
Relief washed over me followed immediately by embarrassment that relief was my first instinctual emotion. Not sympathy, compassion, sadness, anything.. I was relieved that the hypothetical nightmare that had briefly played before my eyes was not my reality… But… it was another family’s nightmare, a nightmare they were certainly living through, suffering through, and possibly with more grief (who can really measure grief?) than the loss of a parent would evoke. This was their son, their brother. This was an 18-year-old boy, one who hadn’t yet gone to college, gotten married, had kids, had a career, all things that my dad has done.
I found out he’d killed himself. I did not say anything. I couldn’t think of what to say. Three years ago, my best friend Laura’s college roommate had taken her own life and I had handled it terribly. I was dealing with my own loss at the time, a close family friend, who was like a second mother to me, Mrs. Rowland, had been diagnosed with a fatal illness and succumbed to it just weeks before Laura called me when she’d found out about her roommate. I know I should have helped her, said something comforting, checked in on her, but I didn’t. In reality, I was pissed at her roommate. How dare she willingly give up a life that Mrs. Rowland would have done anything to hold onto? To stick around to see her youngest daughter be married (an engagement she was helping to plan) and her oldest daughter have her first grandchild. It wasn’t right.
I’d like to think I did a little better being a comforting shoulder to cry on for Jill but not by much. If you know me, you know I am constantly looking for openings with Jill to be the Holy Spirit’s hands and feet and draw her into a relationship with God where she feels compelled to become an active part of a community of believers. I have, thus far, not succeeded but have had many small successes in this endeavor.
Maybe this was another opening. If it was, I doubt I’ve satisfactorily taken it. Because, the sad truth is, this story, Rhett’s story, as I have followed it, has tested my faith and my relationship with God. What the heck, God? Are you kidding me right now? This family is faithful to you, they serve you, they love. Why? Why? WHYY?!
Let me expand on Jill’s relationship with Rhett. For a brief period of three years, my parents moved to Indiana, where Jill met Rhett. He was Jill’s first real crush. She spoke about him constantly. I was living a town away (and what amounted to a world away) at college in a sorority and Jill was at my parents house and yet, I knew about Rhett. She slid him into conversations like he was as commonplace as the weather. I wonder if they ever kissed. I don’t know. I know he met my dad at a “meet-the-dad” sort of lunch, he brought along his sister too. Jill talked about him years later, once telling me she thought he was the “one that got away”. I wondered if they’d reunite in the future. I approved of this because she doesn’t keep much company with outspoken believers and I knew his family to be strong in faith. They chatted from time to time and Jill inherited a love of baseball from Rhett. To this day, she has proudly been the statistician for the baseball team at the three high schools she attended (because of frequent geographical moves). During high school, she only missed 3 baseball games of the teams for which she kept stats, impressive even had she been a player. I later found out that, while our family struggled with the loss of Mrs. Rowland, Rhett was comforting Jill even though she’d moved back to New York by then. I am thankful for this because, Lord knows, the rest of us didn’t have the strength to be there for Jill like she needed. Again when she was being told she’d be moved to a 3rd high school (Texas, this time), Rhett told her to “give it a chance”. She did and she loves Texas now. Anyways, Rhett remained this sort of fabled first crush. I have one too. Do we all? I don’t know.
Rhett was an 18 year-old with everything to live for. He was handsome, smart, funny (from what I hear). He was caring, compassionate. He was admired and well-liked. He was going to St. Josephs on a baseball scholarship, a sport he adored. Jill told me one story of a time he’d sent her friend (who was having a rough time) a postcard from Hawaii, where he was on family vacation, just to try to cheer her up.
As my faith has been tested more and more while details emerge of this seemingly senseless tragedy, I have taken to a habit of checking the Facebook pages of Rhett’s family, his mom, his dad, his sister. I feel a deep desire to do something for them.. anything (and I didn’t even know them). In a way, checking their Facebook became what I did for them? Perhaps somewhere in my mind I believed that I was monitoring them for signs of a need I could fulfill and, at some point, I’d be able to spring into action and fix things. I can usually fix things. I can usually write something, say something, do something. But there is nothing. In a case like this, there is nothing but prayer.
