Real Christian spiritual growth takes place through the Means of Grace: the Word and the Sacraments. And God has chosen to use suffering in this world as a way to deprive us of our worldly resources and idols so that we flee to the Means of Grace.
Difficult times like we are facing in our parish right now: watching loved ones die and go to heaven, are some of the most intense kinds of suffering we who survive can face. We are being refined like impure ore. The questions facing us at the real spiritual level concern whether we will recognize our absolute guilt and worthlessness before God's Law and God's verdict of our Justification by faith in His Son, Jesus Christ.
Our loved ones can become our idols. We forget that God owns us and them. We do not. God owes us nothing. Because of our sin we owe our temporal and eternal punishment. But God does not wish to give that to us. Rather, His Son volunteered to live under His Law perfectly and to take the punishment that all of us deserved so we can have a perfect record before God's justice.
Ryan died young (34 years old) just like my own brother 5 years ago. His parents are going through a tragic loss, just like my own parents went through--AND STILL GO THROUGH (sorry, Mom and Dad, I need to write this to help my own flock. I know you will understand). His siblings are experiencing exactly what I went through--and still go through to this day. Ryan's children are experiencing exactly what my wife went through when she lost her dad to a heart attack when she was a child. She lost her mother to cancer a year later. Our flesh is torn. It hurts deeply. But my brother, Jeremy, along with Ryan, belong to God first. They do not belong to us. We are privileged to enjoy our love, life, and experience together for a while in this world.
Forest lost his best friend and sweetheart of almost 46 years. He is going through the loss of his wife and the love of his life in this world.
My point is that we all go through these extremely difficult trials. When we face them we feel all alone. And we are in danger of thinking that no one could relate or understand what we are going through. We are in danger of making our own grief over our loss into an idol and holding the loss we have experienced against God. We reason in our own grief: "If God is so loving, why could he have allowed such a tragedy to happen to me and my loved one?"
And we forget what we really deserve: what our loved one really deserved. In our grief we may even loose sight of what Jesus Christ suffered so that death is not the end, but a sleep from which God will raise us at the last day through faith in Jesus Christ. In our grief we can forget that there is a resurrection because the Son of God suffered so greatly in our place.
Others around you in your time of loss have experienced what you have, are, or will experience. And Christ has suffered worse so that our loss is not permanent. We will rise through faith in Christ. And we will see our loved ones who have died in this same faith again. And even more, we will be with God in eternity: Loving God perfectly, and loving each other perfectly.
God will grant that we all will experience so great a loss so that we can appreciate the depth and richness of what Christ has given for us with his conception, birth, life, sufferings, horrific trial-punishment-and execution, and with His resurrection.
The sin that we have inherited and that we do in thought, word and deed means that we all will die. Some of us horribly, some of us peacefully after a long life. But die we will. The gift of Christ's life and death for us means that the death of our loved ones and our own death is not to be feared or abhorred. Rather, because of Christ's life, death, and resurrection eternal life we can be certain-have the true faith-that we all will rise again at the last day and see our loved ones in Christ and know and love them and God Himself more intensely and purely than we could ever imagine love could be here in this valley of sorrows.
Spiritual growth isn't given in seminars or weekend retreats. Real growth in faith comes through the Means of Grace and the school of tribulation. It comes under the Cross which Christ told us we would need to bear. Real growth comes through having our props and idols destroyed and our retreat to the Means of Grace where God Himself told us He would nourish and feed us. Real growth comes from trusting God's written word; the word spoken to us at our Baptisms; the word spoken to us in the Absolution; and the word spoken to us in the Lord's Supper: "Given and shed for you for the remission of sins."
Our loved ones who have died in faith in Christ enjoy paradise. At the last day "the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up with them in the clouds to meet Christ." Comfort one another with these words.