Death’s Sting of a Young Life: A Fumbled Promise of God?

The following is the eulogy for Joshua Baranieski who left us suddenly at the age of nineteen. It was given by Murray Owen at St Albert Alliance Church on June 20th 2008. The heartfelt tribute celebrates Josh and explores the tradgedy of the believer.

A Tribute to Josh
In his tragic accident on Sunday, June 7, 2008

It was early Sunday morning when I got the call about Josh’s car accident. What had started as a peaceful Sunday morning now changed and our hearts were heavy as all we could do is wait for news as the drama unfolded from a distance. I don’t think any of us will be able to pass by a highway marker of a cross and flowers without feeling the pain of this moment. And, it’s a parent’s worst nightmare to have someone taken at such a young age with all the promise of youth and who was loved so much by so many. And, it is why we are here, because he, Josh, was so open to all of us. Josh was easy to make friends with and in this way he reminds me of his late grandfather.

So where do I begin. It’s said that a tree is best measured when it is down. If you picture it for a moment, it is so true. Measuring a standing tree is difficult, especially when the tree is tall. But, when on the ground, it is easily measured. It’s true of our lives, and today, for Josh. All this may be a bit too noble for Josh if he were here today, but for me, I long to understand and make some sense out of what has happened and not as just a random accident and a mere commentary on a life short lived.

Much could be said about Josh’s love for the outdoors, his accomplishments in sports, from hockey to lacrosse, and especially his sense of sportsmanship, fair play, and his desire to give back to the sport through coaching. Many a night and day was spent at the ice rink or on the field as you watched Josh develop his athletic skills. I know these memories will be fond places we all will visit when we think of Josh. For me, it was on the 7th hole at a golf course in Boise Idaho last summer, in the early twilight of a warm summers night as we approached the green and a full moon came over the hill in front of us. It was an amazing moment of wonder that Jordan, my son Garrett, and I shared with Josh as we press to finish the front nine before dark. For you Patricia and Merlyn, for Jacqueline, Matthew, Jordan and Angeline, I know you share many more fond memories, especially since Josh had such a good heart.

But, there is something more significant than just the memories that Josh’s death challenges us with. It’s a life taken, not after a full life, but in the prime of life when all the possibilities of youth and its energies begin to take shape. It is a mother and father who are heartbroken and the brothers and sisters who feel robbed of lifelong friendship. And it is all of us, from relatives to family and friends who not only miss Josh, but share in the pain of the family. I know from my own children that the friends they bring home are often dear to me and to lose any of them in their youth touches something in our very core.

Many here today share in the faith that played a role in Josh’s life. How tragic that it was on his way to church that his life was taken. And it is here where faith confronts us. Death is the ultimate evil. It is harsh and cruel, and a fate we will all share. It stares back at us in silence. This is when faith hurts. It’s a cry that comes from the commitment to faith. It’s a pain to be felt. And the pain to be felt is this: that silence is a huge insult to faith. “Where is Josh” is not just a request for information, but a protest and cry for help. How are we to understand all this?

Our reaction may be anger, anger against someone or something. Over the past week, I read many of the posting you have made about Josh’s in his Facebook profile. It was on the Saturday night before the accident that he made his final post. It was strange to read it, his recent remarks with all the playfulness of youth that betrayed his sudden departure. And, as news got out, I was thrilled at the resilience of the many comments made on his site, and the comfort and the faith they express. Words like, “Josh, it must be some awesome up there!! Can’t wait to see you again someday; it’s not goodbye, just see you later.” Another wrote, “See you soon. Can’t wait till that time, lol, well I’m going to have to, but you know what I mean. Love you man!!” And, an endearing note, “Goodbye Josh. I love you so much, you were a great person and a great friend. I can’t wait to see you again in heaven.” These express a confidence of faith that is fresh. However, for some, not all, it is faith that is first wound by shock and tested by anger before it finds a resting place again. To experience the loss of a loved one so young and the entailing anger is too walk thought the dark night of the soul.

But “Whence this anger?” We dream of immortality and death’s sting is the enemy we all resisted. Its presence triggers within a desire for significance in life that death steals from us, a need for transcendence. As one girl wrote on Josh’ Facebook, “Josh was taken before his time.” Her sense of loss from what could have been reveals the tragedy. Last Christmas, Josh, Angeline, and my kids, Garrett and Erica skied together at Mt. Washington. It was fun on a classic west coast power day. Josh’s grandfather that taught him to ski and I could see how Josh had taken the basics of skiing and on his own built them to an advanced level. This was typical of Josh as he could always do more with what had been given to him, a reoccurring characteristic in his life. Whether it was home schooling, getting a job, finding an economical car, Josh was a self starter and a builder. With this attributes, as a young man, he had much promise as a future husband, father, and contributor to the communities he would find himself in. Like Jordan, and Matt, I too would like to ski again with Josh, but death is the ultimate thief taking from us what is most valuable.

