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Life Eternal

It’s late August. Another summer is dwindling away at an alarming pace. I should be busy preparing for the inevitable crush of fall activities or finalizing worship themes or getting my head around what our family’s schedule might look like come September 2 or tackling some writing deadlines or readying myself for planning meetings or “networking” (such a loathsome word) or getting together with important people or praying or studying or some other virtuous activity.

There are so many things that I should be doing as the last grains of summer slip through the glass. But I find it difficult to do any of them. Because a little girl has died. A little girl has died, don’t you see? There is this ugly fracture in the cosmos that wasn’t there a few days agoand everything else seems small and trivial.

It’s not very fashionable to talk about Jesus as the victor over death any more.  At least it doesn’t seem to be in some circles. We’re fine with talking about Jesus’ social ethic, with his words about love and peace and forgiveness. We very much like the idea of Jesus cracking the whip in the temple and putting all those greedy religious merchants in their place. We’re quite fond of the Jesus who came to proclaim good news to the poor and to challenge a corrupt and brutal empire. We are happy to jump on board the Jesus train so long as we stay on the track of mostly terrestrial concerns, as long Jesus basically conforms to and validates our image of a good twenty-first century postmodern liberal with their collection of social concerns. Yes, we like this Jesus very much.

But we’re a little embarrassed about the other Jesus. The Jesus who performs head-spinning miracles and casts out demons and talks about his father’s house with many rooms and raises up little dead girls and…. Well, these are mostly metaphors, aren’t they? All this supernatural business, all this talk of “heaven,” all these stories about “resurrection”—this is all mostly just a bit of poetry, right? Nobody takes all that stuff literally, surely. Primitive folks who thought the earth was flat and had never heard of penicillin believed all those weird and wonderful things, but we’re far too sophisticated for that, these days. We know that Jesus’ concerns were mostly political and social in nature. All that supernatural-y language is mere poetic window-dressing around the call to be better people and make the world a better place. Right?

On Saturday morning as I stood at the graveside of a ten-year-old girl in the cold rain, these questions took on a bit of a different feel. These are the moments where the rubber hits the road. When you look out at a devastated family burying a daughter, a sister, a granddaughter, the questions come rushing in.   Are all these words about heaven and hope beyond the grave just flowery ornamentation to soothe the pain at times like these?  Is any of this really true? Does Jesus work for situations as awful as little girls and coffins and cemeteries on cold, rainy Saturdays in August?

The dichotomy that I have set up here is, of course, a false one. I believe that Jesus was and is concerned about this life and the one to come. We are never asked to choose between a Jesus whose concerns are exclusively social and political and a Jesus who only offers a hope that for beyond this world.  No, no, no.  It is always both/and not either/or.  Those prone to fashioning an extra-terrestrial Jesus who cared little for the concerns of this earth would do well to heed the words of Christ from the gospel of Luke, ““The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free” (Luke 4:18).  And those who prefer a more earth-bound Jesus could perhaps cast a glance to the words of the Apostle Paul: “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied (1 Corinthians 15:19).

I’m very grateful for the Jesus who taught us to pray that God’s will would be done on earth as in heaven.  We desperately need this Jesus.  But as I walked through the events of last weekend and as I continue to grope around in the fog that death leaves in its wake, I find myself clinging to the Jesus who holds out the hope of God’s will being realized in heaven to ease the pain of all the things that will never be done on earth.

Because a little girl has died, don’t you see? There’s this ugly fracture… And for this, we need the Jesus who stretches out his wounded hands and drags us to heights we could never attain on our own, to places that no inspiration or example or teaching could ever get us. To life eternal. 

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Robert Martin #

    Thank you, Ryan… I think in moments like you described, those moments where we scream to God “How can you, a good God, let something this crappy happen?” everything comes together… we wrestle… and fail to understand… and just simply hope.

    August 27, 2014
  2. mmartha #

    I’ve appreciated your again speaking unhesitatingly of this loss and trauma.
    My daughter-in-law is having a difficult time adjusting to my granddaughter’s entering college, a few hours away from home in a dorm but that vibrancy of personality is somewhere else. Cell phones, Skype, everything is in operation for a few moments. And then tears.
    But the fog of death, as your wrote, brings a heavenly rather than earthly distance and we grope – “and just simply hope” ( Robert Martin).
    Oh, my Jesus.

    August 27, 2014
  3. Robert, Martha, thank you for these good words.

    August 28, 2014
  4. Joyce #

    In such times as you describe here, I recall the words in that song which I am sure you know–“..we’ll understand it, all–by and by…”

    August 29, 2014
    • Thank you, Joyce. I look forward to the day when the wounds of this world will be, if not explicable, then at least healed and forgotten.

      August 29, 2014
  5. This is beautiful. You are such a gifted writer.

    After a dear friend died last fall, life beyond death is pretty much all I think about. Well, yes, I do also think about donuts and picking up broccoli at the store on the way home and other quotidian things. But mostly I think about life eternal. So thanks for this lovely articulation of it.

    Peace to you.

    September 5, 2014
    • Thank you, Chris. I really appreciate these kind words.

      I, too, have been thinking a lot about life beyond death. I’ve been struck by how long it is taking to emerge from the shadow of this particular funeral. Like you, I think about it often… Sometimes everything else that I do seems utterly meaningless in the face of such a monstrosity. But there are donuts and broccoli… and volleyball and swimming and guitar lessons and the crush of fall kids’ activities… Life goes on and eternity recedes into the background, as it must, I suppose. Until the next instance that will remind us of our desperate need for it.

      September 6, 2014

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