Delivered by Michael Monroe at the memorial service for Nikolas Saynor on November 8, 2008.
On behalf of the entire Saynor family, I want to thank each of you for being here. I know that your presence means a great deal to them and I think it speaks to just how special Nikolas was to so very many people.
The last time that some of us were all together in the same place it was a very different place and different time indeed. We were in the baggage claim area of the international terminal at Dallas-Ft. Worth Airport on a cool February night. In some ways it seems like so long ago, and yet it was only earlier this year.
I remember vividly the excitement of the family and friends that had gathered that night to celebrate Nikolas’ homecoming. I remember Sydney jumping around, laughing and being playful as she excitedly awaited the chance to meet her new baby brother. And then finally Joanie and Don, with his full beard and little Nikolas in his arms, emerged to the cheers and smiles of many. We had all gathered there for one joyous reason – because we already loved this tiny boy from half a world away . . . and we did not want to miss the opportunity to welcome him home to a new country, a new family and a new and promising future.
Less than a year after Nikolas’ homecoming we gather here today – to celebrate Nikolas’ life in the wake of his home-going. Like you, I much prefer the celebration of Nikolas’ homecoming, but we have all been blessed by the gift of Nikolas and even through our pain and tears we celebrate Nikolas’ all too short time here on earth and the love story that God has written with his life.
And as for our tears . . . there is no doubt they will continue to flow . . . and well they should. After all, if Nikolas was worth loving, then he is certainly worth grieving over. Let us all pray that God will grant us the grace to look at the world through our tears . . . and in so doing to see it in a way that we never would have been able to through dry eyes. And let us pray that the pain of “what will never be” does not crowd out our gratitude for “what once was.”
For now, we should not try to “put it all behind us,” or “get over it” and certainly not try to simply forget and move on. Instead, we should all own the grief that we feel so deeply, but we should all struggle to own it redemptively.
To own our grief redemptively means that we turn to God even as we cry and even as our hearts break. I believe that God mourns with those that mourn . . . and I am convinced that our pain in Nikolas’ death is shared by God in His pain over Nikolas’ death. In times like these, we strain to hear the answer to our heart’s cry – WHY? But instead of hearing an answer to that question we catch the sight of God – himself battered and torn and suffering.
I pray that through our tears we will see the tears of a God who knows suffering. God does not choose to fully explain our suffering. Instead, He chooses to share in it. As a result, we are left to leave today as we came in – with the unanswered question of “why.” But I pray that no one will leave here today or doubt in the days to come the answer to the question “where” – where is God in the midst of our pain . . . where is He when I suffer and grieve? The answer to that question leaps from the pages of Scripture as we see a God who suffers for us and with us. As David wrote in Psalm 23, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” And again, he reminds us in the Psalms that “the Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Therefore, I pray that you will experience like never before the nearness of God and that you will rest in the arms of the One who is most assuredly “with you.”
Even as we mourn, however, we cannot but celebrate Nikolas’ life. Nikolas was born Victor Nikolayevich Gladilin on May 2, 2006, in Penza, Russia, but he spent his last days on earth as Nikolas Victor Saynor, living just a short distance from here, among wealth, prosperity and comfort the likes of which most people in the world can only dream of. Nikolas was born weighing just a little more than 2 lbs. and spent the first four months of his life in intensive care. After that, Nikolas was placed in an orphanage and came to be counted among the world’s more than 100 million orphans. Nikolas spent his last moments on earth, however, not as an orphan, but in the loving arms of a mom and dad. And Nikolas had come to experience what every child should experience – Nikolas was part of a loving, forever family. At his birth it was obvious that Nikolas’ face had not fully formed – his palette and lip had failed to close – yet Nikolas was in every way “beautifully and wonderfully made.” Those of you who saw Nikolas recently know well that, with the help of modern medicine and the determination and love of his family, Nikolas’ true beauty had come to be more fully revealed in his physical appearance than ever before.
So what was it that caused these remarkable changes in Nikolas’ life – what caused his name to change, his living conditions to change, his status, his appearance, his present and his future . . . all to change. What caused everything in Nikolas’ life to change? I count it as nothing less than a miracle – I know his mom and dad do as well . . . a miracle that many here today have been forever touched and changed by. I am speaking, of course, of the miracle and the wonder of adoption.
