Reflecting on the Life and Death of The Reverend Canon Rob Fead
That the question is age-old and has been hurled at the heavens countless times before makes it no less urgent and gut-wrenching: God, how could you let this happen? The Reverend Canon Rob Fead was tragically killed while riding his motorcycle last week. He was more than a colleague to me, he was my predecessor in two of the churches where I have served, and so he is someone who I have come to know through these communities we have in common and in which we have both served, loved and been blessed. In the outpouring of grief and heartbreak in response to Rob’s death, powerful stories have been shared of how Rob was a vehicle of God’s transformative love, God’s healing, forgiveness and community. “I just don’t understand,” has been a consistent statement in conjunction with these stories. And then the question:
Surely God’s plan and purpose would have been better served by keeping Rob alive. He did so much, but he could have done so much more. Why would God let him die?
I have been only one of the many voices that have waded into answering the question. We have talked about the clear witness of his faithful life, which reassures us of God’s guiding power, even as Rob’s death remains mysterious. We have ventured into more philosophical territory, talking about how God does and doesn’t intervene in the life of the world. “God doesn’t just reach down and pluck up and save one person from disaster,” someone astutely commented. We believe in a God who companions us, who weeps with us, who shares in these times of sorrow and whose care for us is best felt in how we can bear the light of God to one another when our hearts are most broken. Those who knew Rob observe that he would be the last person to be troubled by these kinds of questions, that he had a willingness to trust God, to feel close to God and invite others to that closeness, whether through thick or thin, whether in times of smooth sailing or choppy waters.
These answers all offer a piece of truth, and they miss something too. I have felt that gap even as I myself have participated in some of these words. The gap is that we are also a people who believe in, and even experience, miracles. And if there can be miracles, then surely God could have nudged the timing of last Monday morning in such a way, with the greatest subtlety, as to save one precious life? These questions are faithful questions. The fact that some of our flock is able to accept and trust more readily than others by no means suggests that there is anything flawed about the faith of those who search for answers and find those answers to be somewhat lacking.
In fact, the founders of our church encountered the same desperate questions and the same incomplete answers. They walked with one who opened the eyes of the blind, cleared up the skin of the leper, reclaimed the lost children, multiplied the fish and the bread. Everywhere Jesus went, the kingdom of God was made visible, lives were healed, people were touched by the loving hand of God. When Jesus suggests to his disciples that the road ahead for him will lead to suffering and death, Jesus’ dear friend Peter is right to speak up for everyone and tell Jesus that he can’t leave them, to insist that Jesus is more valuable to God alive than dead. When Jesus is gasping his last breaths on the cross, the crowds are right to murmur their confusion: he saved others, why can’t he save himself? In other words, God’s power was so clearly at work in Jesus, and God’s power was certainly able to intervene into our world in many powerful ways, so how could this senseless death possibly be explained? The cross doesn’t just represent the sin of the world, it represents every senseless death in every time and place, and when Jesus cries out, “My God, why have you abandoned me?” he is voicing that age-old question ringing down with confusion across the generations: God how could you let this happen?
Jesus anticipates the question over supper the night before his death. In John’s Gospel, Jesus wraps up supper by first washing the feet of his disciples and telling them to offer similar care for one another. Then he teaches extensively on the command of love as it has been made visible in him, and as they will be empowered to serve in their life with one another. They show little sign of getting any closer to understanding why this one who shines with the light and love of God needs to be taken from them. When he tells them that he is going “to him who sent me” he also recognizes that because of this news, “sorrow has filled your hearts.” He then tells them the hardest part of the Good News, the part that we resist and rail against at every turn, but that is absolutely necessary for coming of the Kingdom of God. “Nevertheless,” he says, “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:6–7)
In other words, good and important work will be accomplished through Jesus’ death. As Christians, we often name the primary work of Jesus’ death as conquering sin and death on our behalf. But here, Jesus puts the emphasis elsewhere. Jesus’ death commissions his disciples in the work he has shown them; Jesus’ death gives them the gifts they require in order to do this work. This is not the same as saying that God caused Jesus’ death. It doesn’t negate the senselessness of massacring an innocent man as a criminal of the state. It doesn’t suggest that God stands anywhere other than in sorrow in the face of such pain and loss. Jesus’ death is utterly honest in unmasking the broken state of our world and the hurt of our fragile mortal lives. But here, just hours before he will breathe his last, Jesus claims that the power of God can redeem even the senseless and the tragic, will work even through the most devastating of circumstances — if we are willing to place ourselves into the hands of the One who made and claimed and was revealed in the one we loved.
Reportedly, Rob had similar words in what would become his final sermon, just the day before his death. He was reflecting with his congregation on other senselessly tragic news of the previous weeks, especially the bus crash with the Humboldt Broncos and the Toronto massacre. He invited his people to see that, in the wake of such terrible tragedies, the Spirit of God was at work as people aligned their lives with love and friendship, as communities reassessed their priorities and committed to renewed standards of care going forward, as all across the country, individuals recognized once again that our lives are short and while we are here we can know and serve God, our lives can leave an imprint of truth and beauty.
This is no small thing. Although it may sound like little consolation to notice people pulling together in response to tragedy, in fact much of what is generous, courageous and transformative in our society emerges from exactly such moments. The church itself, for example, has long been understood to have been built “on the blood of the martyrs” — on lives who insisted God’s power and purpose would not stop working in them, even in death.
In the end, there is a gift and there is a choice and there is a very bold proclamation that we, as people of faith, are particularly equipped to offer, even when the “Why, God?” question is burning in our throats.
The gift is God’s Spirit. We’re not orphans. Even in our darkest hour, there is a strength, peace and light on which we can draw and which will accompany, soothe and guide us forward.
The choice is whether or not we are willing to offer our broken hearts. Author Parker Palmer notes that when the human heart breaks, it can either break into shards that create more hurt and pain, or the human heart can break open making possible new ways of sheltering and caring for one another. I like to think that because of God’s Spirit, even hearts that at first might shatter into shards can eventually find the grace to break open into new expressions of care and faith. Our faith is based on the supposition that even the most senseless tragedy can become a means by which God’s life and love is offered and made known in even more powerful ways.
And finally the bold proclamation is this: we should expect to see God at work, in the death of His servant, just as God was at work in his life. We should expect to see faith renewed. We should expect to see community deepened. We should expect that a legacy of faithfulness — and for Rob, a legacy of humour, wit and undying Maple Leafs’ devotion! — will be continued, and even enlivened, in those he touched.
I have shared in the pain of the questions this past week, the confusion and hurt of “Why, God?” But I have also seen this gift and choice and proclamation. I have felt us cradled by God, particularly as we have joined together in prayer and worship, as we have heard the ancient Scriptures and spoken the age-old prayers, and God has spoken a word of hope to us, and Rob’s ongoing presence in the communities that he loved and served has been made obvious. I have seen the choice for broken hearts to break open for one another, and I have seen how those small gestures of tenderness and kindness matter, and matter very much. I have seen how Rob, who lived so faithfully, also died faithfully, and how the people who loved him will be renewed in that faith even now