Many stories arrive at a punctuation point, or at least a reflective pause, by year’s end. But in reality all our stories find their fulfillment, their final punctuation, in heaven.
Here, the end of a story can draw out and be hard to decipher, or it can be abrupt and severe. Headlines may look abstract and distant, or may turn in close and personal, with names and faces that are meaningful, familiar. When we glimpse eternity in them, we should pause and take note.
In 2012 one American was killed in Iraq: Jeremiah Small, a 33-year-old teacher from Washington state gunned down by a student in a classroom on a Thursday morning last March. For a country claiming over 4,400 American war dead, Small’s death at the hand of an Iraqi 11th grader—and in a school where Small had taught successfully through six years of war—was a sober, sudden denouement.
The shooting made headlines around the world, and photos of his father embracing in forgiveness the father of the killer (the family chose to inter Small in Iraq) also went global.
Yet so often we in the news media move on, failing to follow the legacy that unwinds after tragedy. And we Christians develop a sort of selective cynicism, holding to Scripture in theory but forgetting by year’s end that ours is a living God who promises better things to come: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).
For Dan Small, the indefatigable father of Jeremiah, much fruit started showing up soon after his son’s death when students emailed the family. “Then something changed,” said the elder Small: “They started writing emails saying, ‘We’ve been so caught up in our own grief that we didn’t think you might be grieving too.’ They started to comfort me. They’d been taught how to turn from themselves, so that in their grieving and sorrow they weren’t just saying his legacy would live on, they were walking it out.”
Dan and Rebecca Small and their family (Jeremiah was the oldest of seven) have done a lot of public grieving this year. They traveled to Iraq together for Small’s burial and then held memorial services around the country—three in Alaska alone—to celebrate Small’s life among scattered friends and family. Those services multiplied the fruit, as mourners heard Small’s testimony and saw firsthand the family’s faith.
From attending one of the memorial services, in Nashville, I in turn (like others) have shared abroad six “couplets” Dan Small devised to explain his son’s passion for serving in Iraq: Live loved, live called, love life, find mentors, invest eternally, trust providence.
Whether I spoke to high-school students, to a group of workers in Afghanistan, or to a women’s conference—in many parts of the country since Small’s March 1 death—I’ve been surprised how often someone has approached me afterward to say, “I was a friend of Jeremiah too.”
With those couplets as guiding principles, Dan Small has worked with friends, family, and his son’s former students in Iraq to organize formally in November a nonprofit called Vision2020. Launched with funds from the teacher’s own savings and donations to his work, the group hopes to make investments in civic life in Iraqi Kurdistan, the northern region where Small taught. When Small was killed, he was in the midst of organizing the area’s first public library.
Already some of his former students are civic leaders. Two launched Awat, a local newspaper. Others have launched an organization to support startup companies, and are starting businesses.
None of this is without struggle and sorrow. The school where Small taught has faced some local opposition as a result of the negative publicity generated by Small’s death. Relatives of the student-murderer, who also took his own life, have lashed out. A birthday has come and gone, and the Small family gathers this Christmas without its eldest son. Last year at year’s end, Small picked one word he hoped would define his life in 2012: increase. Headlines may count the story a loss, but the rest of Small’s legacy shows he defined 2012 just right.
From Dan Small, Jeremiah’s father:
- There is no grief counselor like the Holy Spirit. What a treasure to have learned to love His voice and the Scriptures before this trial hit!
- Learn the profound hymns! We’d been memorizing/singing “How Firm a Foundation” for the month before Jer was killed. So, in the early morning hours as our family converged to minister to each other, the phrase “I’ll sanctify to you your deepest distress” wrapped itself around my mind like an anchor rope securing me to a wise, sovereign Lord who was unfurling a grand, though mysterious, purpose.
- Part of the message from our son’s death is the importance of Christian parents faithfully discipling their children daily because guys like Jeremiah and Joel [Joel Shrum, another American teacher killed this year in Yemen] don’t become vessels of impact by accident. They are, by God’s grace, the product of faithful nurturing.
- How beautiful is the Body of Christ. He has ministered supernaturally to us in moment-by-moment struggles through someone’s touch, words, gifts, or smile.
- Prayer is not a “last resort.” With circumstances preventing direct contact with many of Jer’s students we rely on intercessory encouragement for them.
From Rebecca Small, Jeremiah’s mother:
- A close, deep grief is a long road; it takes time. I remember finding an article in a Life magazine from the ’50s in which the wives of the five men killed by the Aucas were interviewed. One wife was asked if she thought time would heal. She wisely replied (and I paraphrase) that time does not heal; God alone can heal the human heart, but He uses time in the process.
- A grief seminar I attended years ago gave me this insightful nugget: Loss is not something we get over, but something we must reconcile ourselves to. This year has begun the arduous task of reconciling ourselves to this loss on a variety of levels and in all manner of circumstances.
- The Lord is near. We know that from Scripture. Sorrow makes it a deep experiential reality. God is the Healer of the brokenhearted.
- There are no regrets, no second-guessing over whether Jeremiah should have gone to Iraq. We are grateful he went. Our lives are richer because of it. We are expanded, not diminished.
- It is the kingdom of Christ that matters. This life, our ease and comfort or happiness, is not the issue. We live for an eternal purpose, and in Jeremiah’s life that purpose was served.
- This life is brief no matter how long you live.
- All our days are pre-ordained for us before we took our first breath. God knew March 1[the day Jeremiah was killed]. He had written it in Jeremiah’s book before I ever gave him birth.
- There are many things about the ways of God we don’t understand; every trial provides an opportunity to reaffirm our trust in God’s wisdom and love or to turn to bitterness, doubt, and mistrust. God continually calls us to a deeper trust. These deep pains He gives us provide stark tests of the reality of our belief in what God has written in His Word: Do we really believe His ways are higher than ours?
- Nothing comes to us but through the sovereign hand of God. We can rest in this. God’s sovereignty is like the eye of a hurricane, and we are at peace in it even though the circumstances of life are swirling madly, destructively around us.
- While we acknowledge God’s sovereignty in all things, we also cling to His loving-kindness. Nothing that comes to us is a capricious act done by God, nor is God simply self-serving
- The deeper the sorrow, the greater our ability to empathize with others and the greater our sensitivity to spiritual truth.
- Sorrow is truly a friend, a grace that helps us on to God. Joy and sorrow go together. I wrote this poem in October:
Joy takes Sorrow
By the hand,
Yet dearest friends.
The One does not
Negate the Other,
Nor scorn to lift
In rev’rence high