I remember when Don and Joanie first called about meeting with Amy and me to talk about adoption. They had a lot of questions and frankly, they were a little scared. But they were open to the idea of it all and I remember clearly the conviction that they shared – they wanted to make a difference in the life of a child and to offer that child their unconditional love.
Several months passed by without any news until we received an email from Joanie about a little boy whose picture she had seen while working at the World Cranial Facial Foundation. In one of her emails she wrote “we fell for this little guy and we are starting the adoption process. He will probably need lots of speech therapy and seven to ten operations throughout his life . . . so some people have called me a bit crazy, but again if not me, who?” Looking back, it is clear that God was already writing a beautiful story as He was weaving the hearts and lives of Joanie, Don, Sydney and Nikolas together into a beautiful tapestry. And so only a matter of months after Joanie and Don had started thinking about adoption, Joanie was on her way to Russia to meet little Nikolas for the first time. And from there everything moved so quickly.
I heard it said recently that God is in the business of writing God-stories with people’s names on them. The God-story with Nikolas’ name on it has blessed and inspired many. No doubt that we all wish that that story would have had many more chapters in it detailing Nikolas’ adventures here on earth . . . many more pages illustrating Nikolas’ days here with us. In so many ways it is the absence and the ‘neverness’ that is so very hard to accept.
But as believers in Jesus Christ, we are assured that the last chapter of Nikolas’ story has not been written, even if his life on earth has ended far sooner than we wanted. We know that death will not win the final victory . . . we know that the story ends not in death, but in God “making all things new.”
As we look at the God-story with Nikolas’ name on it I believe that it can teach us a great deal about who we are and who God is. In thinking about it this week, two beautiful truths immediately came to my mind.
First, Nikolas’ life reveals and illustrates well that our brokenness – that is, our imperfect physical, emotional and spiritual condition – can become beauty when it encounters and is redeemed and forever changed by love. In Nikolas’ case, his brokenness was most visible in his face. But it was into that same face that Joanie and Don looked and saw not an undersized boy with a malformed mouth . . . instead they saw a son – their son. They did not allow what was to define what could be. You see, I believe Nikolas’ story illustrates in part how God looks at us – not as we are, but as He created us to be. We know that “God so loved the world that He gave” so that in His love and by His giving our brokenness could be redeemed and our lives and our eternities forever changed. And so it was that love entered into Nikolas’ story through the miracle of adoption and that love began to slowly and patiently transform what was into what could be.
But not only that – Nikolas’ story also reminds us that we are all born as orphans . . . but we are not destined to remain as orphans. Speaking of our spiritual condition, Jesus assured us that He would not leave us as orphans, and indeed because of His love and grace he has made a way for us to be adopted into the family of God through faith. While the vast majority of the physical orphans in this fallen and broken world will never experience the transforming and redeeming miracle of adoption as Nikolas did, adoption into the forever family of God the Father is available to every man, every woman and every child. In Christ, adoption is available to all . . . and as we see so beautifully illustrated in Nikolas’ adoption here on earth, our adoption as sons and daughters of God changes everything.
Yet despite the truth and beauty of these realities, they do not eliminate our grief . . . nor should they. So we will leave here today still wounded and grieving, but we will also leave here grateful . . . and hopeful and hope-filled.
We are hopeful and hope-filled for we know that we are loved by a God who redeems our brokenness and welcomes us into His family through the miracle of adoption. We are hopeful and hope-filled because we know that “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We are hopeful and hope-filled because we know that “the steadfast love of the Lord abides forever.” We are hopeful and hope-filled as we embrace the promise that there will be a day when “death is swallowed up in victory and the dwelling of God will be with his people . . . a day when God will wipe every tear from our eyes and death shall be no more . . . a day when there shall be no mourning, no crying and no pain . . . a day when all things are made new.”
And until that day, let us remember the God-story with Nikolas’ name on it . . . and as we remember let us find rest and hope in the loving arms of a God who will not let us go.
* Several of the thoughts and words used to honor the memory of Nikolas were inspired by Nicholas Wolterstorff as written in his honest and heartfelt book, Lament for a Son.