“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful servants” (Psalm 116:15).
It is precious as a rainbow above green velvet cliffs.
It is precious as the full moon on that warm night when we gathered to cry for him and laughed remembering him.
It is as precious as a Hawaiian lei. We cut the thread, we scattered the flowers, and the thunder waves of the North Shore sent them back to us, pink petals on our toes.
But they did not send Shawn back. He was not theirs to return.
He is his Maker’s.
He is not ours, though we can still recall the exact sound of his laugh and the precise tone of his voice, as if he had only just called out to us from the other room.
Last January, I stood on a moonlit shore listening to a legendary Hawaiian surfer tell me what he had seen and heard from his beach-front house on January 14. The hem of my turquoise sundress trailed in the water like a mermaid’s bedraggled tail.
I am no mermaid. I know maple trees, and I love the green hills of Chester County, Pennsylvania. The water that tugged at my dress frightened me. But this man had known waves for decades, and he loved the wild waters of Oahu’s North Shore. He told story after story, while I began to see rightly and truly the place where I stood. I began to see these dangerous waters through the lens of this man’s great love for them.
He spoke of fire and a noise like thunder and of waves so high it was as if the ocean understood. The ocean offered up its own anguish before we knew to offer ours. Shawn and the eleven men flying with him that night did not die unseen in a swirl of chaos. They died in a known place, in a much-loved place; a door opened for them, and arms of welcome enfolded them, in one of the most astonishingly beautiful places on earth.
“If I could choose the spot where I would die and be buried, I would choose these waves right here,” the man told me.
I have thought many times since our conversation of an Old Testament tale:
“As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind” (2 Kings 2:11).
And Elisha, who loved him, went on walking, alone, as the reflection of heavenly fire faded from his eyes, and the skies returned to their ordinary, silent gray.
There was no door in the sky for Elisha, and there is no door for us, as yet.
The fire has faded, and the wind has stilled. One year later, rainbows are harder to come by.
And yet, when I slow my usual busyness, when I pause and reflect, I realize that the hems of our clothing still trail through salty water. The turtle-dotted waves of the North Shore offered a kind of baptism, and we have not shaken that water off yet.
God willing, we never will.
This is living water. It poured from the cross when an innocent man, and the maker of us all, died to set things right. Shawn chose every day to hide his life in the life of the innocent One who defeated death, and so his death shares in the power of Christ’s own. Losing Shawn has left us shocked and grieving, yes, but the loss has also unleashed rivers of living water.
And even when we cry we trail streams of rainbow glory.
Shawn Campbell’s legacy.
Recently, I found myself digging around in the archives of this blog. I was looking for something particular – I no longer remember what – but I stumbled on this post from last December. I wrote it for Solstice, the longest night of the year. It would be one of the last posts I would write before Shawn’s death in January.
I have lately been remembering last year’s Christmas celebration. In my memory, those were the last innocent, happy days. Days when we had not yet known sorrow. Days when we had not yet seen the almost unbearable glory of God.
I was shocked to reread this post and realize I was grieving last December, too. Smaller sorrows, perhaps, but sorrows still. The words I wrote last December do not simply remain true; they are more true.
Strangely, they are also giving me more hope. Through some trick of faulty memory, I had placed the happy days in the past. I had forgotten that the greatest happiness – the most complete joy – is still ahead of us. We have not yet arrived.
But we are nearer. And every door of grief and suffering through which we pass brings us nearer still.
The best days may be yet to come, but in December I remember how much gladness is ours today. This was true for me last December. This is still true today.
Each December I think it will be different. This will be the year I shake my winter melancholy. This will be the year my delight grows day by day. These are days of ornaments and sugar cookies and twinkling lights. Aren’t they supposed to be happy?
But this year is much like every other year. The ornaments shatter, the cookies crumble, and those new LED bulbs cast a cold-hearted glow.
More than ten years ago, I spent a few December days watching my friend’s little girl. My friend was in the hospital laboring to deliver a baby boy whose heart had already stopped beating. Over the weekend, I took care of another little girl who has no idea her parent’s hearts are broken.
All weekend, in the background, Over the Rhine was singing, “If we make it through December we’ll be fine.”
This was going to be the year I would look on the bright side, but I have just about accepted that there is no bright side in December. Only darkness and the pin-prick lights on the Christmas tree, and tonight is the longest night.
At one in the morning on the fourth Sunday of Advent, my friend’s little girl threw up. When I found her, she was crying, and her beautiful curly hair was smeared with vomit. While I bathed her and toweled her dry, I thought two things: Why is this happening tonight? and Thank you, Jesus, that I can do this for my friend.
This is what we do in December. We bake sugar cookies, and we scrub vomit from the sheets. We cry for our friends and we cry for ourselves, and we hand out bars of chocolate tied with red and green bows. We make toasts to the new year, and we wonder how we’ll ever survive another one.
We pray come, Lord Jesus, come, and we remember that he already has and that he’s seen it all before. The vomit and the death. The good food and the hunger. The love and the loss.
I don’t know if I’m angry, or tired, or simply sad, but I will keep baking cookies. I will continue hanging ornaments, and I will make my husband climb up on the barn roof to secure a lighted star.
