I threw my backpack to the floor and flattened it with my abdomen, yanking the zipper with all my might. I was determined to make it all fit, but I was having trouble. We were leaving on a ten-day, six-city (and what felt like 100 different train rides and 72 flights) trip abroad in Europe, and I was afraid of being unprepared.
My roommates teased me in my struggle.
“I think you can leave behind the extra winter coat,” Brenda laughed as I huffed.
“I. can make. this fit,” I panted. When I let go, two pairs of jeans unraveled and my hairbrush skidded across the floor.
Just then the door to our room swung open and Shahana came into the room, ghostly pale and crying. She collapsed onto the bed silently and pulled the covers close until her small frame disappeared beneath the duvet.
Brenda, Libby, and I exchanged glances and continued packing quietly. Several minutes passed and we thought she had fallen asleep, but then she pulled the blankets away from her face and addressed me in a whisper,
“Bethy? What do you think happens to people when they commit suicide?”
I paused, shocked by her question. Oh, God. What do I even say?
“I am so sorry, Shahana,” I said finally. “Who was it?”
A friend she hadn’t seen or talked to in years had killed herself the day before. Shahana cried and lamented her complacency as we listened. The miles between our Salzburg inn and our Midwest lives felt further than ever.
“What does Christianity teach you about suicide?” she prompted again.
“… Do you really want to know what they say?” I asked, my heart heavy as lead.
“No,” she answered.
I knew what a lot of Christians thought about it
–but none of it was worth repeating in the face of my friend’s raw grief. What is the truth about suicide? Is it selfishness? Insanity? Unforgivable sin? What would Jesus say to Shahana right now?
“What do you think happens to people when they commit suicide, Shahana?”
She waited a moment.
“I imagine that they find themselves in a room together, and they sit in a circle and talk, like in AA meetings,” she said.
I tried to picture it, familiar faces filling in the circle of metal folding chairs – Shahana’s friend next to a girl on my freshman softball team, next to my friend’s dad, next to the guy from my church that I always thought was handsome and never knew his name, next to the two girls from my husband’s seventh grade class.
I thought about Shahana and our roommates, the sparse conversations we had already had about our beliefs. I deeply admired Shahana for her regard of those of us who believed in God, even when she wasn’t sure she did. I thought about how different we were. She was half Indian, half Caucasian. Her father was Muslim and her mother was Christian, though they weren’t devout. I was raised Baptist and had spent several summers at church camp and on missions trips in Toronto, Puerto Rico, Philadelphia, Northern Ireland, and even at a Native American reservation in the Black Hills of South Dakota. I had been baptized and attended a Christian university where I took classes in biblical history and missions.
But when confronted by Shahana’s questions and grief, all of my experience and education felt paper-thin, a band-aid on a bullet wound.
“I’m so sorry for your loss, Shahana. I really don’t know how to answer your question.”
It felt so weak and unnerving to admit that.
To this day I still have no definitive answer to that question.
Yet even without an answer, I didn’t come away from that conversation empty-handed.
It could have easily derailed my belief in God to realize that even if I had the answer, I’m not sure I would like it. It could have easily given Shahana reason to doubt my faith’s legitimacy, too.
More than any other experience in missions or in my own life, Shahana’s question has challenged my faith. Her questions unpacked all of my heavy-handed theology and emptied me of my pride. That conversation and the questions I found myself asking in the days after filled me with a new understanding of God’s grace in keeping us humble. And although I can’t speak on her behalf, it didn’t deter us from having more discussions about God, faith, religion, and relationships.
Somehow my faith became more real when I finally was able to utter the words, “God, I don’t know.”
The thing about unpacking our faith is that it leaves a lot more room for grace – grace for ourselves, grace for our loved ones, grace for our enemies, grace for the hurt that all of us hold. And the wonderful thing about grace is that it heals.
Grace doesn’t weigh us down.
Grace lifts us up and grows our love and moves us toward change.
What is the hardest question anyone has ever asked you about your faith? How did you respond to it? If you were asked the same question today, how would you respond?
[photo: Jordan Pryor]