On November 22, the Sunday before Thanksgiving, I received an email from my friends Neil and Anna Mammen announcing the birth of their second daughter, Caroline Lois. Other than a cleft palate Caroline seemed fine, and the happy couple were thankful and rejoicing.
But later that day a second email from Neil had URGENT in the subject line. Doctors discovered something wrong with the baby’s heart and kidneys. They feared that restricted blood flow also meant the possibility of brain damage. Neil wrote:
Caroline’s had trouble breathing all day and was put on a respirator and feeding tube. We are trusting her to God and His perfect will for her precious life.
Neil and Anna are evangelical Christians. They urged all of their friends to pray as the doctors tried to strengthen Caroline for possible heart surgery. But after a few days of hopeful stabilization, Caroline’s condition began to worsen. Neil wrote again on November 28:
Today was a very tough day for us. The doctor called and said that though she has stabilized, our darling Caroline’s kidneys are not improving and he is concerned that there is permanent damage to them. . . . He also confirmed that the MRI did show some brain damage.
We continued to pray for healing, but her health continued to worsen. On November 30th, a call came from the doctor that Caroline would likely die within a day. Neil wrote:
Caroline Lois is going to go home to her Lord and my Lord very soon. Perhaps tonight. We are selfishly trying to keep her here a bit longer, here in 4D space, perhaps an hour or two. . . The battle is not over. Keep praying. God exists and He is able. We now pray that His Sovereign Will is to heal her.
Despite the prayers of many and the persistent faith of Neil and Anna, there would be no healing. Caroline died in Neil’s arms at 1:10 A.M. on December 1.
Anna later wrote of that fateful call the day before:
I remember everything turning black and feeling like the bed was going to open up and swallow me. I felt my heart had been ripped from my chest and that I was free falling into the blackest abyss I could imagine. And I didn’t know what to do. I kept asking, ‘What do I do? I don’t know what to do? How can this happen? How will we go on?’ Neil held me and we cried and I sobbed. And then Neil started feeding me a life rope.
Feeding me lines of truth. He gently said,
“She’s not ours.”
“We don’t deserve her.”
“This happens everyday all over the world. We’re not special.”
“We will go on. We will have more kids. We will not let this harden us.”
And I was comforted.
Those might seem like strange words of comfort to a wife grieving the loss of her baby. But at the memorial service on December 5th, Anna explained to the hundreds in attendance that she knew Neil’s statements were true because they both long ago investigated the evidence for God and the Bible and concluded that Christianity is true.
Upon Caroline’s death, Anna revealed, “I was so thankful that I didn’t have the added burden of questioning my belief and faith in God. And that’s because I hadn’t made the decision based on tradition or emotion. I had a faith that stood upon reasonable evidence.” (In fact, Anna and Neil maintain a website called www.noblindfaith.com.) Neil told me, “Our Apologetics (evidence) confirms our Theology; our Theology directs our Hopes; and our Hopes guide our Emotions.”
Anna went on to explain what Neil meant by those “lines of truth:”
“She’s not ours” – He meant that she’s God’s. She, like you and I, were made in His image with a purpose, a set number of days, and a life beyond the nine months (growing in me) and nine days on this earth. We pray that she touches your hearts and she changes us– makes us more sensitive, softer and loving– makes this world a better place. Beyond all that, she is a soul eternal. She isn’t a concept or past tense. She’s her own precious person still existing right now.
“We don’t deserve her” – We are fallen, imperfect people who fall short of the glory of God, yet Christ saved us. Every good gift, including the nine days with Caroline, comes from Him. Throughout our marriage, Neil has made comments whenever blessings have come our way that we are undeserving of them. We’d get a new car or house and he’d at some point say, “We’ve been so blessed, you know we don’t deserve any of this,” and I’d respond, “I know, I know… you’re right.” When Mary Katherine (our first daughter) was born he said the same thing. So when he said we don’t deserve Caroline I knew exactly what he meant. And I agreed. The blessing of our coming to the conclusion that we don’t “DESERVE” something – that we aren’t owed or entitled anything by God- is that it stops the root of bitterness and anger from taking hold and growing.
“This happens everyday all over the world. We’re not special.” — Again, that’s TRUE. We are no more special than any of you. No one escapes suffering or death. . . .This is not the last of our suffering. And whatever you’ve been through, it’s not the last of yours either. We aren’t special.
But they were Christians, so where was God?
There’s a mistaken theology in some churches called the “prosperity gospel” or the “word of faith” movement—if you’re not healthy or wealthy, you just don’t have enough faith. That’s nonsense. Jesus and most of the apostles were tortured and killed for their beliefs. Don’t tell me they didn’t have enough faith!
Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Indeed, we will all have trouble in this world. But Jesus came to redeem us from trouble. Not necessarily here, but in eternity. In fact, the one word theme of the Bible is “redemption.” Paradise lost in Genesis is paradise regained in Revelation. Everything in-between is the story of redemption.
But why the pain here Lord? There are many answers in the scriptures, but perhaps they can be summarized with this one question: While we’re in our fallen selfish state on this earth, what would happen to us if we never experienced pain and suffering—if everything always went our way? We call people who get everything they want “spoiled.” That’s why God is a father, not a grandfather.
Where was God in the Mammen’s tragedy? Two thousand Christmases ago He came to earth to end all tragedies, and to heal our broken relationship with Him. He added a human nature to his Divine nature, lived a sinless life, and suffered in our place as a ransom that frees anyone who wants it from the eternal consequences of sin. Since Neil and Anna have accepted that free gift, they can say with thanksgiving and confidence, “We know where sweet baby Caroline is, and we will see her again.”
If you’ve never received that gift, He’s waiting for you again this Christmas.
If you would like to read the rest of Neil and Anna’s story and how they are making Caroline’s death a legacy for eternal good, click here.
Frank Turek is coauthor of I Don't Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist, and the author of Stealing from God: Why atheists need God to make their case. See more of his work at CrossExamined.org.