Because somehow despite it all (or because of it?) I still believe that there is a God up there in heaven who has made us this promise:
“I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow” (Jeremiah 31:13).
We live somewhere between the promise and its ultimate fulfillment. It is a land where tears drop onto festive wrapping paper. A place dusted with cookie crumbs and peppermints. It is empty stockings hung by the fire, and it is our hope, perhaps a little shaky and unsure, that one day we will wake and those stockings will be full.
But it isn’t only a one-day hope. Perhaps if we make it through December we will be fine, but I don’t want to be fine. I want more than that. I want better than that.
I want gladness.
Gladness like the taste of sugar cookies and candy canes and the cinnamon rolls I make every Christmas morning.
Gladness like the face of a child when snow finally does fall.
Gladness like every bright, sweet gift that comes to us only in December.
Four brothers: one Day family son, and the men who married three Day daughters.
Generally, time moves consistently and at a measured pace. Each day arrives and passes like the blank squares on the print-your-own calendars I persist in using rather than the app I once downloaded onto my phone.
But there are days.
There are days when all those neat squares swim like the tears in your eyes until the past and the present sit right on top of one another. Then, you are caught. Time passes, but you are snagged on the past. You are like a winter coat dangling all summer long from that hook on the closet door.
I am caught on a winter day almost twenty years ago. I wore a white dress, and my sisters, my bridesmaids, wore green. We gathered in the fellowship room of the church of our childhood. We ate little sandwiches and cake and held white china cups of steaming coffee.
I am caught on a summer day fifteen years ago. The same fellowship room in the same church. My sister Kelli in white this time, our sister Lisa and I in pale gray.
I am caught on another summer day ten years ago. The same room. Lisa in white. Kelli and I in deep red. This time, there was a chocolate fountain.
I had not seen that room until a week ago, Saturday. We buried Shawn that day under an already hot Texas sun. Then, the fellowship room, and one more reception, but this one unimagined, unanticipated. We stood in the same room, our dresses a trio of somber colors. We held steaming cups of coffee, plates full of tiny sandwiches and cake.
Small children tugged on our arms, made it impossible to talk.
Every day, my children ask for ice cream and every day I give them some green vegetable. Last night, I served arugula sautéed with garlic and olive oil. Eager for a second helping of sliced strawberries, my older boy announced that he had finished all of his “kale stuff.”
I love my children, and I long to give them good gifts. Some days I hand out the lollipops. As Elsa’s Uncle Shawn was laid to rest, I unwrapped three lollipops in a row because she would not stop complaining, loudly, about the heat.
They weren’t gifts, they were bribes.
“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?” (Matthew 7:9) Yet though my children ask for candy, I give them gifts of bittersweet broccoli, caramelized in the heat of the oven. It is my best gift for them.
I give it because they are precious to me.
The problem with being snagged on the past in this way, is that the events of life do not stay in their proper places. Clearly, the weddings were good gifts, and the funeral is a terrible thing, and yet all of it has seemed to merge in my mind.
Ten years ago, I stood in that fellowship room, coffee cup in hand, trying so hard not to cry. I had found out only that morning that the latest round of fertility drugs had not worked. My grief was the same color as the deep red of my bridesmaid dress.
Because I am snagged, I am no longer confident of what has been good and what has been bad. It seems to me now that the empty womb was as much a good gift as the son who will turn ten this summer.
Once, I was confident that our good God never causes the bad thing that is pain. But I have lost that easy answer and gained a much more mysterious question: how sure can I be calling one thing good, another thing bad?
I will let the mystery be. I will follow the pattern set in the first chapter of James. For after fifteen verses on hardship, we find these words: “Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:16-17).
God does not change. He is good through and through. Yet we are easily deceived. Time plays its tricks. We feel ourselves to be standing at an end.
Forgetting that we will open our mouths wide.
For this is not the end.
A few years ago, soon after our move to Maplehurst, I wrote this prayer on a three by five index card:
Lord, please make a way for my extended family to gather more often.
I added it to the small stack I keep in my Bible, and I regularly remembered it in prayer. The paper is softer now, the ink a little bit smeared.
Soon, my husband and I and our four children will fly to Texas for Shawn’s burial. Since the accident in January, my daughter and I have traveled to Hawaii, my husband has made two trips to be with my sister and her kids in Kansas City, we sent our older daughter and son on their own to visit grandparents and cousins. And now we fly to Texas.
My prayer has been answered, but the answer to my prayer is loss.
I have not visited my hometown in a decade. My children have either never been or have no memory of the place, but because Jonathan and I and my sister and Shawn share the same Texas roots, we will gather there. We will gather with my parents and siblings, my nieces and nephews, my in-laws, and with Shawn’s family. We will be joined by my father’s west Texas family, by my mother’s California family, by high school friends and college friends and childhood church friends.
In Roots and Sky, I write:
“I have long wondered if home is the place from which we come or the place we are headed. The estrangement I felt from my surroundings as a child growing up in Texas has always meant that I tend to see home as my end and not my beginning.”
