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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

No turning back

In the face of tragedy, a family's choice to praise God challenges us to do the same

Issue: "Steve Jobs 1955-2011," Oct. 22, 2011

Scott and Janet Willis lost six children in a single day when a piece of metal fell off a truck and punctured the gas tank of their minivan. That's the part of the story that is public, so I am not telling tales out of school. The accident unraveled a corruption scandal of bribes for driver's licenses funneled into campaign chests, and ultimately sent a governor of Illinois to prison.

But this is an essay about meeting the Willises 17 years later at a Christian conference, and about Psalm 34, and the triumph of Christendom by that simplest and most elusive of acts-believing God. And it is about the responsibility placed on me by knowing this now. And on you too, if you continue to read.

By the ball of fire that consumed their minivan on Interstate 94, Scott (his face badly burned) said to his wife (her hands badly burned) what she told me are the best words he could have said: "It was very quick. And they're with the Lord now." Then, as he was helped to one ambulance and she to another, he called back to her: "Psalm 34."

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Surrounded by emergency responders, Janet kept praying out, "I will bless the Lord at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth," with the accent on "will." I believe it is the same way Jesus must have cried to His Father, "I will put My trust in Him" (Hebrews 2:13), not from a lotus position, but in torment.

Because of the Willises, there is no turning back for me. I can never again countenance childhood trauma as an excuse for present sins.

Gone is my ability ever to say that the Lord does not expect us to praise Him at all times. The oft-heard caveat that in certain sufferings it is impossible to praise the Lord-and uncharitable to expect another to do so-is totally and irreversibly undercut by this testimony.

Gone forever is my ability to engage in ivory tower discussions on the applicability of certain Scriptures to my life. All speculations over whether the Psalms are merely liturgy or are meant to be obeyed are forthwith canceled. The Willises read the words "I will bless the Lord at all times" and came to the astonishing conclusion that it meant they should bless the Lord at all times.

Gone, therefore, is my ability to take Scripture at anything but face value. No turning back.

Thanks to the Willises, I can never again entertain as a theoretical possibility the notion that a person is unable to keep God's commandments. Janet Willis chose, in an act of volition stripped bare of any warmth of feeling, to trust in her God.

Blown out of the water is any attempt to come up with a scenario in which I might be excused for abandoning my faith. The Willises robbed me of that luxury when they underwent a testing at the extremities of human experience, and overcame-as the Son of Man with eyes of flame among the lampstands bids us overcome.

Banished are my quid pro quos, the restrictions I put on God's discipline unawares; the time limits I set Him for pulling rescue out of affliction; the lines I would not let Him cross; the right I reserved to judge His justice. The Willises have placed their stake here: "Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him" (Job 13:15).

"Sing, O barren one, who did not bear" (Isaiah 54:1). A command to sing at such a time would be cruel counsel if it were not true that in worship we find deliverance. Praise meets trauma where nothing else can reach. Praise in the face of devastation releases blessings obtainable in no other way. The presence of God is directly related to worship.

Because the Willises chose to praise, I can choose. And because the Willises chose to praise, I must choose. They have upped the ante of my life. Meeting them has increased my obligation, as every testimony of God's deeds increases obligation. I cannot pretend we never made acquaintance.

What a privilege to meet someone to whom the Lord has entrusted so much suffering.

Email: aseu@worldmag.com

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.

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