They Just Barge In

Unexpected street signOne of the realities of life is that bad news rarely, if ever, sends up a warning signal. Trials never knock and ask for permission to enter. Tragedy doesn’t give a 30-day notice. These things just barge in.

I was reminded of this last Friday as I drove west along highway 20 heading to northwest Iowa. The weather was making the trip increasingly slower; wind, snow, and ice were getting worse, and the cars and trucks, including me, were feeling the effect. Some were driving with their hazards on, others slowing to a crawl. Everyone was a little nervous.

By the time I reached Webster City, I had passed three wrecks, each apparently recent as each crashed vehicle’s lights were still on, as well as the flashing lights of the emergency units that surrounded it. While the first two seemed to be relatively minor, at least from my viewpoint, the third one caught my attention in a stark and sobering manner. For there on the side of the highway, amidst people circled and lights flashing, was a bent-over EMT performing CPR on a man coldly stretched out flat on the wind-driven, snowy road. He was motionless, and so were those watching. But not for the same reason. They were shocked. He, probably dead.

Pump, pump, pump … it was as if my hands and arms could feel the chest compressions vicariously, my mind racing back to the CPR training I received a few years back.

Pump, pump, pump … it was as if my ears could hear the deafening silence that engulfed that scene as words fail in the moment when sudden tragedy strikes.

Pump, pump, pump … it was as if my mind was racing through a hundred questions—will he make it? Is he a husband? A father? Were others with him? Had he ever heard the gospel? Is he ready for eternity?

It was only a second in time for me, that glance across the median to the shoulder. But it froze in my mind like a snapshot—a picture of the unexpected barging into someone’s life. Of a sudden  tragedy ripping its way into a home. Of a highway disaster knocking down the door of someone’s heart, unwelcomed and unannounced, with the terrible news of death. Surely he didn’t wake up that Friday thinking, “Today is my final Friday.” Nor did his family or relatives spend their day wondering if it would be their last one with him. But, from everything I saw in that split-second, it was.

As that snapshot lingered in my mind’s eye, I thought about the upcoming call to “next of kin.” Undoubtedly the next few minutes would be life altering for someone else as well. And it would ripple out from there, too. Trials can be like that … like a boulder avalanching into a lake just beside a mountain: the serenity is disturbingly displaced immediately and perpetually.

The harsh realization is that we’re all a phone call away from mind-numbing, life-changing, heartbreaking news. Perhaps one day away. Maybe even one mile away. Regardless of the distance, no one is exempt or immune from the prospect of trials and suffering. Tragedy and sadness. Disaster and pain. All of us live in the shadow of “not knowing what tomorrow will bring” (James 4:14).

So should one lock himself or herself away in fear, refusing to venture out? Should we resist planning because of the potential for a sudden change—or failure—in them? Are we to avoid all risk due to the possibility of tragedy? Should we attempt to micromanage life so that we eliminate any possibility of trials or the unexpected?

No. Instead, we fall on the Lord’s will. That biblical truth that nothing is accidental or coincidental.  That theological foundation that nothing happens to the child of God without first coming through the filter of His loving care and sovereign authority. Nothing. Not a thing.

In the middle of sad surprises and devastating disasters, terrible tragedies and paralyzing perplexities, God’s will means nothing has come—or will come—into my life that won’t be used by the Father for His purposes and means, namely, to conform me to the image of His Son (Romans 8:28-29). That’s how we face the gaping hole we find when tragedy or trial bursts in loudly, rudely, and suddenly: with the shield of God’s will around us and the truth of God’s will underneath us.

No wonder James insists, just a few phrases later, that we say, “If the Lord wills” (James 4:15). James states most assuredly life is meant to be lived, but not proudly. Rather, humbly. And for good reason—this life is a mist that “appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14). Ironically, trials and tragedy aren’t the only thing that too often surprise us without warning. So does our exit from this planet.

Don’t believe me? There’s a specific spot on highway 20 where I think you’d change your mind.

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