Lisa Nichols Hickman: Turning from 'why' to 'who'

A recent tragic loss offers a community the chance to turn from asking why we suffer to who we can love.

Recently, a 19- year old star football player from my town passed away from a brain aneurysm. I wrote this to address the community's deep grief.

Dear Members of the Wilmington Hounds,

You are used to hard workouts.

On any given practice you might do sprints and scrimmages, calf-raises and calisthenics, squats and bench presses. All this to develop your explosive power, your agility and quickness, your knowledge of the game.

Last year you were the underdogs. You worked out knowing that the odds were against you. And somehow the combination of all that practice and prayer paid off on the field and you came home state championships! That night when the sirens blared through town at midnight we all knew, for once, it was great news. We all ran to the high school to welcome you home. The auditorium was alive with the energy you have worked out so hard to accomplish. We celebrated every move you made.

This week you are faced with one of the hardest workouts you will ever face.

As you grieve the loss of friend and teammate, the work-out you now face is the path of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression to some strange path of accepting this hardest of losses.

And, you will try to work out the hardest of questions:

- Why did Clint lose his life at such a young age?
- Why didn't I tell him I was sorry?
- Why didn't I call him the last time he was on my mind?

I'd encourage you in the days to come to set the “whys’” aside and to consider the “who.” Who is the person before you who is aching? Who is the person to your right who needs a word of encouragement? Who is the person in my life I could do a little better job loving? Who is the person I need to work out a conflict with before it is too late?

"Whys" just leave you dangling with all those questions below the surface. The "who" opens up a relationship and creates a circle of support. "Why" always ends with arms in the air angrily shaking its fists at God. But asking "who?" calls us into the empty tomb with eyes agape and mouths wide open to stand in that circle of community who have witnessed the resurrection presence of Christ.

As many times as you will run those mental cycles of questions through your heads, as many times as you will flex those heart muscles flinching with grief and sadness, as many times as you will sweat the hard circumstances that you are called to -- none of those workouts will answer the deepest questions.

If a question mark formed the shape of your workout, you would run a long slow curve that bends to the right. That path will lead you to that final point -- the place where you must stand strong and steadfast and look around you. At that point, there is no place to turn. Instead, of the why you will see the who. For those of Christian faith, that who is Jesus Christ, who comforts our every grief and knows the deepest of human suffering. Through him we can see the one in our midst -- the very who -- who needs comfort, encouragement, prayer, support.

While we have one less hero, we know that all things work out for those who love and serve God. In no way does that mean God intended this death to happen as a part of God's plan. But by God's good grace, may we learn from Clint's life and death a secret to how we might work out the hard parts of our life -- through conflict, grief, fear, estrangement, in whatever circumstance we face.

Today may you work out the secret of turning your whys to the who:

Who Clint was . . .  inspired us all.
Who you are . . . will be changed by this great loss.
Who is the person you need to face today -- to reconcile? To help? To comfort? To love?

These are the questions that do have answers. Live into one of those answers as you work out your life today, for Clint, for Christ.

We love you Hounds. Our hearts ache for you. Play on.

Lisa Nichols Hickman, a Gulf Coast native, is a Presbyterian pastor and writer. She serves at New Wilmington Presbyterian Church in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania.