Originally posted July 19, 2010
You can’t miss it. If you travel that road, you will see it. Looming over the highway for all motorists to see: a billboard-sized picture of a mangled motorcycle with the ominous declaration “Death is forever.” Every time I pass it, I get the message; I never intend to read it, it is just that prominent, that unavoidable. That . . . gripping.
And every time I see that sign three faces rush to my mind: faces that are forever never-changing. Paxten, always 3 years and 7 months old—even after his younger sister turns four and then five. Matthew, staying 12 while his twin rushes into high school. Caleb, forever 11: his younger brothers eventually matriculating to grades he never got to start. And I just wonder: How can you face forever when your boy is gone?
How can you imagine a future without your child, your parents, your beloved? I gotta tell you, I wouldn’t want to face tomorrow without my beagle, much less my people, and I’m not kidding, not even a little bit. Death is forever. And it hurts. It hurts on the big days (the ones you know will be hard): the anniversaries, the birthdays, the holidays. But it hurts on the little days too: when the family gathers and one is forever absent, when you go to the restaurant that will forever be her restaurant or his, when you go to the ball field, the bookstore, the band concert. Everywhere. Always. Forever.
I hurt so much for loved ones who are bereaved; my heart screams about fairness and longing. Yet if I hurt for them this much what must it be like for the childless mother, the lonely widow, the grieving child. I can’t bear even the thought of it. And that’s because, well, it can’t be borne—not by human hearts anyway.
At that thought, my soul stretches out, finding hope within reach. Because for me, on account of my faith, while I know death is forever, I also know life is eternal. I can rest in that assurance. So, I slip my hand into the nail-scarred hand and fall deep into Christ’s embrace. There, I feel the tears of Jesus mixing with my own. There I am reminded that even when I walk through valleys that are permanently shadowed by death, I do not walk alone. And somehow, because Jesus lives, I really can face tomorrow. Forever.
Published August 29, 2009 when Baker was 13 years old.
Over and over again that week at divinity school, I was asked how my summer had been. I was seeing folk I'd not seen since last semester and the question was more of a greeting than an inquiry. I knew that, but I stumbled every time to say something that could sum up the last three months. It was a hard summer in many ways, and it felt almost deceptive to dismiss the greeting with “Fine, thanks. You?”
Eventually, I settled on a response sort of like this: “Actually, it was hard: I experienced a lot of losses this summer. Most of them were minor, some were a little more unsettling, and one was nearly overwhelming. And yet, this summer I witnessed the goodness of God in remarkable ways.”
It’s true. The summer was hard, but there were some amazing, almost miraculous moments. I was able to see those moments, in part, because of a conversation I had with my son towards the end of July. It went something like this.
“Hey Mom I think I thought of something pretty profound.”
“Oh yeah, Baker, what was that?”
“Well I was looking at fireflies, ya know?”
“See, it’s like they are all around us in the dark, and we don't realize it. Then they light up and suddenly we know they've been there all along.”
“And I think that’s kind of like Jesus is. Sometimes, we can't really see Jesus because of what’s going on in our life.”
“Right. And then something happens to remind us that Jesus has been there the whole time.”
“Yeah.” Baker, hands on hips, grinned. “That’s pretty profound don’t you think?”
"I do indeed, Baker-boy, I do indeed."
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
John 1:1-5 NRSV
“Similarly, the spirit also helps us out in our weakness. For example, we don’t know beans about praying, but the Spirit himself speaks up for our unexpressed concerns. And he who x-rays our hearts understands the Spirit’s approach, since the Spirit represents Christians before God.” Romans 8:26-27 The Cotton Patch Version
Clarence Jordan (translator of The Cotton Patch Version) is right. I don't know beans about praying. Prayer absolutely blows my mind: God, the creator of the universe, wants to be in communication with me? I really can't grasp that.
