On February 26, 2010, my brother Cameron died of an overdose of heroin.
I was in the middle of my first year of graduate studies for my Master of Divinity degree. I was 27 years old, and after a few years of post-college floundering, I’d “discerned my call,” as we clergy-types say, and began the process of becoming a candidate for ordination. Up until this point, my life had been relatively smooth. I’d followed the traditional route of high school to college, graduated with honors, and married my college boyfriend. We had been married for two and a half years and had just purchased our first home. My husband had a great job in software development, which allowed me to pursue my theological studies full-time. I breezed through admittance interviews and candidacy entrance procedures, and was encouraged by church leadership to pursue ordained ministry. I felt blessed and led by God, in whom I’d always believed without question. Wherever I looked, doors opened and opportunities arose. The ease with which this all happened unconsciously confirmed to me that God loved me and was taking care of me.
Then my world turned upside-down. Cameron was four years younger than me. He’d been abusing alcohol and drugs since his teens. He was constantly in trouble with my parents and the police, and spent quite a bit of time in jail. It was difficult and frustrating to watch his life unfold in this way, and my family made every effort to help him without enabling him. We all thought he would grow out of it someday and figure out how to “be normal” and get a grip on life.
Instead, he died. At 23 years old, my baby brother was gone, ripped from our lives in a horrible and tragic way.
His death was life-altering and faith-shattering for me. For the first year and a half, I went about life in a state of shock and numbness. Deep in grief, I somehow still managed to get to classes and write good papers. My classmates and school administrators helped by allowing me to be myself and say whatever I needed to say during this time. School became my safe place, where I could bring all my grief and sadness, and find constant love and support.
But as the numbness began to wear off, new questions and thoughts began to appear. For the first time, I wondered if God was real. I’d always taken God for granted, happy with my image of a grandfatherly monarch, all-powerful but gracious and loving. This God had watched over me, helped me along the way, and blessed me. And in return, I’d decided to give my life to serving this God and working to build up His church and people. Now I felt betrayed and abandoned. I could no longer accept the idea that God has plans for us, “plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope,” as Jeremiah 29:11 promises. If this was God’s plan for my brother, I concluded, than it was a horrible plan. My Sunday school God-image, which had helped to define my worldview so well in the past, was broken past the point of no return. I could no longer believe in this God.
In the fall of 2011, I began an internship as a hospital chaplain, which included a practicum class. On the second day of class, I said it out loud for the first time: “I don’t know if I believe in God anymore.” As soon as I said it, I burst into tears. I was terrified at my confession. What did this mean? Should I quit seminary and find a nice normal job? Could I say these things and still be a Christian? Could I still be a candidate for ministry?
With the encouragement of my classmates and our professor, as well as the guidance of a talented spiritual director, I faced these feelings head on. I plummeted to dark and terrifying places on this spiritual journey, wondering with Nietzsche if God really was dead. At the same time, in the hospital, I ministered to people of all faiths, beliefs, and cultures. At first I felt like a chaplain imposter. I was supposed to be the steady one, easing the fears of hospital patients with my example of faith and peacefulness. But my thoughts were completely opposite of that. How could I pray with someone in this state? What did I have to offer in this time of lostness?
But slowly, I came to understand that I could be full of doubt and anger and still minister to people. I began to realize that ministry is not about me and my issues. My role as a chaplain was to figure out what gave others strength and hope, and to facilitate an experience of that with them. I learned that it is possible to do this without having all of my own theological kinks ironed out.
I began to see a new image of God emerge from my conversations and prayers with people. I experienced a beautiful moment of prayer with a Jewish Wicca woman and her wife, using their language of “Spirit” and “Fire” and “Power” to describe the movements of the Divine in their lives. I added these words to my own spiritual repertoire. I prayed with a Pentecostal woman, echoing her familiar phrases of “Lord Jesus” and “Almighty God.” Though these words can be difficult for me to use in my own spiritual life, loaded as they are with the image of the God who failed me, I could see that they were important and meaningful to her. I made genuine connections with Protestants and Catholics, Buddhists and Jews, Latter-Day Saints and Jehovah’s Witnesses, atheists and the non-religious. I began to see a new kind of God, a God who is intimately present in the world and in the lives of everyone. I felt this God, this Source of All, working beyond religious, denominational, and creedal lines.
I believe that this is an understanding that is deeply embedded in Christian tradition and beliefs, and in the accounts we have of the life of Jesus. For me, one of the most important lessons from the story of Jesus is that God is fully present in Humanity. If this is true, then we are all truly Children of God. And this is not a God who is distant and controlling, but is more like that extra crackle of energy that is present in each person and in every particle of matter in the universe. It is in our relationships and interactions, in the dirt and the trees and the sun and the sky, in death and in life.
Experiencing the death of my brother was, and still is, extremely painful. But through it, I have learned to see God in everyone. And I now see the message of Easter in a very personal way: Impossibly, death is followed by new life. My brother’s death gifted me with a broader, more inclusive understanding of God. Cameron’s death pointed me to new life. Though I would give up this lesson in a heartbeat to have my brother back, I am eternally thankful to him for showing me who Jesus is, and for showing me a new way to believe.