Essay

Taunts or Pledges: Reflections on the loss of a son, eight years later

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Jessica Bratt is away for a bit. Today we welcome Branson Parler. He teaches theological studies at Kuyper College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Thanks, Branson.

While I was worrying about our lost Detroit Tigers tickets, our unborn baby’s life was in danger. I had the tickets when we checked out of the hotel, but when we got to Comerica Park they were gone. This was eight years ago this past weekend. I was frantic about the tickets, ripping through our bags, practically turning the car upside down trying to find them. I had them in my inside coat pocket, and now they were gone. The four of us—me, my wife Sarah, and her parents—were beside ourselves.

A couple days later, as we sat in the hospital room in shock and disbelief, having been told that Sarah’s water had broken and that the baby would most likely be born at about 22 weeks and have little to no chance at living, this whole episode with the tickets stuck with me. It stuck because it was all so intricate. All the details of everything happening just like they did, like they were orchestrated as though God was trying to make a point through this weird sequence of events, as though life was an intricately-interconnected episode of Lost or something. But what was God’s point? I’ll give you back your Tigers tickets through this bizarre sequence of events, but not your baby?

Ticketless, outside Comerica Park, as we tried to figure out what to do about the mystery of the missing tickets, Sarah mentioned she had seen a flash of white when I had jumped out of the car back at the hotel. Why had I jumped out of the car in a mad rush? Because my mother-in-law had frantically remembered she left her purse in the breakfast area of the hotel, we had come screeching to a halt half a block away from the hotel and I had sprinted back (the purse was still there). Since we’d rummaged through every bag and every nook and cranny of the car, this seemed like the only plausible option left.

Believe me, I was not a happy camper on the drive from Comerica back out to the hotel. Had Sarah really seen a flash of white? It seemed impossible that an envelope tucked in the inside coat pocket of my zipped jacket could somehow jettison itself out, and me all the while oblivious. And of course this never would have happened if someone hadn’t been so irresponsible in forgetting their purse, forcing us to stop in the first place. This whole trip was going to be in vain—just wasted time and wasted money on the tickets, the gas, the hotel room. All of it for naught.

After our son Stephen was born and died on May 1, 2007, the whole bit with the Tigers tickets felt almost like a taunt from God—“I can make things turn out right. If I want to.” What would it mean to affirm God’s meticulous providence, to thank God for helping us find the lost tickets in the face of losing our son? If I give him praise for the tickets, do I blame him for our son’s death?

We pulled up to the side of the road where we’d stopped due to my mother-in-law’s purse. I jumped out of the car (again) and, unbelievably, there was the envelope with our tickets. A layer of thankfulness and relief washed over my still-seething anger. What are the odds? We all asked ourselves. How did this happen? Why did this happen? What a weird sequence of coincidences and detours—what a story!—that we had for the rest of the family when we finally met up at our seats as, in the end, still got us what we came for: a Tigers game.

The ways of God’s providence are inscrutable. That much I know. But where I initially perceived those lost-and-found tickets as a taunt, I came to see them as a sign and pledge, like Jeremiah’s field, (Jeremiah 32) of God’s goodness. I can’t explain why God would allow us to lose our son, but I’m not afraid of seeing God’s hand in the little (and big) things that go right anymore, even if inexplicable tragedies are unfolding around us. I have learned, especially from Augustine and C. S. Lewis, that the loss of any finite good puts us in position either to cling to what’s passing—to gain the world and lose our soul—or to cling more tightly to God.

God has graciously blessed us with four children since we lost Stephen. God’s goodness isn’t dependent on those children, but in the grander scheme of a world with plenty of tragedy, I see my hoped-for kids the way I now see those lost-and-found tickets: signs and pledges of a God who is always at work in still, small ways, even in—especially in—our tragedies.

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