Both our joy for Josh’s life and the indignation at his tragedy are now signs post pointing us beyond our natural reality. Our daily gestures of ordinary life with Josh wants me to say “no” to death in a moral outrage at the loss of a loved other. A death refusing hope lies at the core of all of us. In spite of an age of rationality, of science, of empiricism, and surrounded by death on all sides, the hope within us continues to say “no” to deaths intrusion. And through this “no” to death we are lead to faith in the reality of another world that validates our hope as something other than an illusion. It is what the history of reason, experience and authoritative narrative affirm as a massive signal of transcendence or what the social scientist Peter Berger softly calls a “rumor of angels” or CS Lewis so poignantly states as, “God’s megaphone.” It gets our attention, especially in the loss of those dearest to us. Today, Josh has awakens in us life’s fragility, but also our need for God Himself.

However, our temptation, should we become cynical, is to blame God for what has happened, as though God were in His distant heaven ordering and manipulating our lives like ponds on a chess board. Fortunately, this is not the God of the Christian bible. The God of the Christian Bible is a God who protests against suffering and death and all that is evil. He is a God who condemns the sanctioning of tragedy or evil, and who through His prophets expresses His deep pain over evil, a pain that culminates in the crucifixion of His son Jesus. If God’s power is found is the death of His son, then God’s power can hardly be that of some remote monarch who shows his supremacy by avoiding pain. It can only be the power of a love that works through weakness in our world. A God that has chosen to be vulnerable to suffering and death begins to cut away the ground that He is to blame. And, if God himself suffers, then God to is to be number with the victims of tragedy. God knows pain as we know pain. We staked our lives on the conviction that there is One who knows and cares.

Josh had a good heart and as his uncle, I don’t ever recall seeing him angry. Not that he didn’t have his moments as his family can attest to, but anger was not a motivation for him. His tendency was to be a peacekeeper or better describe as the strong silent type. Humor and laughter were more of his day to day guides. When Josh and Jordan came to visit us in Boise last summer, I watch how he interacted with you Jordan and his care for things that mattered in your life, like your need to have glutton free foods. As an older brother to you Jordan, I never saw him put you down or treat you poorly. It was fun to be around him as we got you ready to float the Boise River on that hot summer’s day. And when it came time to return home, Josh was gracious in accepting help to get his car tuned up for your trip. I felt proud to spend a week with you two guys and will not forget.

In the end, blame and anger were not options for Josh in the hospital. He fought hard as he struggled to hang on to life as though it was his way of given his family and friends the opportunity to say goodbye. But it was also more than this, which again, was typical of Josh. Josh in his fight for life gave you Patricia, the opportunity to make some decision about Josh and the doctor’s time to prepare for how Josh could give life in his death. Josh was an organ donor and was able to affect many lives in ways many of us can’t. (DETAILS HERE) Your tears Patricia, Merlin, Jacqueline, Mathew, Jordan and Angeline, became heartfelt tears of joy for those who were recipients, some close to death itself. No one asked you to pay this price nor should any family be expected to give up so much, but in fashion that was so characteristic of Josh, Josh was once again able to build on what had been given to him.

Job was a man in the Hebrew Bible who was vexed by the dark night of the soul, not unlike our experience today. He lost almost everything in series of tragic events that took the lives of his children and all his financial assets. In Job’s moments of darkness, his comforter’s advice to Job was to embrace the events as the will and goodness of God. The comforters caution Job to admit his failings, accept his trials as God purposes, curse God and die. But Job does not believe this. For Job, it was not right, it was not good, it didn’t make sense, was highly unfair and where was God anyway, as Job wants to take God to task in the matter. Job, like Abraham, believes that God is good in a way that Job himself understands goodness. When God finally appears on the scene, God speaks to the comforters and tells them that they have not said of God the thing which is right, as His servant Job has. The point is made that God does not like having people say whatever happens is good. Evil and tragedy are not from His hand. Evil is a mystery and neither God nor evil will disclose its why or reasons.