It isn’t clear what drove Rhett to suicide. He may have been going through a heart ache (Or so I’ve surmised). I remember the trials and turmoils of young love, they were heartbreaking and emotional but, it’s 7-9 years later and I hardly think of them anymore, and when I do, it is with fondness and a little bit of amusement at my theatrics (they called me a drama queen and they were right). This boy lived so passionately that his devastation was nearly unbearable, a departure from the boys I am accustomed to meeting who fight emotions in a ridiculous quest to “look hard” or whatever they call it now. Surely, God could have lifted this boys emotional and mental burdens off of him. God’s supposed to give us no more than we can bare!
But here’s the thing. People are wrong when they say that God gives us no more than we can bare. God doesn’t give us any of the horrible evil sad parts of life. This is the work of the devil telling lies like “You can’t live without so and so” or “the world would be better off without you”. God wanted to break through to Rhett and tell him what he tells us all “You are enough. You can get through this. My strength will work through you if you ask for it.” When Rhett took his own life, God cried first. God cried for his mom and dad and sister. God cried for the pain that would be felt, a pain he never wanted for us.
God makes all things work together for good. But the fact that he makes them can also mean he allows them like he allowed this. In a way, God did save Rhett in the end (though only Rhett’s earthly end). God brought Rhett home. Jesus stood at the gates of heaven and waited for Rhett and, when he saw him, embraced him in an embrace that meant and felt like nothing we can ever fathom with earthly minds. I get chills just writing about it now.
And there’s more. You would not believe the strength, courage, and faith that this family has shown. I can’t believe it. Their every Facebook post, ones that I am shamelessly “stalking”, reads like a praise to our Lord. The devil thought he had infiltrated Rhett’s family, thought “Now, I’ve got them. They will surely turn away now that I’ve taken their only son, their only brother and filled them with devastation.” But they have not turned away. They are steadfast in offering all glory and honor to God.
They are warriors. They have dealt the devil a devastating blow. In a world where, by and large, the devil is finding people who are ready and willing to buy into his lies, the devil found a family that he thought he could sink his metaphorical claws into, thought they were primed to turn away from the one, true God, from love. But they said “no” to the devil and have reaffirmed their commitment to the Lord. In a moment where no one would blame them for faltering, I have faltered over much less, they refuse to waiver in their hope in the Lord.
Rhett’s mom may never know this but, in my moments of thinking What the heck, God?! How could you let this happen to these people? How could you let this happen to me? Don’t you know I’m trying to bring Jill over to your team? This is going to make that that much harder?! , I read her posts from long before her son died and was reminded of my commitment to follow Christ.
We are not promised an easy life as a Christian. In fact, we are promised just the opposite. We are promised difficulty, struggle, strife. Perhaps the imagery in “pick up your cross and follow me” was very very intentional. A cross is not an easy thing to bare.
God has already written our story. He already knows. He already knew that this family would lose their son and brother, that I would mess up a million times in trying to guide Jill to give her life to God.
Giving your life to God is hard. It hurts and it goes against every self-gratifying instinct that the world is telling us is fine (or even good) to pursue (“Do you” they say!). I am convinced the devil was on board with the whole “do you” movement. But then there are people like Rhett’s family, who have stood bravely against the devil through this unthinkable tragedy. Who, could “do them” and give in to the fleshly inclination to live in their grief, to let it ruin them, to let it fill them with hate, to let it rob them of love. Who, in their extreme grief, have used the little strength they have left to shut the devil out. Who have set an example for us all and have shown me what it truly looks like to pick up your cross and carry it… NO. MATTER. WHAT
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? Matthew 16: 24-26
Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. 2 Timothy 3:12
More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. Romans 5:3-5
And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. 1 Peter 5:10
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 1 Peter 4: 12-13
I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” John 16:33
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 2 Corinthians 4:8-10
Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. Luke 14:27
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:2
For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord, ‘plans for well-being and not for trouble, to give you a future and a hope. Jeremiah 29:11