Looking at God in an Odious Shape

“If you think God is against you and delights in your misery, it is impossible for you to love Him. The great reason many do not love God more is because they look at Him in an odious shape, and tremble at the thought of Him. We must write His love deep in our understanding. He is infinitely and inconceivably good. A clear sight of God’s merciful nature gives assurance of our happiness.”

“God is love.” 1 John 4:16

This morning, during my quiet time, I read this quote by Richard Baxter. It was written almost four hundred years ago, but it describes where my heart was a little over thirty years ago when my brother was killed very suddenly at the age of twenty-three. I was stuck there for almost two years, and then I, again, teetered on the edge of this mindset a few years later when our first special-needs child was born to us. The excerpt below from our book, “Swaying in the Treetops,” gives the details. (Scott and I wrote the book together, but we chose to write it in his voice to avoid confusion.) It’s long because most of the chapter is included in this excerpt.

(Excerpt): Chapter 1
Hidden Miracles

Sometimes miracles hide
God will wrap some blessings in disguise.
And you may have to wait this lifetime
to see the reasons with your eyes,
’cause sometimes miracles hide.

Sometimes Miracles Hide
by Bruce Carroll Word/Epic, 1991

Some of the most interesting things in life begin unexpectedly. A phone call. An e‐mail. A comment from a friend, and suddenly the course you’re on changes, and your life changes with it. One such change-of-course happened to us through a series of circumstances which, as a whole, proved to be pivotal. This series of circumstances was many years in the making, as God carefully, meticulously wove the tapestry of our lives into a picture vastly different than the one we imagined at the beginning of our married life.

Kathy and I were both raised in Christian homes and professed faith in Christ while still young. We went to the same high school in the suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama, though I was two years ahead of her. I was, in fact, best friends with Kathy’s brother, Gary, and this friendship brought me often into their home. It would be difficult to name just exactly when I began to notice Gary’s younger sister Kathy, or when she began to notice me. I believe I noticed her long before she noticed me, but I couldn’t prove it. I began to look for ways to “happen to be” over at Gary’s house, and in time, both Kathy and I began manufacturing “reasons” for the two of us to end up together. By the fall of 1975, we both realized that we were absolutely crazy about each other. As young as we were, we knew that we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. In January of 1976, I headed off to begin my tour of duty in the Navy while Kathy was still in high school, and we were forced to conduct our romance long distance, via letters and occasional visits when I could get leave and afford a plane ticket. As 1976 rolled on toward 1977, we made our wedding plans.

We were married almost immediately after Kathy graduated from high school, in June of 1977, while I was serving in the Navy. About a week after our wedding, we loaded up my car and I dragged Kathy nearly eight hundred miles away from the only home she had ever known, where she would begin life as the wife of a sailor stationed at Fort Meade, Maryland, an Army base in a part of the country she had never even visited before. In many ways, this isolated beginning was one of the best things that could’ve happened to us, because it forced us to learn to fend for ourselves and to depend on one another for almost everything. We were young and hopelessly in love, and poor, and just as happy as we could be. As the years have gone by, our love has grown and deepened through all of the trials, struggles, and victories we’ve experienced together. And we remain deeply in love and the very best of friends all these years later.

I had two and a half years to go on my tour of duty when Kathy and I were married. I served out the balance of that time at Ft. Meade in Maryland, and I never gave the notion of extending or re-enlisting a second thought. I knew that military life was not the life for me, and Kathy felt the same. Upon my separation from the Navy, we moved to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where, thanks to the provisions of the old GI bill, I enrolled at the University of Alabama as a Mechanical Engineering student; Kathy began work as a dental assistant, an opportunity made possible by the training she received while we were living in Maryland. The transition from life on a military base to life on a major university campus was fairly smooth and natural. My school load was not too difficult, and we were having a lot of fun getting used to this new life and looking forward to the future we were envisioning for ourselves. Truthfully, we were not at that time living a life worthy of servants of Christ. We weren’t living immorally, but at the same time, church attendance and prayer were not priorities for us, and we were not living the biblical model of the Christian home. We were just happy to be rolling along, mostly on our own, doing occasional lip service to our faith. In the vernacular, we were still baby Christians; we had been born again, but we had not grown at all in spiritual matters. And then came one of those phone calls, one of those unanticipated occurrences that changes the course of your life.

