Resurrection

Awaiting that Day: A Meditation on Death, Lament, and the Possibility of Hope

Today I will join hundreds of other people in remembering something that no one wants to be true, the loss of a child. My dear brother in Jesus, Pierson, was more than just a little boy. His family has rightly described him as a superhero, and this is exactly what he was. A resilience and energy that could only come from some secret ability. A capacity and desire to live life to the fullest, even when it was complicated by an enemy that never left his side. A smile (when you didn't get a growl, which still made you smile) that lit up a room in unforgettable ways. A quiet soul, until he opened up, and then there was no place for you to speak. 

I was not nearly as close to Pierson as so many, and yet he has left an indelible mark on my life (and countless other people can say the same). One memory I will always cherish stands out:

Kris was throwing an event for the children's ministry at church last summer and was hosting an art party. Pierson was there painting his heart out, making sure that every color received ample use. But the adult size table, plus the easel on top made it quite a stretch to reach the top of the canvas for my little friend. Before you know it, he was sitting in my lap and we were collaboratively painting a masterpiece on my canvas. I would imitate his every move. He thought it was hilarious. He would put the back of the paintbrush just under his lower lip while he considered the next color. I would do the same, and a virtually simultaneous sigh of consideration would emerge. I must say, it was a brilliant work, and I couldn't have done it without him. He took the painting home. I took that memory with me and will never forget it. 

In my academic work I focus especially on questions of trauma, human suffering, and death. What is the Christian response to these things and how can Christians understand what God has done in Jesus as Good News in a world filled with so much pain? One might think that someone who has devoted their life to the exploration of these questions would have something meaningful to say at a time like this. But in many ways, I am at a loss for words. 

I have spent the last six months trying to think of "what I would say" to people who find themselves in this place, who are trapped in their circumstances and suffering and who want nothing more than to be delivered, to find hope. When Pierson died we told our boys and tried to create a space for them to process that their friend would be absent in a way they had never experienced before. We asked if they had any questions, which they did, and we did our best to answer them. Then my youngest asked this question:

"When God remakes the world, will Pierson be there?"

"Yes," we told him, "yes he most definitely will." But hope for the future is an incomplete solution to the reality that he has died. Christians believe this because we understand that death (the result of the Powers of Sin and Death) is an enemy. Not only is it an enemy, but it is one that Christians believe has been broken in the death and resurrection of Jesus and will ultimately be defeated when the Triune God makes "all things new". 

This dissonance, that Christians have hope, and that death is a terrible thing which the work of Jesus is in the process of overcoming, has given me a new appreciation for the richness of lament. 

Lament in Scripture is most often associated with the subset of the book of Psalms classified as lament psalms. Within this group there are subsections of various styles and contents. (For a great book about this see Glenn Pemberton's Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms.) Here is what I am learning in this season about lament:

Lament is not sadness, or grief, or anger. It can be any of those things and more. But at its core, lament is a witnessing to God of the ways in which our lives in the world are not as they should be. They are sometimes a form of protest, or a plea for deliverance, or an accusation of injustice. In the end, they all in their own particular way say, "The world isn't supposed to be like this."

My children should be wearing their superhero shirts today because they are playing with Pierson, not because they are gathered to remember his life which was taken from him. The innocent shouldn't suffer, and frankly, no one should. Christians understand this because we await a renewed world in which grief and pain and death are no more. And the gap between the world we await and the world in which we live brings us pain and longing and even hope. 

I have full confidence that the God who raised Jesus from the dead and who broke the power of sin and death in the cross and resurrection will make all things right in the end. Tonight I will join millions of Orthodox Christians around the world as we shout Christo Anesti! (Christ is risen!). And we will join our voices in the liturgy that has sustained the church for centuries:

Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered; let those who hate him flee from before his face!

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life
.

This is the day which the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!

It is this hope to which we cling on days like this. The hope that Christ has defeated death and is the giver of life. But what do you say? How do you speak to what did happen, not what we hoped would happen? The following is where I have arrived in reflecting on the loss of my dear brother in Jesus, Pierson. This is my testimony as I gather with others today to lament to God and confess my hope in the resurrected Son of God:

I believe that on that Day, when the Triune God remakes the world, that death and suffering will be no more. And on days like this, I wish that Day was yesterday. Christo Anesti! Maranatha!

The World was Not Worthy of Them: Martyrdom, Resurrection, and the Death of Death

I have found myself deeply conflicted in the last few days after news broke of the martyrdom of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians earlier this week. A whole range of emotions and reactions have moved in and around me as this photo has burned itself into my memory. 

  • What kind of people are capable of such acts of depravity and wickedness? What has become of the Image of God in them that this is even possible?
  • What would be my last words before my gruesome death?
  • Does the way of Jesus as the Prince of Peace mean anything to people who have so aligned themselves with the powers and principalities that they can commit such acts?
  • Why do the churches I know worry about the sound system and the thermostat when our brothers and sisters are being martyred? 
  • More seriously, why do I care about those things too?
  • How do I speak to my kids about this in a way that is honest, redemptive, and that equips them to live in a world where not only such things happen but that they are public, blatant, and unavoidable?
  • How should my family and my children respond to the people of Muslim faith who are our neighbors, my children's classmates, and our fellow human beings?
  • Why doesn't God just go "Old Testament" on these people and save us all the death and heartbreak?
  • What does it say about my own heart that my knee-jerk reaction for justice is the suffering and destruction of someone who is as valuable in the eyes of God as myself or my wife and children?
  • How should these martyrs be remembered in my own life, in my family, and in my church? 
  • How does this shape foreign policy, domestic policy, and the way in which I live among my neighbors?
  • Why does the church seem so deafeningly silent?

I have tried, as I feel emotionally capable, to hear some reflections of these and other questions. Jonathan Storment has written a piece that has moved me this week. Miroslav Volf has reminded me that my distance from those people is not nearly as far as I would like to think. And the brilliant, even if long and complex account from The Atlantic by Graeme Wood reminds us that answers and solutions are not easy to come by. 

And while all of these questions and emotions have been swirling inside of me I have been drawn back to a text from the book of Hebrews:

They were put to death by stoning; 
they were sawed in two;
they were killed by the sword. 
They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, 
destitute, persecuted and mistreated —
 
THE WORLD WAS NOT WORTHY OF THEM.
(Hebrews 11:27-28a, NIV)

It is undeniable that the world was not worthy of them. But what is left without resolution at the moment is the reaction of those who follow the same Lord who was on the lips of these men as they were martyred. 

I was moved at the story reported over at Christianity Today about the way in which the families of those who were martyred were reacting to the loss of their fathers, brothers, husbands, and fellow believers...

Beshir Kamel thanked ISIS for not editing out the men's declaration of belief in Christ because he said this had strengthened his own faith. He added that the families of the ex-patriate workers are "congratulating one another" and not in despair: "We are proud to have this number of people from our village who have become martyrs," he told the programme.
He said: "Since the Roman era, Christians have been martyred and have learned to handle everything that comes our way. This only makes us stronger in our faith because the Bible told us to love our enemies and bless those who curse us."

This is a remarkable response to an experience that is in many ways beyond words. 

But perhaps this is the problem. 

The word where we get the English word martyr is the word that we often translate as witness

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8, NIV)

There has been a tendency at different times in the history of the church to value martyrdom above all other things. In fact, at different times in Christian history, there have been those who teach others to actively pursue situations and outcomes which would result in their martyrdom. We think back to the early Church Father Tertullian whose statement, "We multiply whenever we are mown down by you; the blood of Christians is seed." has evolved into the powerful sentiment: The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. 

And this is undoubtedly true. The surrendering of one's life for the sake of the gospel is the most powerful testimony to the reality of the Kingdom of God on earth. It defies explanation, it destroys the power of the oppressor and the perpetrator, it transforms a gruesome death into a moment where the life of God is made manifest for all to see. The Hebrew writer is correct: The world is not worthy of them. 

There is a level of conviction, a deep, visceral commitment that the Gospel is in fact true, that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again that is necessary to live the kind of life that can be lost. And as a part of a culture that fears death and the unknown, it is increasingly difficult to live our lives as people who are martyrs/witnesses, who embody the reality of the resurrection, and who celebrate the death of death. 

CHRISTUS VICTOR - A Rant-Poem of Sorts by Josh Graves

I know that many people feel powerless about how to respond to the martyrdom of these 21 men, to the millions of people who have been murdered or displaced or traumatized, who may still be alive but are living a real-life hell, due to war, famine, poverty, sex trafficking, forced labor, genital mutilation, forced marriages, AIDS, malaria, ebola, loneliness, depression, anxiety, fear, child abuse, domestic violence, sexual abuse, cancer, PTSD, and envy and hatred of their neighbor. 

How can we possibly live well in a world filled with so much death, so much suffering, so much hell, so little redemption, so little relief, so little escape from the pain, the anxiety, the loss, and the inevitability of our own death?

The answer that many of us who claim to follow Jesus is this:

We are witnesses who have seen in our own lives and who believe that in Jesus there is both resurrection and the death of death. 

We believe that not only does death not have the final word, it has an expiration date. 

Not only do we believe that death cannot destroy us, we believe that we will be alive in a way in which death no longer has power over us, and when that day comes, we, together with all of God's people will be witnesses of the death of death. 

We believe that we are learning what it means to give our lives away because we have been given new lives, ones that cannot be taken from us by violence, by illness, by age, by tragedy, or by death itself.

We believe that in Jesus Christ, death is doomed. 

And that is a reality that no one, no power, no circumstance, a no kind of death can take away.