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 ago, and 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.