But I pray anyway. I pray to music. I pray Scripture. And I pray for loved ones. I pray for Barbara and her two boys—their husband and father died suddenly this past January. A friend who has pitiful insurance and horrific health problems. Cathy whose younger brother died way too young leaving a wife and children. Teachers whose salaries have been cut or who have lost their jobs—particularly those among them who are single parents. A loved one in a new job. My nephew-in-love who goes off to college next year and his dad who has Parkinson’s disease. Niece Rachel who is about to start her senior year. My mother-in-law with MD. And then there’s this: my friend Kim who beat breast cancer last year just before her son, now 11, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer—the same Kim who has just been diagnosed with colon cancer. This week, her son, who was just denied access because of his age to clinical trials that might save his life, will be going to NIH in Maryland to explore further treatment options with his dad (Kim’s husband) while Kim faces her own cancer surgery back in Oklahoma.
Yeah, I gotta tell ya. I don't know beans about praying.
But thanks be to God, knowing is not necessary. Romans 8:26-27 (NRSV) says “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (emphasis mine)
And when I read that I sigh: a sigh of relief. I sigh because suddenly I remember, I’m not alone. I sigh, I breathe, remembering that Barbara is not alone, and Cathy isn't and neither is my nephew.The Spirit is sighing with me, magnifying those sighs, translating them into words that I can't seem to find, building them into bridges from the hearts of the hurting to the very heart of God. I sigh knowing my Rachel has a bridge and my mother-in-law can cross it too cause this bridge is seriously wheelchair accessible. And I sigh so deep within my spirit, beyond the flood of tears that chokes my heart for a little boy who just wants to play baseball with his brothers and for his mother who wants to watch him. I sigh with relief because as I do, I find that the Spirit is already there. The bridge is already built. The words don’t have to be found. “And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes” for me.
Even though I don’t know beans about praying.
“One quick question,” I said to my pastor. He was heading back to his lunch table with a full cup of coffee; I’d finished my lunch and wanted a word with him before I had to leave.
“Oh hi, Aileen,” he said, more gracious than most would have been, having been caught between coffee and dessert. “What’s up?”
“A lot. For one thing I just lied to my pastor." I realized in that moment what he no doubt already had guessed. “My question is neither quick nor singular.” Guy Sayles smiled, relaxed and unhurried. I forged ahead.
“My friend’s son—he’s 10—has inoperable brain cancer. He got bad news yesterday, really bad news. His mother and I were talking last night, and she asked me some tough questions. I’m only in the second semester of seminary here. I have no idea what to say.”
"I’m not sure theological degrees give you the words to say under those circumstances," Guy said, speaking the frustrating truth of pastoral care.
“My friend's question was this: ‘If God is omnipotent as we believe God is, then why hasn't my son been healed?’ Good question right? So, ya know, why?”
Setting his coffee on the counter, Guy shook his head. “Well the first thing I would ask myself is, 'Is this really an appropriate time for a theological discussion?' It probably isn't. If not, I would say, ‘I don’t know. I’m so sorry. I love you.’”
I found this to be brilliant instruction. How many times do we spout off theological treatises when it just isn't the time? The person really needs to hear, “What you are going through is awful and I’m sorry that you are going through it because you matter to me.” And we start quoting scripture, telling them about God’s will or the nature of creation. Sometimes, we need to say less in order to say more.
Guy continued. “If it is a good time for a theological discussion, then I might say, ‘Well, God doesn't always get God's way.’”
He must have noticed my hesitation because he elaborated. “When people disagree with me on this, I ask them, ‘Does God always get God's way with you?’ Of course not. If it is true with one person, it must be true with others. And if God doesn't always get God's way with people, then God doesn’t always get God's way in the world. After all, if God did, then why would Jesus have commanded us to pray for God’s will to be done? It would just be done whether we prayed or not.” (Intriguing, huh?)
“But,” Guy said, “If God is omnipotent, and we are Christians, then we believe
Christianity is confusingly full of contradictions. The equations just aren't as simple as we would like them to be.”
I knew he was right. But what could I tell my friend that could comfort her, if only momentarily?
“There is one simple formula, though,” Guy went on. “God loves us. God just loves us. God always, completely, beyond-our-imagination loves us.”
“So, when our hearts are breaking. . .”