This is a return to our beginnings. I suspect that whatever I find there, I must bring it back with me, a little something extra tucked into my carry-on.
Home is our present and our past. Perhaps, it is time to make my own past welcome at Maplehurst.
That index card is still tucked into the back page of my Bible. I wanted to feel angry when I read it again, but I felt, instead, some mix of fear, awe, and resignation. I believe the prayer came from God as much as the answer, so I cannot muster up any anger, just as I never, truly, mustered up that prayer.
I only received it. Repeated it. Submitted to it.
Instead of anger, I feel compassion for that other me who prayed without seeing, without understanding, but with hope. I believe the prayer was good, and so I believe that the answer is good.
It is also terrible.
Twelve men died in those helicopters, but there will be only 9 coffins. We are all dust, and we all return to dust, but some are buried in earth and others are dust in the sea.
Some part of Shawn has been returned to us, and so we are lucky. We are blessed.
And what are blessings but those gifts that are hardest to receive?
Like this opportunity to gather. This opportunity to go home again. This chance to say hello to so many.
For this gift, this chance to plant our last goodbye in familiar dirt, we say thank you.
And we say, have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us.
It is difficult to know where to begin. It feels as if, together with my family, I have lived whole lifetimes since I last wrote in this space.
We prayed for rescue, but Shawn did not need to be rescued.
Perhaps those prayers were for ourselves.
So many of you prayed with us. So many of you wrote words of love and encouragement. You delivered meals, not only here in Oahu but to my husband in Pennsylvania and to my youngest sister’s husband in Washington. You sent gifts (even a big cardboard box packed full of tissues!). Quite a few of you left your own families and flew hours to be here with us.
You showed up. And through you, God drew near.
I can’t tell the whole story yet. We are still living it. Also, so much of that story isn’t mine to share. And yet I can say this: when you observe suffering from the outside all you can see is the suffering. Despair can feel like the only option.
Having sat, for two weeks, on the inside, I want you to know that despair doesn’t feel like an option. Peace is too real. Hope is too bright. God, the Ancient of Days, has drawn close.
“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” 2 Corinthians 4:8
Shawn Matthew Campbell’s death on Thursday, January 14 came as a shock to all of us who knew him and loved him. But what happened that dark night did not shock God. We have seen in a hundred ways how he was preparing us for this though we never guessed what was coming.
In December, I was asked by a writing colleague to contribute a series of three devotionals for a website called The High Calling. Over Christmas, I regretted saying yes to that request. I resented the time I needed to give to writing when all I wanted was to work a little longer with my father on our giant Christmas jigsaw puzzle or make one more batch of dairy-free Christmas cookies with my son.
I chose three passages of Scripture seemingly at random and wrote up three brief devotionals. A week or so later, I responded to my editor’s request for headlines and offered a few suggestions.
And I forgot about it.
A day or so after my arrival in Oahu, my father mentioned that he had heard from an old friend. Apparently, this friend had read something online and found it meaningful. Looking up the name of the writer he discovered me and my connection with his friend, my Dad. Knowing what we were all experiencing, he sent an email wondering if we had seen the piece online.
I had not seen it.
I had not known that my three devotionals, meant to be read over Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, had been published on Thursday, January 14.
I did not know that the headline I had suggested had been accepted.
I did not know that the Scriptures I had pulled from my Bible without any sense of direction would be the verses we would cling to. The same verses we would print on the bulletin for Shawn’s memorial service at his local church.
The final headline for those devotionals reads: Why Today Is So Good.
When I found out, I wept. I cried, because it couldn’t be true. I didn’t want it to be true, but I couldn’t deny that it was true. Hadn’t God given me the words before I ever knew what they meant?
We believe it. We don’t understand it. We are still rocked by loss and grief, but we see God’s goodness everywhere.
God is still good.
Some of you will be reading this with my first book nearby. Roots and Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons releases today, Tuesday, February 2.
For months, friends have told me I should plan something special for this day. They said I should find some way to mark the occasion. Something I would always remember.
I thought their advice was good, but I never did make those plans. I am not sure why.
But now I see that God always knew what I would be doing on Tuesday, February 2, 2016. He knew I would be on a red-eye flight from Honolulu to Seattle and from Seattle to Philadelphia. He knew I would lose most of the day in a blur of time zones and jet lag.
He always knew.
And though this is not the plan I would have made, I do not resent it. In a way, I am relieved that there will be no party or celebratory drink. There will probably not even be a way for me to know if you are reading this post or sharing it or leaving a comment.
I will spend most of the day in the air, and I will think of Shawn. Of how kind he was. Of how much he loved to fly.
Of how glad I am to have called him brother.
“I kneel in the dirt in a cathedral of maple trees. My trowel is almost useless in the bony soil, but I persist. While Lillian holds her baby sister on the porch, I bury 250 bulbs. Their names are prayers: daffodil, tulip, crocus, and scilla. They are papery. They are dusty. Like little more than a bag of onions.
But I am a believer. I know they are like the beautiful souls of those who’ve gone before. I will see them resurrected in the spring.”
– Christie Purifoy, Roots and Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons