I have officiated at countless funerals over the years. None is easy, but some are more difficult than others. One of the most difficult situations involves children or young adults. While we can adjust more easily to the death of a person who has completed a fairly full life, it is much more difficult to deal with the death of someone who has just begun life and had so much more life ahead.
News reports every day contain stories of tragic deaths. One that has consumed many in the Huntsville, Alabama, area, may not have made the news in other areas of the country. It was the death of a young woman who was part of a youth mission trip heading to the African nation of Botswana. The bus carrying several team members was involved in a traffic accident a few miles from the Atlanta airport.
Some people involved in the accident walked away with only bumps and bruises. Others were hospitalized, but are expected to survive. One 17-year-old girl, Sarah Harmening, died in the crash. And it was just announced that the bus driver will be charged with homicide in the death.
But that still does not answer the question many may be asking. “Where was God in all this?” “Why did God allow a beautiful young woman on her way to share the gospel with people in Africa to die so prematurely?”
That is one of those questions for which no good answer exists. Any flippant answer risks trivializing the tragedy of the situation.
It reminds me of one of my favorite stories on the subject. Theologically, I am practically on the extreme opposite end of the spectrum from the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, the former chaplain of Yale University and pastor of Riverside Church in New York City but in this I agree with him. While Coffin was the pastor at Riverside Church, his son died in a traffic accident.
This caused his father deep grief. One of his parishioners, in an attempt to comfort the grieving pastor, made the comment to the effect that the death was just “God’s will”.
Coffin rejected this assertion vehemently. He explained later in words I can only approximate from memory.
“No it was NOT God’s will. It was not God’s will that my son drink too much and get behind the wheel of an automobile. It was not God’s will that he speed down the Henry Hudson Parkway. And it was not God’s will that his car should leave the highway and plunge into the Hudson River.
“But I know one thing for certain. When my son breathed his last breath on earth God was there. And when he died, God was the first to grieve. For God understands what it means to lose a son.”
I quote that from memory of reading it a long time ago and may have mangled it somewhat. But I trust that I maintained the essence of the story.
So the death of Sarah Harmening was NOT God’s will. God did not cause the crash that took her life. The laws of science keep the world under control, and when an accident happens, the results are somewhat dictated by those laws.
What we can be sure of, and what I know beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that this death caused God to grieve like a divine parent. What I know is that God wrapped Sarah in a blanket of love and that she is not suffering. Her family and friends and community are suffering. Yet God is here. God was there at the scene of the accident. And God’s love will enable all of us to go on.
That does not bring her back. That does not make the situation any less tragic. But that does give us comfort and strength to continue on in the face of tragic situations. And that may be the only answer that suffices.