A Lenten Story: Bargaining with God

I once had a friend named John. He was the most delightful soul.

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“I scope my 11 for bogeys while my partner T-bone refuses to notice that small metal sprite has landed menacingly on her nose; whatcha gon’ do?” -John’s reflection on the above portrait

John and I met in our 9th grade science class and instantly liked each other. His dad was a Methodist minister and so was mine – but neither of us lived with our dad anymore. Deep down inside, we were old souls that loved to be in an old church and sing from the old hymnal. We pursued God with a vigor. John was easily the smartest kid in class. Sometimes he would answer a question and you could tell that he was teaching the teacher instead of the other way around.

I always wondered why John chose me as his 9th grade science friend. Maybe it was because I was smart (although I was not nearly as smart as he), or maybe John felt a familiarity with me because of our similar backgrounds. Perhaps our friendship was sealed the day I held up a small sign in the front row of the classroom to say “STOP ROCKING” as he rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet during his science presentation (without breaking his stride, he caught himself quickly casting me a sideways look of appreciation). It could have also been because I would make him chocolate covered pretzels for Christmas – a treat he loved.

Who knows why? That semester would seal John and I as friends for life.

Back then, I never knew John would teach me one of my greatest life lessons.

Every super strength has a flip-side. With John’s brilliance came a bit of chaotic nature. John could go from an extreme high to an extreme low. Usually he was high. But, when he wasn’t – he really wasn’t. John’s fame grew in our high school as he became well known for his intelligence and talent on the speech and debate team. Mid semester, I stopped seeing John in the hallways. I heard word from some friends there was a disagreement between him and the debate coach. Word had it John had just packed up and transferred schools. He didn’t need a big school with lots of classes to be smart. He moved to his grandparents house in the country and attended a much smaller school where he likely self-taught, scored highly on the ACT, and moved out to any school of his choosing for college.

From that point on, my meetings with John were sporadic.

John was never meant for the small colleges in Missouri. When he graduated high school, I left for Mizzou and he left for Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Occasionally, he and I would come home for Easter or Christmas and we would see each other at church. He sat on the front right section of the congregation, so I always knew where to look. I smiled when I spotted his head full of crazy hair with the professor’s blazer.

A random note from John to me:

“HELLOOOO!!! I am so terrible when it comes to writing on these damned interweb things that I have no idea what a ‘wall’ is. Life is tres fantastique here at Reed, in lovely–but damn–Portland, Oregon. How is life for you, Ms. Burbee?”

My 9th grade science friend was growing up, and so was I…

I remember the last conversation we shared. John messaged me on facebook to ask if I still thought that God existed. He had been through some tough times with the recent death of his closest friend – a death John witnessed and could do nothing to stop from happening. Following this traumatic experience, John told me he had become an atheist.

I was shocked. John went to college to study Political Science and Religion. We had always shared a great faith in God and he was beginning to question it.  I told him, “I know God exists.” Instead of arguing with me, he asked “Tell me why you think so…”

I had just written an Lenten devotional on God working through my experiences in track that year. Rather than be verbose in trying to explain it, I asked if I could send it to him to read. He read it and messaged me back these words…

“Sarah Burbee, if God does exist, then God bless you.”

I remember replying, “I love you, John.”

I’m not sure which one of us had to go, but that was the last time I ever heard from John. I consider it one of my greatest blessings in life.

A few months later, I found out that John had killed himself. His funeral would be in three days.

Those three days were rough. I started to panic. Traditional conservative Christian faith would say that a person who takes their own life has given up their right to be in heaven. I think that is hogwash. But, at the time, I wasn’t so sure.

I began to pray fervently to God. I tried explaining to God that John may have not believed in his last hour, but that John was a good person and had been a good and faithful servant most of his life. I was sure John helped to build his piece of God’s Kingdom here on Earth. He lit up a room with his joy and pulled the best out of the people around him. Wouldn’t God reconsider? This was all just a big mistake.

After all, being with John on a good day was like being in a little piece of Heaven.

I needed advice, so I left work early and drove to the church John and I shared. I was out of touch with the church ministers/leaders after being away so long for college, but I figured I would just go into the first open office I could find. Unfortunately, all of the senior pastors were out of the office. I began to despair, but there was one door open. A new youth pastor who had recently moved to the Midwest. I squared my shoulders, knocked on his open door, sat on his couch and told him my dilemma.

Was my friend who committed suicide going to “hell?” As I talked, I explained to the youth minister that John was a good person. He didn’t deserve to go to “hell.”

The youth minister stopped me. He pointed out something so important I hope I never forget it. He said, “Listen to what you’re saying. You’re telling God about who John was… as if God didn’t know John. That’s not the God we serve. You’re worried that God might make the wrong choice with John, but our God doesn’t make wrong choices. He’s not like a judge who has to hear both sides of an argument to make a decision. God knew John and John’s heart better than JOHN knew himself. Much better than you knew him or even his closest friend. There isn’t a thing about John that God doesn’t know. And God will not make a wrong choice.”

He was right. I realized my pleading to God was ridiculous.It’s as simple as God will make the right choice. Every time.

It’s interesting that we tell Christians that Christ died for our sins, but not if we were weak enough to take our own life. That is such a lie.

I don’t worry about where John is, I attended his funeral with peace. John cannot be removed from God’s love forever because God is always there. Always ready to catch you when you fall. I know God is there for John.

It’s not our job to be the judge of who deserves what.

I’m grateful for John’s life. I’m also grateful for his doubt and his sacrifice (although I always wish I had more time with him).

John taught me that we’re not here to “bargain with God.” It’s our job to trust that God is working all around us and that His love is endless.

It’s that simple.

John’s funeral was one of those perfect days.

John was buried in his family’s plot next to his grandparents – who he loved immeasurably. So many of his smart friends from college drove all night from Oregon to attend his funeral in a tiny town in Mid-Missouri. It was a service of old hymns and sharing on a warm breezy summer day. I doubted whether I should be in attendance. Afterall, I was John’s 9th grade science friend, but our connection was always strong. I never stood up to share, but I heard so many great stories that made me feel even closer to John.

Even in his absence, John was there.

It was great to get a sense of John’s life in Oregon. I remember them saying how much they would miss John reading to them. He was an enthusiastic reader. They claimed his dog, Kuper, was the most well-read dog in the world. John read the classics, philosophy, and poetry to anyone who would listen – even if it was an audience of one canine. I love that story.

He’s a brilliant soul and his life shines on through his brief encounter with mine and so many others. There are no promises for tomorrow. Be all that you can be today because it’s the only guarantee you have for sure. And, never underestimate who you might be able to impact today – we’re more connected than we know.

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