Like Lebron returning to Cleveland, I’m coming home. Home in this case is Columbia, South Carolina, my first home away from home. I’ve got some pretty fond memories of my years spent in the Palmetto state three distant decades ago—a bachelor pad overlooking a lake, a red Chevy Camaro, a stereo tape deck, and fledgling cable TV—everything a twenty-something dude earning a real paycheck could want or need living out on his own for the very first time. I eventually met my wife and got married in Columbia, in the shadows of Gamecock football and the hundred-degree heat of the basic training brigades at Ft. Jackson. But unlike Lebron, I’m not returning to the adoring cheers and accolades of my hometown fans. I’m returning in a far less celebratory and festive role. I’m coming home to bury my mother-in-law.
Thongkrue “Jenny” Contreras died peacefully on the afternoon of July 4. During her time here on earth, she was as kind and as loving a person as anyone could have hoped for (Sorry, they’ll be no mother-in-law jokes here). Born in Bangkok, Thailand, she overcame tremendous odds, somehow made it to the United States, and carved out a living for her family with minimal financial resources or English skills. She loved her son, daughter, and granddaughter with unfailing passion. I remember her being as generous as she could be, always welcoming people into her home and volunteering her fabulous Thai meals to whatever worthwhile charity that beckoned. It seemed she forever had a special place in her heart for the downtrodden and sick. Even in death, she selflessly continued to give by donating her body to scientific research.
Standing by her bedside, listening to the rhythmic hiss of the life support ventilator, I felt many of the usual emotions experienced when watching a parent die—sadness and sorrow, gratitude and gratefulness, remorse and regret—wishing that I could have spent more time in her presence, getting to know her better, and telling her I loved her like a dutiful son-in-law. As I held her hand and kissed her forehead for the final time, I also felt an unexpected surge of confusion and uncertainty, bubbling over into a sentiment of exasperation bordering on outrage. My mind races and head spins. I’m upset and embarrassed as I find myself shaking my fist at a suddenly distant and uncaring God.
For Jenny was a devout practicing Buddhist—through death, supposedly confined to an endless dark cycle of hopeless reincarnation. As immediate family members gather around to stare at her lifeless body, I silently pray for the Holy Spirit’s mighty presence to allow me to minister to her the Blood of Christ and His Eternal Kingdom before her last breath passes. As she lays there unresponsively, I’m torn inwardly, secretly wondering how such a loving and benevolent God could possibly allow her soul to so unfairly perish. For the reality is that Jenny was born into a culture where being Thai is synonymous with being Buddhist. Let’s face it—had we been born in Thailand, all of us would most likely also be burning incense and seeking enlightenment from Lord Buddha.
According to the tenets of the Christian faith, the only way to eternal life is through Jesus Christ. As I sit in Sunday School class with other believers, it’s quite easy for me to accept this reality as truth. We banter freely about predestination, free will, salvation, and damnation on an intellectual plane. We’re grateful for the saving grace of our privileged lives and are quick to acknowledge our role in spreading this privilege to others. We go on mission trips, sharing our faith and resources with those who are hungry and thirsty. Everything seems crystal clear as we nod our heads in agreement and praise God for his goodness, grace, and mercy. We feel good about ourselves. It’s only when we are forced to reconcile the tenets of our faith with the reality of the eternal lives of our unsaved friends and family members that those irritating seeds of doubt and frustration begin to creep in.
LORD, WHAT IN THE WORLD IS GOING ON HERE? Jenny identified far more with her faith than many of the Christians here in America. She led a far more virtuous earthly existence than most professed Christ followers I know. She prayed and attended temple worship far more frequently than I’ve ever spent in church pews. She definitely displayed more generosity than I could ever muster in ten lifetimes. And yet, she (and 33 million other Buddhist) are doctrinally damned to eternal hell. WHERE’S THE JUSTICE IN THAT?
I know in my head that Christians are saved by faith and not by pious works. I know in my heart that I’ve probably sinned more than Rick Pitino on a Vegas bender. I don’t really want JUSTICE. What I really want is MERCY! Honestly, I can’t profess to know who God chooses to save and who he allows to perish beyond the veil of death. I can only hope and pray that his mercy and grace extends to other “non-believers” in the same compassionate and loving manner that none of us “believers” deserve.
The usual words of comfort just don’t quite cut it in my bereavement. I want so badly to believe that Jenny’s no longer suffering, that she’s in a better place, and in the glorious presence of saints. Rather than basking in the streets of gold, however, it terrifies me that she just might be undergoing torture in a burning lake of fire. For many of you, a mother-in-law in hell is the ultimate answer to prayer. Not for me. I’d love nothing more than to be eternally reunited with mine in heaven. Jenny Contreras, one of these days, I’m coming home for good. I hope you’re there to greet me.