I do not understand why this happened to Josh. However, evil is not part of God’s good creation, but a parasite, a corruption, a perversion of the created order. The bible doesn’t even attempt to provide a rational for evil because we can only explain things that are reasonable that fit into coherent patterns. But evil, tragedy, and senseless suffering are irrational, inexcusable, and unjustifiable. Evil is not something to be understood, it is to be abhorred, to be shunned, and actively fought against. Evil and death are outside of God’s purposes for us as human beings. What is said of Job resonates with those of us closes to Josh. Like Job, faith affirms that that was so tragic about Josh accident was not the hand of God, but that of a fallen world, a ground cursed, and a mystery of evil that hides in silence.

So what is faith of Job? Abraham is credited as the father of faith and the model the biblical writers look to. What was his faith? Abraham’s faith was that God is good and can be trust to keep his promises. This model of faith, shaped by the biblical authors, includes all the promises God makes.

I made a promise to Josh once several years ago when the Apple IPods were becoming popular. I sent Josh an IPod with the promise that he could have it if he listened to a selection of speakers in the field of religion and philosophy over the period of several months. And Josh surprised me by keeping his side of the bargain. He wrote me one or two paragraphs on what he learned after each speaker and I still have his notes today. Sometime, the topics were not easy, but I can help but believe that it somehow contributed to his maturity of faith and how he worked it out towards others. We all know how much he love music too, so the promise was great incentive for him.

So here is a promise for you Patricia and your family from the Psalmist David in the Old Testament. It reads, “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.” It’s important here not to empty the phrase “the desires of your heart” as some abstract good that you ought to want and don’t. It means what it says, “the desires of your heart.” And to be heartbroken over this past week is to have loss the desire of your heart, Josh. I cannot pretend to know what defeating good will come out of Josh’s tragedy, but God does not break his promises, including that one about the desires of your heart. If you hold that belief, it does not take away the pain of suffering you feel right now, like in childbirth where the desire for the child does not remove the pain of birth. In this sense, the faith of Abraham, that God is good and is a promise keeper, is both difficult, but comforting and consoling. When our heart is broken, it is the desires of our hearts that we think we have forgone, but that’s what the palmist tells us has not happened. Whatever was the desire that you lost that you thought you could not bear, delight yourself in the Lord and the God of your delight will give you the desire of your heart. This is God’s promise to you and yours. Neither can I give you a better promise nor a tribute to Josh then this.

For those that share the Christian belief, the final promise of God is found in the hope of the resurrection. The sting that death brings and its pain are trumped by the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. The physical resurrection proclaimed by the early Christians was not some isolated or random act of divine power to fight the Roman empire. In their Jewish context, it meant the vindication and renewal of God’s good created order. It was an anticipation of when all that is out of joint will be healed and restored. So the resurrection expressed is not some “pie in the sky” ideal of life after death, but the redemption of our history. When the accident happened, I want to turn the clock back, to rewind the events, to go back to the way things were, but there was not rewind button. So, the resurrection of Jesus is God’s promise of a new day and a transformed world for both us and Josh himself.

But, it does not come without cost. I believe Josh understood this cost and it is why he was like by so many of you. His heart was good not because he had a good heart, but because he understood the voice of his savior. Yes, Josh had his share in the foibles and fun of youth, but deep within he shared in something greater. Josh knew the forgiveness of a God who pursued him and in turn he could forgive others. Perhaps, it was why his heart was so light and humor and laughter could rule the day for him. Who knows how far Josh could have build on what God had given him. Forgiveness, like in the Lord’s Pray where God’s forgiveness is conditional on how we forgive others particularly regarding money, has been one of the spiritual engines driving social change from the Truth and Reconciliation commission in South Africa with Arch Bishop Desman Tutu, to Black Emancipation in America under Martin Luther King, and people like William Wilberforce and John Newton in their efforts to shut down the slave trade as recently popularized in the movie Amazing Grace. Josh may have not have been one of these historic figures, but certainly, the building blocks were there in his life. In the small ways, the important ways, in family, work and friends, in ordinary life, Josh knew how to forgive. Not that it was easy for him, for he had many reason not to forgive, but deep down he experience the power and renewal forgiveness brings.