USCGC Blackthorn
Tampa Bay sits nestled on the western side of Florida, about 100 miles southwest of Orlando. It is a large bay that is home to both Tampa and St. Petersburg, as well as a host of smaller, lesser known cities. Spanning the bay across its southern end is the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, a 5 1⁄2 mile long structure connecting St. Petersburg on the north with Terra Ceia on the south. The center section of the bridge is high and open, providing a passage for shipping traffic through the Tampa Bay channel, which connects the bay with the Gulf of Mexico. For about three months at the end of 1979 and into January of 1980, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Blackthorn, a 180-foot buoy tender stationed in Galveston, Texas, had been in dry dock at the Tampa Bay shipyards, being completely overhauled for continued service in the Coast Guard fleet. On the evening of January 28, 1980, Blackthorn was finally headed home, making her way out of the bay via the ship channel. As the cutter approached the Skyway bridge, she had to move over into the center of the channel to make room for the passage of Kazakhstan, a brightly lit and fast-moving cruise ship also steaming out of the bay. The seas were calm that evening, with a temperature of 61 degrees and a light breeze from the north. Shortly after Blackthorn passed under the Skyway bridge, with Kazakhstan’s deck lights blazing ahead of her, Blackthorn’s officer-in- command noted the approach of a large vessel coming toward them, inbound in the channel. This approaching vessel was Capricorn, a 605-foot tanker loaded with 150,000 barrels of fuel oil bound for a power station within the bay area. For reasons that remain somewhat unclear to this day, the men in command of both of these ships acted in apparent confusion, with the result that the ships collided less than a mile west of the bridge. The initial impact rocked Blackthorn but appeared to have no significant effect; some of the crewmen were shaken up, but no one was seriously hurt. According to standard procedures, general quarters were sounded and the crew members rushed to their assigned duty stations. Unknown to everyone involved, a fateful consequence of the impact between the two ships was that one of Capricorn’s two seven-ton anchors lodged itself in Blackthorn’s hull. Following the collision, Capricorn continued to drift into the bay, and as she did, her slack anchor chain gradually played out—wrapping itself under Blackthorn’s hull. Once the anchor chain had played out to its full extent, it went instantly taut, and when it did, the drifting tanker jerked the much smaller Blackthorn under the surface of the water, pulling her straight to the bottom of the 50-foot-deep channel. Serving on Blackthorn that night was Gary Wayne Crumly, age 23, Quartermaster Second Class—Kathy’s only brother.

Early on the morning of January 29, 1980, Kathy and I were awakened by a phone call from Kathy’s mother—that life-changing phone call I alluded to above. She was calling to tell us of the wreck of Blackthorn. At the time of her call, Gary and twenty-two other crew members were missing and presumed still on board. We jumped into our car and drove the two hours home to Birmingham to be with the family while we waited for news on Gary’s status. The next three weeks are still something of a blur for all of us. After the first few days, Kathy and I returned to Tuscaloosa where Kathy continued to work and I continued attending classes. We would live our seemingly normal life from Monday until Friday, when we would pack up our car and our dog and drive back to Birmingham to be with Kathy’s family again—and to hope for some news—until Sunday night, when we would drive back to Tuscaloosa to do it all over again. A liaison officer from the Coast Guard was dispatched to keep the family updated on developments, and there was a regular stream of visitors at Kathy’s parents’ house, offering prayer support and bringing food for the family.

There were times when we would all sit together and try to make quiet conversation, laughing about funny things Gary had done or said, reliving memories as a family, encouraging each other to hang onto hope that he would be found alive. Other times we each found places of solitude, or we would sit in a silent group, staring at the fire in the fireplace, trying not to let our minds go to the dark places or dwell on the horrific possibilities that seemed to become more likely with each passing day, trying not to lose sight of our belief that God would answer our prayers and bring Gary home to us. And we all spent so much time praying, individually and together, that he might somehow, miraculously, be found alive. We knew that there were stories of survivors of shipwrecks who had found large air pockets within the submerged vessels, and we could imagine that somehow Gary might have found such a pocket and was just waiting for the ship to be raised. Or he might have been swept away by the current and have landed on some strip of land somewhere, and was making his way back to civilization. The details were not of concern to us; we just knew that we were praying, in faith, that God would save Gary in this ordeal.

Day after day, we waited for news that the ship had been raised from the bottom of the channel. After a couple of weeks, Kathy traveled with her mother and father and sister to Galveston, Texas, to spend some time with Gary’s young wife, Glenda, who was essentially all alone during this tortuous ordeal. As the days passed while they were all in Galveston, Kathy and her family began to face the growing certainty that hope for Gary’s survival was fading. They spent about four days in Galveston before heading back to Alabama.

