What holds the keys and tumblers to this world? Is it cruelty? Chaos? When the pain of life howls outside our door, is there anything there in the dark night to explain it?
Or is there some loving design within the chaos? Some grace stronger than the cruelty? Does life make sense, even when it doesn't?
Close one eye. Close the other.
Is there any light within the darkness?
Two summers ago, Reuben Summerlin died. A 44-year-old husband and father of two and devoted U.N. employee living in Fiji, he had his whole life ahead of him. They were on vacation. He was biking when, out of nowhere, he was struck by a car overtaking a cane truck.
He died on July 6.
Two years ago last week.
Phil Summerlin then had to do what no father should: bury his son. In the 1980s, Phil, a minister, moved to Chattanooga to help create Erlanger hospital's clinical pastoral education program. For decades, he witnessed bedside grief, last breaths and families lost in sadness. Now he tasted the bitter cup himself. This man with three sons now had two:
Josh, the eldest.
And Dan, the middle son.
Many of you know Dan.
Part of the CBL and Associates team and a giant at First Christian Church, Dan is like the Tom Hanks of Chattanooga. Need a smile? Call Dan. Want the right kind of coach for your kid's rec team? Call Dan. Need a Fantasy Football player? Prayer warrior? Buddy to road-trip with? Call Dan.
Need someone to teach Sunday school to a group of Orange Grove men? Yes, he did that, too. Infinitely kind, heroically patient, Dan is usually the best guy in the room. (And the type of man who shrugs off such ovation. I'm no better than anyone else, he would say.)
He and his family — wife Scottie ("she's the epitome of grace," one friend said) and twin sons, Jake and Jack — are at the beach now.
This will be their last trip.
After months of hospitals and chemo and #TeamDan prayers, Dan, diagnosed last year with cancer, is now dying. With his feet in the saltwater one last time, and the South Carolina sun on his kind face, his liver is shutting down.
And Phil is facing the darkness once again.
On the anniversary of one son's death, Phil is losing another son.
He's also losing his wife.
Aline Fuselier Summerlin, 75, was a little girl in Louisiana when she told her unchurched family she was going to Jordan Baptist down the road. The faith took. When a dying uncle needed comfort, the family turned to her for prayer. It became her calling.
As Phil was establishing the pastoral education program, Aline became the first full-time chaplain of Hospice of Chattanooga, spending decades caring for the dying and their loved ones.
Aline and Phil live in a warm cabin in the woods; photos cover the walls, books, the shelves. It is the kind of place you expect quilts and a mug of something warm. A home for the heart.
In the back room, Aline lies dying. She has Parkinson's. The woman who comforted the dying is now dying herself.
As July unfolds, this is where the Summerlin family finds itself:
Mourning the two-year anniversary of Reuben's death.
As Dan dies.
As Aline dies.
In this story, do you see the cruelty of life? The chaos? The profanity of losing one son, then another, then your wife?
Or do you see something else?
"There is chaos. There is cruelty. That is true," said Phil. "But I have been aware most of my life of having been greatly blessed, and right now, I feel even more that way."
On the Fourth of July, a few hours before the fireworks, we sat together in his living room. He held up a Kodak picture of Reuben, Josh, Dan as kids, wearing cowboy hats and boots. ("Desperadoes," Phil said, "waiting for the train.") On the bookshelves and coffee table, Updike novels and Wendell Berry poems and an old copy of "Charlotte's Web."
And Bible after Bible.
"My faith is intact," he said.
As part of his early training, Phil would visit the morgue. The bodies under the white sheets. The name tags on big toes. Phil thought: that will be me one day.
"You learn to face your own brokenness," he said.
Sickness, suffering and death — Phil calls it the common law of humanity — then are not surprises. Open one eye and you see this: the suffering, the anguish, the goodbyes.
Open the other, and you see something else.
The piercing, exquisite, treasure-chest richness of life.
"Reuben did not live long enough, but look at what he did in 44 years. Dan is not going to live long enough, but he has been the father I intended to be. I am amazed at who he has been to his family. By the grace of God, these are two really good lives," he said. "They're just not long enough."
A few hours later, night fell.
And the Fourth of July fireworks lit up the sky, from here to South Carolina.
There in the darkness, such beautiful light.
David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.