Forgiveness, renewal, resurrection and hope are all linked. When we share in God own indignation against tragedy and evil itself, we turn from anger and indifference to actions in the world that embody this resurrection hope and God’s promises. Participating in God’s own protest makes our protest creative rather than cynical. We live in the tension between the cross and resurrection of Jesus, and this tension sums up the uniqueness of the Christian vision of a God who suffers with us and for us, and a God who brings hope to our world. As Dietrick Bonnehoffer , a German pastor in World War II who noted from his prison cell awaiting his execution for his role in a plot to get rid of Hitler, “the difference between the Christian hope of resurrection and a mythological hope is that the Christian hope sends a man or woman back to his or her life on earth in a wholly new way.”
Hope, the creative energy of protest, is Josh’s challenge to us with today. How will we remember him? What actions, weather social or private, will we engage in to celebrate Josh and the values we shared with him. For those who played sports with Josh or where his coaches, what resources can you bring to the game that celebrate Josh’s sportsmanship and his desire to help others play. For his close friends, who know him well, how can you champion the good causes that he valued but will not see the day? Josh gave much of himself away in death so that others may live. Can we give as much in life to help others as well? Perhaps our energies need to be focused within ourselves, starting with forgiveness and bringing new life to relationships that have become dead. As a the band, the Black Eye Peas puts it, “Where is the love?” Or as the writer Reinhold Niebuhr put it in the popular pray that was carried on a card in pockets of many a soldier in WWII, “God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” We cannot bring Josh back, but having wisdom to change things that should be is the playing field. These are the moral demands of a uniquely Christian hope as we remember Josh.

I want to close my tribute to Josh with a few lines form a song that became personal to me in my father’s dead. No I won’t sing it as that would spoil the song. but , I love the lyrics. It’s an older English songwriter, Sting and the song is “Fields of Gold.” I don’t know much about the history of the song, but the lyrics resonate a hope I have for Josh some day.

“I never made promises lightly
And there have been some that I’ve broken
But I swear in the days still left
We’ll walk in fields of gold
We’ll walk in fields of gold
Many years have passed since those summer days
Among the fields of barley
See the children run as the sun goes down
Among the fields of gold
You’ll remember me when the west wind moves
Upon the fields of barley
You can tell the sun in his jealous sky
When we walked in fields of gold
When we walked in fields of gold”

Our memories of Josh are those fields of barley and our hope is to walk with him in field of gold. Josh will be missed, and the pain is so real. For some, our faith is wounded and tender, but God is good and He does keep his promises.

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3 thoughts on “Death’s Sting of a Young Life: A Fumbled Promise of God?

  1. This is really great. It speaks well to Josh’s life. Thank you for putting this up, I read it over and over. He is dearly missed. 😦

  2. I have read this about a hundred times. Everytime I think of Josh I read this. He is greatly missed.

    I read this poem and it makes me think of Josh..

    To my dearest family, some things I’d like to say…
    but first of all, to let you know, that I arrived okay.
    I’m writing this from heaven. Here I dwell with God above.
    Here, there’s no more tears of sadness; here is just eternal love.

    Please do not be unhappy just because I’m out of sight.
    Remember that I’m with you every morning, noon and night.
    That day I had to leave you when my life on earth was through,
    God picked me up and hugged me and He said, “I welcome you.”

    It’s good to have you back again; you were missed while you were gone.
    As for your dearest family, they’ll be here later on.
    I need you here badly; you’re part of my plan.
    There’s so much that we have to do, to help our mortal man.

    God gave me a list of things, that he wished for me to do.
    And foremost on the list, was to watch and care for you.
    And when you lie in bed at night, the day’s chores put to flight.
    God and I are closest to you….in the middle of the night.

    When you think of my life on earth, and all those loving years
    because you are only human, they are bound to bring you tears.
    But do not be afraid to cry; it does relieve the pain.
    Remember there would be no flowers, unless there was some rain.

    I wish that I could tell you all that God has planned.
    But if I were to tell you, you wouldn’t understand.
    But one thing is for certain, though my life on earth is o’er.
    I’m closer to you now, than I ever was before.

    There are many rocky roads ahead of you and many hills to climb;
    but together we can do it by taking one day at a time.
    It was always my philosophy and I’d like it for you too…
    that as you give unto the world, the world will give to you.

    If you can help somebody who’s in sorrow and pain,
    then you can say to God at night……”My day was not in vain.”
    And now I am contented….that my life has been worthwhile,
    knowing as I passed along the way, I made somebody smile.

    So if you meet somebody who is sad and feeling low,
    just lend a hand to pick him up, as on your way you go.
    When you’re walking down the street, and you’ve got me on your mind;
    I’m walking in your footsteps only half a step behind.

    And when it’s time for you to go…. from that body to be free,
    remember you’re not going…..you’re coming here to me

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