On Christmas Eve of my senior year in high school, two of my classmates died. You might guess that there was some sort of horrible automobile accident, but it wasn’t like that at all. One of my friends died of leukemia; the other had a massive brain hemorrhage.
These deaths came as a major hit to my peers and me. Our friend with leukemia had moved a few weeks before to Arizona in hopes of avoiding complications, like catching a deadly winter cold. We believed he was getting better. Those of us who prayed did so for him. Naively, we assumed he was getting well.
The other death was a total shock. Our friend had developed what everyone thought were migraine headaches. He went in the hospital to be safe. He was getting better; he was going home for Christmas. He was joking with classmates who were visiting him in the hospital when he suddenly had a seizure and died.
Two deaths on Christmas Eve. It was unfathomable. For many of us, it was our first time dealing with mortality. We looked for a reason — an explanation, someone to blame.
Over the next couple of years others from our school would also die. There was a deadly allergic reaction to an antibiotic that took the life of a star football player. There was the alcohol-fueled car crash that took the life of my old cooking partner in Home Economics. Those deaths were horrible, but we could explain them.
For those two Christmas Eve deaths we could look forever for a reason, for someone to blame. There wasn’t one. When we exhausted all the who’s and why’s, there was no explanation, no one toward whom we could point a finger. So, we blamed God.
Our prayers for our friend with leukemia had failed. And two 17-year olds dying on Christmas Eve? If God didn’t make it happen, then, at the very least, God allowed it to happen. So, we blamed God, or at least I did.
I wanted an answer to the question, why? When I could not find an acceptable answer, I turned away from all things God related. Church? Forget it. I sure didn’t like the “answers” I was hearing from preachers. Yet, I found myself yearning for something more than nothing.
I read the holy writings of major faiths, and while some sought to answer questions like mine, I did not find the answers to be helpful. I searched for answers of my own.
Like Job, I sought an audience with whatever God there might be. Unlike Job (and probably fortunately for me), I never got the audience that I sought.
Somehow, over time, I learned to live with the questions. In ways I cannot easily explain, my yearning and my search led me back around to the Christian faith of my youth. Yet, it was not the same faith in many ways. This new-found faith came into being despite not having all the answers to all the questions.
I suppose if you believe you have all the answers, if you have a sense of certainty, you don’t really have faith; you have something else. Assuredness, maybe? Certainty and assuredness don’t require much in the way of faith as I’ve come to understand it.
That circling back was a challenging path for me. Even more challenging was the sense that somehow that journey had prepared me for a call to ministry in the Church.
My work would not be like that of the ministers of my youth. Mine would be a ministry of living with questions and existence alongside mystery: in other words — faith.
I’ve come to be comfortable with the recognition that if I fully understand something and can easily explain it, it is no longer a mystery. If I am fully confident in the absolute certainty of answers, faith is no longer required. Questions accompanied by mystery, anchor my faith life far more powerfully than in my younger years when I was certain I had the answers.
One of my favorite singers, Iris Dement, sings. “I think I’ll just let the mystery be.” I think I will, too. RIP Edwin and Kevin. I remember you each Christmas Eve.
Daniel Webster is retired from Christian ministry, having last served First Christian Church here Gainesville. He was a church pastor for over 40 years. This column was printed in partnership with the storytelling group Self Narrate. For more information on the group and its storytelling events, visit www.selfnarrate.com.