This Is My Son, Whom God Has Given Me in This Place|
Behold, "children are a gift of the Lord." So the psalmist says. And, "children's children are the crown of old men." Indeed, in Psalm 127 the Bible proclaims that children are a reward. "Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one's youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them."
Few things match the joy that children bring to a family. Even fewer things rival the sorrow of a family that buries a child. My family has known both. We have been twice blessed by the birth of a child, once grieved by the death of a son. We have also known the sorrows of a miscarriage and the celebration of adopting and bringing home a baby boy.
On a Sunday evening in March of 1997, my wife and I walked through the darkest trial of our faith-the death of our beloved infant son, John Cameron Bruce. But in the midst of the grief attending our son's illness and death, we always trusted that God was yet at work, watching over and comforting us by His Spirit, with His Word and through His church, ordaining all things for His glory and our good, and for the good of our son, too.
John Cameron was born on a sunny winter afternoon. He was a fine-looking lad, but the Lord knitted him together and formed his inward parts with a genetic kidney disorder. The most critical complication of the disease involved his lungs, which never developed sufficiently to sustain his life apart from a ventilator.
During the next few weeks, I kept a journal and chronicled the course of my son's life. Most entries I made at night as I reflected on the day's events, which always included some time by John Cameron's bed. I liked to visit him late at night. As Florence Nightingale said: "Life is a hard fight, a struggle, a wrestling with the principle of evil, hand to hand, foot to foot. Every inch of the way is disputed. But the night is given us to take breath and to pray, to drink deep at the fountain of power. The day, to use the strength that has been given us, to go forth to work with it till the evening."
That is what the nights were like for me when the hospital room lights were dimmed, other visitors were few, and the nurses seemed to go about their work quietly, as quietly as a parent might move about a child's bedroom at night so as not to disturb his sleep. I appreciated those times. They were refreshing and helped to ease my anxiety. The quiet, confident voice of a nurse has a calming effect.
I share a few of my journal entries now as a brief look at the ups and downs of John Cameron's life and that of a father whose son is dying.
Tuesday, January 21, 1997. Yesterday at 3:21 P.M. our son, John Cameron, was born. From birth he has been in intensive care, with complications affecting his lungs, heart, and kidneys. I pray, O Lord, that You would be merciful unto him. We look to You alone to raise him up. And how thankful I am that You hear the prayers and supplications of Your saints on his and our behalf. Hear, O Lord, from heaven; hear and save. Soli Deo Gloria-Glory to God alone!
Wednesday, January 22. The prayers of the saints ascend for John Cameron in more numbers than we know, and the Lord has heard and provided mercies sufficient for the day. John has shown a measure of improvement, and I continue to commend him to our Lord's keeping. We look to You, Lord, in all matters concerning his life and health and eternal happiness.
Saturday, March 8. John Cameron's left lung collapsed, but the doctors were able to save him by inserting a chest tube.
Tuesday, March 11. The past few days have been quite a blessing. Good friends have come to comfort and encourage us. . . . This afternoon the doctors again said that it appeared we are losing the battle for John Cameron; they suggested removing one of his kidneys (in hopes that a lung might be able to expand). At 6:30 P.M. we met for prayer. At 7:02 the surgeon began the operation, which was completed at approximately 8:15. John Cameron survived the surgery. Perhaps this will be the means God has appointed for John's recovery. Lord, may it be so. Amen.
Sunday, March 23. John Cameron died on Sunday, March 16, at 9:21 in the evening. He died in the arms of his mother and father; our last act as parents was to commend him (and ourselves) to Christ and His good keeping. John's death is one of the most profound experiences of my life, for we wrestled with things of an eternal nature. All during his life I prayed that God would either grant him life and health or spare us from the difficult decisions. But God did neither.
Our son was with us for fifty-five days, and then, in the language of Scripture, "he was not; for God took him" (Gen. 5:24). We fought the good fight for nearly two months in the hospital's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, trying heroic medical measures. But the battle was not for us to win or lose, for Christ alone holds the keys of life and death, and He shares those keys with no one. The duty to fight was ours; the outcome belonged to God.
As the days passed without much success from the medical treatments, I began to sense that John Cameron might not survive. I thought his death would be easier for us if we were not there and simply received a call in the night from his doctors. I dreaded the thought of being by my son's side as he died. I did not know if I could bear to watch him close his eyes in death. Receiving the bad news would be difficult enough. But watching it unfold before my very eyes-I groaned at the prospect. "Have mercy, O Lord. Spare my son," I prayed, "that I might not have sorrow upon sorrow."
But God's ways are not our ways, and He would not let me play the coward or escape the cords of death so easily. What I feared most came to pass, and (now I can say) we had the blessing of being with our son the night he died. As his earthly life ebbed away, we prayed for him and commended him to Christ, the Good Shepherd, who alone is able to shepherd beyond the grave. Our last act as his parents was to embrace him as he died.
The Lord had set the number of John Cameron's days; in His book they were written, every one of them (Ps. 139:16; Job 14:5). God had beheld his unformed substance and decreed the bounds beyond which he could not pass-fifty-five days and no more. Then, when He had accomplished His good purpose, the end came quietly and peacefully.
Until that day came, it was as if we had crossed a ford and, like Jacob of old, had been wrestling with God. But on the Sunday night that John Cameron died, God touched our thigh and put it out of joint. We wrestled no more and sought only a blessing from Him for the son we loved so much and for ourselves.
Since that time, my wife and I have had many occasions to tell others of God's sovereign grace and the paradox of joy in the midst of suffering. "Let me learn by paradox," goes the prayer:
that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that to have nothing is to possess all,
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
that the valley is the place of vision.