The weather in Tampa that winter was completely uncooperative, and day after day, we got reports that efforts to raise the ship had been thwarted. For three long weeks we waited, and for three long weeks, we prayed. Finally, late in February, the Coast Guard was able to raise Blackthorn, and the last whisperings of hope in our hearts were stilled: Gary’s body had been located, still on board. He was found in the map room, exactly where he should have been at general quarters. He had suffered a blow to the head that, in all probability, had killed him before the ship even sank. A large cabinet had fallen and had struck him on the back of the head. He had been dead the whole time we were waiting and praying for his rescue.

Ultimately, we were left with our terrible grief: Kathy’s parents had lost their son; Kathy and her sister had lost their brother; Glenda had lost her husband; I had lost my best friend and my brother-in-law. The pain and sadness and sense of loss that had been building over the previous three weeks now resolved into a deep and abiding grief. We weren’t alone in our grieving: in all, twenty-three of the fifty crew members on board Blackthorn were killed in that accident, which remains the worst peacetime incident in Coast Guard history. Twenty-two other sons, brothers, husbands, and best friends had died, and all of those families’ lives were forever altered, just as ours were.

We have observed, through our own experiences and those of others, that one never gets over the loss of a brother or a child or a spouse, or any dearly loved one; one simply learns to live life differently, with a sort of a hole in the heart. The wound in the heart heals over, but the tender scar remains. I believe that God allows us to go through painful experiences for many reasons, and among them is the reality that through these trials, we learn to trust Him even when things don’t make sense, even when our prayers are not answered in the ways we think they should be, and even when, like Jacob from the Book of Genesis, we walk with a limp for the rest of our lives because of the trial.

It’s difficult to state clearly just how important the accident and Gary’s death were for us, how crushing and earth-shaking. Our upbringing had taught us, essentially, that our faith was the critical element in seeing our prayers answered. Kathy and I—and especially Kathy—were convinced that if we prayed with enough faith during the time Blackthorn lay at the bottom of the channel, then Gary would miraculously be found alive when they brought the ship up. But when they did finally salvage the vessel and Gary was among those found dead, we were presented with a crisis of faith. This crisis of faith may be summarized as follows: we knew that God, the omnipotent One, could have saved Gary if He had chosen to; we prayed with all of our might and all of our faith, believing that God would, in fact, save Gary; Gary died; so, either God was not really able to do what we asked Him to do, or He chose not to, not to answer our prayers—the prayers we had prayed in faith, claiming the promises we knew from Scripture.

The consequence of this line of reasoning was that God was either not really God, because what kind of God is One who is not omnipotent, or He was a God who didn’t care about the prayers of His people. We rejected the former, knowing that it was a logical (and theological) impossibility, and we settled on the latter. The fact that God could have saved Gary and chose not to, in our minds made Him guilty of Gary’s death. This produced in us—and again, especially in Kathy—the reaction that said, if this is the kind of God He is, then we don’t want to have anything to do with Him. Now, there were many who moved in the same spiritual circles we moved in who said that God allowed bad things to happen but did not cause them. To us, it didn’t really matter whether He allowed Gary’s death or caused it; the fact that He could have prevented it and chose not to, in our minds made Him responsible. Again, it would be difficult to state with adequate force the impact of this conclusion for us. Because this was such an emotional issue, our infantile reaction was to turn our backs on this cruel God, whom we had suddenly come to see as if for the first time. We weren’t willing to say that it was all untrue, that there was no God and no reason to seek any sort of salvation; but we were willing to remain indifferent. Maybe there was a sovereign God, but we chose to ignore Him.

