Life and Death
This past weekend was one of almost unbearably stark contrasts.
Friday and Saturday were spent with a few of our church’s young people at a high-octane youth conference put on by one of the larger churches in our area. Climbing walls, go-kart tracks, paintball, ear splitting rock concerts, dodgeball, team games, sleepovers on a church floor, etc, all in the company of hundreds of screaming teenagers—this is how I spent a good deal of Friday and Saturday. Not the most natural of contexts for me, I suppose, but it was great to have some fun with the kids and get to know them better.
And then, as we were finishing up our breakfast on Saturday morning and getting ready to head back to the conference for round two, a phone call came. We had invited a young couple to share at our church during Sunday morning’s service. They had been working in Burkina Faso for six years, and had just returned to Canada in June. But the news delivered by the voice on the other end of the phone was almost unimaginably bad. A husband and father was in desperate shape… he had to be airlifted to Calgary and things didn’t look good. A few hours later, the picture got worse… bacterial meningitis… brain damage… life support… The terrifying terminology just kept on coming. It seemed too awful to be true… But it was.
These kinds of things beggar the imagination. As I was playing paintball with a couple of enthusiastic teenagers, a young family was facing a horror that no one should have to face. As I was listening to worship songs about the greatness and glory of God, a family was crying out to God, pleading for life, recovery, for a miracle. As I was wandering, stupefied, around a church full of life and vitality, death and sorrow were making another devastating appearance.
At 10:58 yesterday morning, two minutes before our worship service was to begin, the news came. He had passed away. A young family suddenly without a husband a father. Another lost son, brother, friend, co-worker. Another deeply tragic loss.
And so, we found ourselves staggering through worship in the valley of the shadow of death. We decided to go ahead with the service that had been planned with this couple in mind. We sang (or tried to sing) songs with African rhythms. We told a children’s story about a river that brings life. I preached from the passage in Ezekiel chosen by this young man who I would now never have a chance to meet. The passage spoke of a river of hope coming from the temple of God, bringing life wherever it went. I would have loved to hear about how this river animated his life and work. Instead, we were left to grope after these words of hope and life when all we could think about was death.
Psalm 137 famously gives voice to the difficulty of expressing hope in the context of disorientation and darkness: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion… How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” How indeed. How do we deal with so many stark contrasts—hope and despair, joy and sorrow, faith and doubt, clarity and confusion, vitality and crushing defeat?
Life and death.
I closed my sermon yesterday with these words from Frederick Buechner’s The Hungering Dark:
So in Christ’s name, I commend this madness and this fantastic hope that the future belongs to God no less than the past, that in some way we cannot imagine holiness will return to our world. I know of no time when the world has been riper for its return, when the dark has been hungrier.
Thy kingdom come… we do shew forth the Lord’s death till he come… and maybe the very madness of our hoping will give him the crazy golden wings he needs to come on. I pray that he will come again and that you will make it your prayer. We need him, God knows.
Yes. We need this madness, this crazy hope.