Her name was Tish. It means “joy and delight.” And that’s what she always was for me. But just before dawn on June 7, my redheaded dynamo of fun was killed in an automobile accident. My joy turned to sorrow.
I want to tell you about my daughter, about my feelings and about my faith. I want to tell you about these things while the tears are still in my eyes. I offer these words, then, as a tribute to my daughter and in the hope that they will help others who are struggling to make sense of this or another tragic event.
Tragic is not the right word, though. “Tragic” is when young people throw their lives down a hellhole of drugs and alcohol and promiscuity. Tragic is when someone goes through life without loving and being loved, and that is true whether they live to be 21 or 101. A wasted life is tragic. But Tish’s life was filled with family and friends and fun and faith, so how can that be tragic? Our perceptions become distorted when we measure life by its quantity rather than by its quality.
I wish you could have known Tish. She was buoyant and bouncy and bantering, sometimes sweet, but just as often sarcastic. She kept me from taking myself too seriously. Her cousin, Nathan, five months younger and always close to her, painted a verbal portrait of her in his amazing poem that he read at her funeral:
Where did that red hair come from,
That flash of hot laughter
And sassy brass smile,
That wild exuberant whimsy
And stubbornly strong style?
Where did that red hair go,
That warm glow of soft care
And full blown fire of love,
That cheerful chatterbox
And blossom of life?
We moved to Beaverton when Tish was only 7, and I loved watching her in youth soccer and softball. High school saw her interests turn to tennis, Rhythm Bs and boys! After graduation, this rebellious child became a Beaver, rather than keeping to the faith of her Duck Dad. She was equally at home in the dorm, at friends’ apartments or at Alpha Chi Omega. However, it was during this last year, after she transferred to George Fox University, that I saw her adult self truly emerge. Through her classroom and community involvements, I was learning as much or more from her as she was from me.
Her commitment to Jesus and her love of children took Tish on mission trips to Brazil and St. Lucia. When the accident occurred, she was hours from leaving on a 3 1/2-week trip to Romania with Northwest Medical Teams. The children of two orphanages would have benefited from her attentive love.
The question, then, that her family and friends are asking is obvious. Even people that did not know her are asking the same thing: “Why did this happen? Why, when Tish was on the verge of blessing the lives of those Romanian children, didn’t God protect her?”
I will give you my answer in just a moment, but, before I do, I want to point out two beliefs that the question implies. First, it implies that everything that takes place in this world is according to God’s will, and I don’t accept that. The Holocaust and Saddam Hussein’s gassing of the Kurds and children dying of hunger—how can these be God’s will? If God is who Jesus said he is, then we are loved with a parent’s heart. I believe God loves each of his children infinitely more than I loved Tish.
The second belief implied by the question is that God guarantees protection to those who love and serve him. This, of course, is patently false. Jesus said—in an illustration any Oregonian should be able to understand—that the rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous alike (Mt 5:45). In other words, you can’t tell who God’s people are by checking the patient list at St. Vincent Hospital. It doesn’t work that way.
In many cases, serving God will get you into trouble. Most, if not all, the early apostles died as martyrs, and lest you think this a vestige of the past, more Christians died for their faith in the 20th century than in any previous century.
But even after we clear away the underbrush of these false beliefs, our minds and hearts still cry out for an explanation. Why did God allow this to happen?
Here is my answer: “I don’t know.” And, at least in this life, I will never know, but this does not surprise or even upset me. I would like to know, but I do not expect to know. In the Book of Isaiah, God says, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
My wife, Susie, teaches kindergartners. It would be silly to demand that they interpret Shakespeare and Dostoevsky before they learn how to read. So I have a different “why” question for you: “Why do we expect to understand quantum physics when we haven’t even learned the rudiments of addition and subtraction?” When it comes to God, we are still kindergartners. “My thoughts are higher than your thoughts,” he says.
When Tish was little, her mother and I set some parameters for her. She didn’t understand or like some of the expectations, and sometimes the only thing that made them acceptable was her certainty of our love.
I’m the same way with God. I don’t always like the circumstances of my life. I don’t always understand what God is trying to accomplish, but I completely trust my Father’s love. However, please don’t misunderstand me. Please don’t hear me as someone who is stoic or in denial. I am in deep pain. The stab wound of grief is too recent for my heart to have stopped bleeding. But I will not separate myself from the ones—and the One—who will help me get through this.
We buried Tish on a Wednesday. On Thursday our son, Paul, graduated from Southridge High. Emily, our niece, graduated from Glencoe on Saturday. We refused to allow the grief of Tish’s death to drown the joy of their accomplishments. Few things would have dishonored her memory more.
Her name was Tish. She was my joy and delight. I miss her terribly. But I do not grieve as one who has no hope (I Thess 4:13). C.S. Lewis once said, “Christians never say goodbye; they just say ‘so long’ for now.” I fully expect to be with her again, and that makes all the difference in the world.
Norm Langston is pastor of First Baptist Church in Beaverton, Ore. This column first appeared in The Oregonian.