On April 27th, Robert “Bob” Bulger passed away quietly at the age of 42, surrounded by his close family members. One of seven siblings, he graduated from Westville High School in a class of 23 before attending Ball State University, where I first met Bob along with a group of friends and roommates that would share the next quarter century together. After college, he married the love of his life, Melissa, and they had four kids: Ashten, Hunter, Marra, and Rainier. Despite being a healthy, active man, Bob contracted a rare disease, ROS1+ stage four lung cancer, a few years ago. It led to a brutal battle not only against the illness itself, but also with the treatments that attempted to save his life. This struggle finally ended quietly on a Monday evening at his home, and left all of those who knew Bob in deep mourning for a beautiful, vibrant life lost.
For many of us, we are left with the question that humanity has posed since the beginning of time. “Why would a loving God subject a person to such awful suffering, and leave their loved ones mourning such an untimely death?” Thousands of years of study and conjecture have not yielded sufficient answers, and it is unlikely that thousands more will either.
But in the midst of our sorrow, I am reminded of something I read recently that suggested we as survivors would be better served to not ask “why?” (although it is understandable that we do so), but rather ask just what meaning we can find in our pain. As Ross Douthat recently stated, “It’s that meaningless suffering is the goal of the devil, and bringing meaning out of suffering is the saving work of God.”
For starters, anyone who knew Bob recognized that he possessed a rare zeal for life that we all envied, and we as his friends and family inherited this joy. At times, you hear people embellish characteristics such as this for posterity sake but for Bob, this was real. He could drive you crazy with his shenanigans, but you knew that the joy and excitement felt with Bob was not a show, but rather a deep appreciation for life that emanated from within. Our friend, Brandon, said it best when he reflected on his trip to church after finding out that Bob had passed away. He went there in sadness to pray and mourn, and found himself smiling when he left. It’s what Bob did and does, even in death.
Beyond the gift of his joy, it was also the gift of Bob’s presence and companionship that people immediately felt in knowing him. As my mother noted recently, “He was instantly a friend in such a natural way.” My wife recalled her first meeting with Bob when she came to visit me in the dorms during my freshman year in college. He was sitting at the front desk, smiling, as he typically did, and in one way or another they struck up a conversation about volleyball, both of them playing in high school as part of two teams at the opposite ends of the state. Time spent with Bob was, well, time spent with Bob―it didn’t necessarily need to be remarkable to be memorable. It’s just that in his joyous self, you learned that it wasn’t just about him, but rather a shared experience with someone who really did care about who you were, regardless of where you came from.
If joy and companionship weren’t enough, Bob’s life was not just about bringing beauty to others, but also the natural world. In addition to being a master gardener with a college degree in the earth sciences, Bob and his family shared countless callings and hobbies that provided for natural gifts to many friends and families, and also places, such as the Indiana Dunes lakeshore, that will leave a lasting legacy. In fact, he and Melissa have “collected, grown, planted and seeded” thousands of their plants from their home as the “Square Potters” for the past 16 years. In rare fashion, his existence not only gave gifts of a human kind, but also of a natural one; even in his death (see the bottom of his obituary), he is still partnering with us to bring organic life to our communities. If one ever truly embodied the statement “he left behind a more beautiful world”, it would be hard pressed to imagine this being truer than with Bob.
And yet, through all of these gifts, in all the ways they provide meaning in midst of our sorrow, we are still very sad, and certainly Melissa and his children especially will spend their lives mourning in some way for loss of their beloved Bob. Given this, finding meaning in all that he gave to us and this world does not necessarily answer the original question posed, but rather again suggests that the “why” question may not be the best one to ask at all. It is true when they say that the greatest gifts bring the greatest opportunities for sorrow; for if they were not true gifts, then what sorrow would there be when they are gone? But, if we are to find ourselves unable to move past this interminable question of “why”, then I suggest that maybe, the only more incomprehensible question than why God would take our beloved Bob in such a brutal, untimely way is why a God would grant us the incomparable gift of him at all.