If there’s one thing I knew about my son Joe, it’s that he was a roller coaster junkie. The wilder and faster the better, as far as he was concerned. Same goes for my fearless daughter. The first time she rode Space Mountain at the age of 5, she laughed when it was over and wanted to go again. It’s no surprise, though. They came by their love of roller coasters naturally. Since my first loop-de-loop at Kansas City’s Worlds of Fun, there’s never been a roller coaster I wouldn’t at least try. (Although I’m learning my advancing age doesn’t always tolerate the bumps, jerks, and speed like it used to.)
Last summer, the kids and I enjoyed a day of thrill rides at Knott’s Berry Farm. We had already scoped out which rides were the craziest, had the longest lines, and gave us the most bang for our buck. It was a glorious day of beautiful California weather, poor nutrition, and all the screaming our lungs could take. (OK, so that was mostly just me.) A running joke became my line of “Is it too late to get off?” after we were strapped in for what was sure to be another wild ride. And my non-sympathetic children would just laugh and say, “Yep! Too bad, Mom!” We left the park that day feeling exhausted, exhilarated, and extremely blessed for that time together as a family. Life seemed good. More than good.
But less than two months later, I was forced to ride a roller coaster I didn’t want to be on. There was no line to wait in, because frankly, no one ever chooses to be on the “ride” of losing a child. As if that’s not enough, life has lately been throwing in all kinds of drops, climbs, twists, turns, and loop-de-loops. I feel I’ve been holding on white-knuckled for far too long. Parts of it are occasionally thrilling, but most of it is downright….well, crappy, for lack of a better word. And you can’t always prepare yourself for what might jolt you back into the reality of what’s been lost.
Last night was one of those jolts. I popped into Joe’s room to hunt down a tissue box. Unsuccessful, I turned to leave when my eyes met the open closet as it had so many times before. The shirts were hanging as they have been, all cattywampus on the hangers (that boy never could seem to hang a shirt properly). But that didn’t matter anymore. I simply longed for Joe to wear those shirts again. Looking over to the desk, the computer begged for Joe’s fingers to be on the keys, playing Minecraft much longer than he should be. And then the bed…perfectly made, with no one to sleep under its covers. How I longed to tiptoe over to that bed, see Joe’s sweet face sound asleep, and pray over him as I used to! It was too much. Too much pain. Too much longing. Too much emptiness in that room. In that wave of grief, my mouth opened and out came the words that weigh on my heart far too often:
“Stop the ride, God. I wanna get off. I’m DONE. Done with living without my boy. I’m ready for him to come back home.”
Logically, my brain knows Joe can’t come home. But it didn’t stop my heart from wanting it more than anything else in the whole world. I’d love to say God spoke to me in this moment. Whispered to my heart. But not this time. There was silence.
Painful, aching silence.
I imagine Jesus felt like getting off the roller coaster, too. In fact, the night before He died, He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane for His Father to stop the ride so He could exit. “Dad. I’m done. I can’t do what you want me to do. Let’s forget this whole dying business. Tell me there’s another way this can all go down.” (OK, so I may have paraphrased that passage, but that’s the gist.) And you know how God responded? Me neither. That’s because all four Gospels make no mention of God saying, “OK. Son. I can see you’ve had enough. You’re done. I’ll find another way.” Because He didn’t. Truth be told, there is no record of God responding. Maybe He did and we just weren’t privy to that conversation. But maybe…maybe there was silence. You see, the part I failed to mention earlier was possibly the most important part of the prayer: “yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) Jesus submitted to the will of His Father over His own. He wouldn’t get off the ride unless God said He could. And God didn’t. So Jesus had His answer: He had to stay on, no matter how painful it would be.
I don’t know about you, but I am beyond grateful He did. Thankful he continued on the path His Father chose for Him. Because if He hadn’t, we’d be lost. With no hope. No eternal future. No promise of being in the glorious presence of God someday. No chance to see those we loved so dearly again. Like my sweet boy and countless others I loved.
We don’t always get to chose what this roller coaster of life does or where it goes. We don’t know when it will end. But we do have the assurance that God can be trusted and knows what He’s doing.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.
When life gets full of twists and turns and loop-de-loops, let’s hang on to our Father and the words He has given us: “I cling to you; your right hand upholds me.” (Psalm 63:8) Maybe our white knuckles can relax a bit, because we can trust in the Operator to take us where He’s planned for us to go on this side of eternity. We can also trust Him to bring us back to the safety of His loving arms, where the ride all began.
Thinking back on my prayer, I knew asking God for Joe to come home wasn’t very accurate. Joe is home. So it’s not really me that’s waiting for him to come home. It’s him waiting for me.