This state of spiritual rebellion lasted for well over a year, though in retrospect we can see that God’s Holy Spirit was working in our hearts and in our lives during that whole time. A few months after Gary’s death, while we were still in the throes of our spiritual struggling, Kathy and I decided that we didn’t want to wait any longer to start our family. In January of 1981—on the first day of classes of that winter semester—our daughter Kristen was born. We were thrilled. Kristen was beautiful and bright and precocious, and though she was a sober child, we could tell there was a lot going on behind those green eyes. By the time Kristen was about three months old, we came to the realization that as this child grew, we would have to teach her something about God and religion. We knew that it was time to make up our minds about what we truly believed and who God really was. Ah, the hubris of youth. We smile a bit as we look back at who we were then, with the arrogance to think that it was our place to sit in judgment on God. But our God is infinitely patient, kind, and loving, and He never turned His back on us. Through a series of events, He brought us into contact with the right people in the right circumstances at the right time, and He gently drew us back to Himself. We came to the place where we realized that God’s Word is true; not just theoretically true, but existentially true. What God has to say about things really matters. One of the truths that impressed itself upon us through all of this was that our idea of what is “good” is not always the same as God’s idea of what is good, but that His definition of good is always the right one. It is difficult—even impossible—to express so weighty a truth as God’s beneficent sovereignty in a portion of one little chapter of one little book, and so I will not try. But through all of this we learned that God “causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” We don’t have to understand why apparently bad things happen to apparently good people; we simply have to—we are privileged to be able to—trust the One who alone is sovereign, who alone is wise and good and just. This marked a turning point for us, and even a beginning. It was the beginning of our learning to trust God, even when things didn’t make sense, or didn’t seem fair, or didn’t turn out the way we thought they should. It only takes a few sentences to put all of this down on paper, but as I said, the agonizing process actually took more than a year.

In and through all of this spiritual awakening, Kathy and I slipped pretty easily into our new routine as parents, and life was good. Just before Kristen turned two, I graduated with my degree in Mechanical Engineering, and we were all off on our new life together.

Our introduction to special needs
Three months after I graduated, we welcomed our second child, Erin, into the world, in March of 1983. Erin, like Kristen, was beautiful, but in many ways she was completely different than our first child. While Kristen met all of her developmental milestones naturally and on time, Erin did not. Erin was slow to hold her head up, slow to roll over, slow to sit up, slow to crawl, slow to walk, and slow to talk. Our initial reaction to Erin’s lack of age-appropriate progress was one of concern, but we were assured by her pediatrician that she was simply a bit slow in her development, and that there was no cause for alarm.

When Erin was seven months old, we moved to Slidell, Louisiana, where I was starting a new job. Shortly after we got there, Erin developed a mysterious fever that turned out to have been caused by a severe urinary tract infection. After several months and a host of diagnostic procedures, it was determined that she had a condition called bilateral vesicoureteral reflux. This condition means that urine from the bladder back-flows up into the ureters, which are the tubes connecting the kidneys with the bladder. The condition can be so severe that the urine flows all the way back up into the kidneys and can lead to kidney damage. Erin’s severe infection, in fact, had resulted in significant damage to her left kidney. We were pleased to learn that her overall kidney function was normal, but the left kidney thereafter was only able to do about 25% of the total load; the difference was made up completely by the right kidney, which simply increased its capacity in response to the need—a tangible example of the wonder that is the human body as created by God. Erin ultimately, at the age of three and a half, required major reconstructive surgery to reimplant her ureters and correct the reflux. And thus began our sojourn into the world of doctors, medicine, clinicians, and experts. Little did we know that this sojourn would in due time become a way of life for us.

One of the things that Kathy and I came to realize as we were going through all of this with Erin was that we hadn’t yet “arrived,” spiritually. We still struggled with questions about why. Why would God not answer our prayers for Erin’s healing and for her to enjoy “normal” development? And why were we still asking why? The spiritual walk, we were discovering, consists of gains and plateaus. We would encounter difficulties, and as a consequence of our wrestling with God over those difficulties, we would grow stronger in our faith and in our ability to trust God. But once we would get through those difficulties, we would often level off in our spiritual progress, and more or less coast for a while. Then the next challenge to our faith would come, and we would again have to wrestle with God and ask questions and confront our own complacency. And so we continued our process of growth in and through the struggles we experienced with Erin. Kathy, especially, struggled much with this. Erin would often awaken in the night crying after having a nightmare, but she lacked the verbal skills to explain what had frightened her so badly. After calming Erin each night and getting her back to sleep, Kathy would lie awake in bed, crying silent tears, begging God to heal Erin and allow her to begin talking to us. Kathy often slept fitfully, having a recurring dream in which Erin would walk into our bedroom and describe in full sentences and great detail the nightmares that tormented her. But this dream remained only that—a dream. Erin did not miraculously begin talking, and Kathy was forced, once again, to face her feelings of anger toward this God she continued striving to trust and follow. There was much more soul-searching and wrestling with God as Kathy vigorously fought for years, with all of a mother’s love and passion, to open up the locked places that kept this precious daughter isolated from the world around her . . .

3 thoughts on “Looking at God in an Odious Shape

  1. Pingback: January Happenings and Heart Stuff | My Front Porch Looking In

  2. Pingback: Tampa Trip Continues . . . | My Front Porch Looking In

  3. Pingback: I Want You To Know | Owning My Nothingness

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