Let me find Thy light in my darkness,
Thy life in my death, Thy joy in my sorrow,
Thy glory in my valley.
We have also learned a measure of the truth expressed by the apostle Paul to the Corinthian church: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God" (2 Cor. 1:3-4). These truths, as John Bunyan said, "have been burnt into my heart as with a hot iron."
Looking back on the death of my son, I see now the value of trudging through life's struggles with others who have trod the same path. "The soldier falters alone; but, in fellowship with his comrades, he advances with confidence." As true as this is on the battlefield, so is it in times of grief. Scripture proclaims this truth. "Two are better than one," says Solomon, "because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, one will lift up his companion" (Eccl. 4:9-10).
Such camaraderie may exist though time or great distance separates the soldiers, for this fellowship arises out of the shared experience. Mark the words of the great English reformer Hugh Latimer who, shortly before being martyred for his faith in 1555, sent a farewell letter to fellow sufferers in which he wrote, "Set before you that though the weather is stormy and foul, yet you do not go alone; many others pass by the same path; their company might cause you to be the more courageous and cheerful."
No doubt Latimer greatly helped those faithful Englishmen who followed him into the flames for the cause of Christ. But who has set us a Christian example of how to bear up under the loss of a child? Today with advances in medical technology and the aid of skillful physicians, we seldom know firsthand of a child dying. (Yet, as my wife and I have learned, this is a far more common thing than most people realize.) So let us look to times past when losing a child at a tender age was perhaps the rule, not the exception. Let us look to an age when one could say, "Death is a near neighbor, and one death in a family is but the forerunner and warning of another."
The list of great men and women of the Christian church who shed tears over a departed child or grandchild is a long one: John Calvin wept for his infant son; Martin Luther for a daughter; John Bunyan also for a daughter. George Whitefield buried a son, as did George Müller. Charles Wesley lost five of his eight children. Horatius Bonar parted with five children in successive bereavements. Charles Haddon Spurgeon mourned a grandson. Some of their names may be unfamiliar, but they all passed by the same path and climbed the same difficult hill. Their company may make us cheerful and brave. Their strength may become ours.
We who have lost the company of a child do not go alone. We may keep company with these men and their wives as we pass through the Valley of Baca-the Valley of Weeping spoken of in Psalm 84:5-7: "Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion. As they go through the Valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. They go from strength to strength; each one appears before God in Zion" (ESV).
"The comfort obtained by others," wrote Charles Spurgeon, "may often prove helpful to another, just as wells would be used by those who come after. We read some good book full of consolation. Ah! we think our brother has been there before us and dug this well for us as well as for himself. Travelers have been delighted to see the footprints of a man on a barren shore, and we love to see the waymarks of pilgrims while passing through the vale of tears."
This book is a collection of short accounts of some of these eminent men and women who lost a beloved child-who wept and who yet were comforted by the Father of mercies. Spurgeon was right. The comfort they obtained has helped me, and I believe that all who suffer similar losses may discover these saints to be comrades and find in their stories comfort and encouragement for present distresses. But you must follow them all the way to the path of glory. You may pause, but do not stop beside the graves of their loved ones. Follow them into the Valley of Weeping, but do not stay there. Press ahead! The path that leads to glory is the way of peace.
Many of the Christians remembered in the pages of this work expressed their thoughts in verse. Poetry is the language of the heart. In the poems collected here the emotions are raw and exposed. For example, Hetty Wesley tells of a mother's grief and desire to follow her child in death. Still, in general, you will find in these writers that faith prevails over emotions. Emotions are based on what we see, but faith on what we know. In the midst of trials, particularly as we mourn the death of a loved one, we must walk by faith and not by sight. Our eyes see defeat in the corpse, the casket, and the grave. Yet by faith we may say, "Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory? . . . Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 15:54-57).
A number of the poems are taken from old Christian hymnals and express with beauty and eloquence the intimate and personal reflections of each poet on the death of a child. Echoing the words of Francis L. Patton from more than a century ago, these hymn writers have "taken the varied threads of human experience, woven them into a veil of exquisite texture and laid it across the face of death-in the seeming medley of earth's music, they have traced the love of Christ and found in it the motif that unified it all-leading us along the winding way of life, from light to dark, from dark to light again, until we enter the celestial city-leaving us there alone with God."
With these things in mind, the tokens retold here are offered (and may our Lord grant it) for the comfort of others who know the loss of a child, whether young or old, but particularly children of tender ages. And I add the prayer of the English Puritan Philip Doddridge that "however weak and contemptible this work may seem in the eyes of the children of this world, and however imperfect it really be, it may nevertheless live before Thee, and through a divine power be mighty to produce the rise and progress of religion."
Should that be done, then let men say of this work that it has brought glory to God alone and that it is a worthy tribute to John Cameron Bruce. Here I borrow from Charles Haddon Spurgeon and say of my son: "Peace to his memory! I weave no fading wreath for his tomb, but I catch the gleaming of that immortal crown which the Master has placed upon his brow. He was a good boy, full of faith and of the Holy Spirit."
I also borrow from William Romaine's book, The Life, Walk and Triumph of Faith, and say:
I present this book unto Thee, ever-glorious Jesus, and lay it at Thy feet. You know my heart; accept it graciously, as a public acknowledgment for inestimable mercies. In Thy great compassion overlook the faults in it; what is agreeable to the Scripture is Thine own. Make use of it to Thy praise. I devote myself, my body and soul, my tongue and pen, all I have and am, to Thy service. I would not look upon myself as any longer mine own, but being bought with a price, I would glorify Thee in the use of all Thy gifts and graces. With Thee I desire to walk through life. In Thine arms I hope to die.