Waiting for Easter

Cross by George Wharton JamesWhen I saw the priest swipe the Ash Wednesday cross on my baby’s forehead, I cried.

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” the priest said, and I looked at my round-cheeked, bobble-headed, newly-born gift, and I was terrified. He will die one day, I thought, and the simple truth of the human condition quickened inside me. I spent this last January in the hospital with that child, now a growing seven-year-old. He was gravely ill, and, for a time, the doctors didn’t know how to diagnose him.

If you’ve ever lingered in a children’s hospital, you know it is a hallowed place. It tears you up to see young bodies worn thin with illness and bloated with medication, to watch toddlers toting IV poles, and to find children who should be running and jumping and laughing bedridden.

There’s an instant respect and gratitude for the nurses and doctors and workers who battle death every day and long through the night.

There’s a strange kinship that comes with intuitively recognizing the fear and powerlessness on fellow parents’ faces stretched tight with worry.

We named our eldest son Dominic, because it means belonging to the Lord. I’ve always believed it, but facing the reality that our son didn’t in fact belong to us, that we couldn’t heal him or sustain him or hold on to him — it was a hard place.

It’s also a place where dysfunctional coping mechanisms come in handy. The ability to emotionally disconnect, to push past the pain and fear and instead smile at my weak and feverish child was a strange gift that made the days endurable. The breath-stealing moments came at night, when the room was quiet and my boy slept, and I curled in to the hard plastic couch and cried a soundless prayer, the kind where no words come and your body prays for you, the kind I last prayed when we miscarried a baby, the kind that comes from the gut.

© Copyright Renjishino1 and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright Renjishino1 and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

One afternoon I was able to slip down to the prayer chapel, where the thick doors shut out the muffled sound of the hospital. It was late December, so the nativity still sat at the front of a room framed by four stained glass images. Next to that was a kneeler facing Mecca. Opposite, a spreading tree curved over the wall. And behind that, a glass cabinet, filled with every religious symbol you can imagine. This was a place where no one could escape the truth of mortality, where a parent’s deepest fears confronted them face-to-face — a place where everyone reaches for God.

I had the chapel to myself, which was good, because emotion is loud and desperation bottles up inside, and all I could think was: NOT MY CHILD.

The past four years have wrung us dry as a family. Circumstances have squeezed tight from every possible angle, and brokenness and sin have nearly choked the life out of us, and as 2014 dawned I couldn’t face this new gauntlet.

“Please, God,” I begged. “Not that. Not my son.” I refused to bookend this with a rote request for God’s will to be done.

I was afraid of God’s will.

I know well the stories of Job and his inexplicable loss and Abraham climbing the mountain with his boy and the woman who dared to believe Elisha’s promise of a son only to lose him. I wanted life and health for my child. If something else came, well…the thought of it was, and is, intolerable.

I confessed this to a friend who gently reminded me that no, thank you must be a permissible prayer, because there was Another who prayed the cup of suffering be taken from him. And I held tight to that when the diagnosis finally came, when it turned out my son’s rare disease was treatable but had long term consequences, when we learned that he had cardiac damage that may or may not resolve, when the doctor quietly instructed us how to spot the signs of a heart attack in children, when we learned that at seven years old, he has heart disease. I am deeply thankful for that outcome. I know it could have been much worse, and that for many children it is.

© Copyright Jerzy Hulewicz and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright Jerzy Hulewicz and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

Writing medical updates for friends and family reminds me of this. I can’t make myself form the expected vocabulary. “Praise God,” seems like what I ought to say to preface every good report.

But it rings false in my mouth, because it feels myopic and premature. I’m grateful, yes, but I’d have much rather passed on the whole experience. And what of the other children? The ones who have only bad news to report?

Easter is far off and while the hope of God’s victory frames all of life, we live in the shadowlands where children’s hospitals are still packed full. I can’t stop thinking about the families who don’t get the “Praise God” report. Many days I find myself back in the hospital chapel, panicked in the face of suffering children, and shouting: NO, THANK YOU. Because disease and death? I hate them.

In the front of the chapel, there was a large book filled with written prayers. Pleading prayers, and resigned prayers, and prayers for strength, and messages of love to dead children. Because children die. Parents sit in that room and plead and cry and God doesn’t take the cup from their boy’s lips.

They are left bereft and empty-armed, and I can hardly breathe when I think of that played out. I can make no sense of the “why?” questions, and while my head does fine with accepting the sound theological parsing of suffering, my heart can’t swallow it. On this side of mortality, there is no answer to the reality of that kind of suffering.

There is only Jesus.

A wounded Savior, I’m desperate for him. It’s moments like those where I need the crucifix. I need to see God himself coming to enter into suffering and death. I need to see him draw near to us in the face of our doubt and grief and show us the wounds in his hands and his side.

© Copyright Michael Saludo  and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright Michael Saludo and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

When I hear stories of loss, a friend whose newborn baby died after four months of battling in the hospital, the woman whose five-year-old was suddenly given a few months to live, the dying mother who stores up letters for her four children to read after she’s gone, the missionary who came home on furlough to find a terminal cancer diagnosis, the Code Blues ringing through the hospital halls —it is too much for me. Death, our great enemy, steals in, and how can we endure it? 

I don’t know. There are no theological answers that make the pain bearable. Death is part of our world — a strange, beautiful, holy, and terrible thing about being human.

Lent gives me space to receive this, it brings me into the wilderness with Christ, who took on a body destined for dust. The ashes on all of our foreheads become a quiet chorus that whispers: death comes to us all. Though we must accept death, there is no way to normalize it. I think of this as I wonder how one copes with the suffering and untimely death of a child. Or of anyone, really, because is death ever timely when we were made for life?

I’m having trouble ending this post, wrapping it up with some sort of tidy conclusion, but I think that’s perhaps appropriate. There is no conclusion for the Lenten moments – no tidy answer for my empty-armed friends, for the mothers still pacing floors, for the hollowed-eyed fathers in the hospital coffee line, for all of us who cry wordless prayers of pain.

Together, we wait with the suffering, gasping, beautiful world, believing hard that Easter is coming.


Mundane Faithfulness

Out of the Tomb

The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth.  Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” – John 11:44

We Christians believe some wild things.  I skim through the familiar passage without fully registering the weight of the miracle.  The resurrection of Lazarus, the friend of Jesus.  Lazarus, who is stone-cold four-days dead.

Gothic_gravestone_(671048563) by Allen WatkinWe are familiar with the story: how Jesus was only a short journey away, how he mysteriously waits – despite his love for Lazarus and his sisters – how he comes to Bethany too late.   By the time Jesus and his disciples arrive, Lazarus’ disease has so overtaken him that he is sealed up in death, shut off from his family, from his community, from his life.

I read this and don’t have to wonder long what prisons there might be in my own soul.  I know them well, these rotten places I’ve long sealed off to keep the stench at bay.

“Take away the stone,” Jesus says to the bystanders, the ones who are grieving the loss of their friend.  What does it mean to let others roll the stone away from our sealed off hearts?  The thought makes me nervous.

I’m willing for Jesus to see what’s in there.  He already knows.  But others?  My friends and family?  I think about that kind of vulnerability, and I cringe: Lord, but it will smell!  

You see, somewhere along the way, I’ve bought the lie, the one that says I can be competent and together.  The one that works hard to be competent and feels shame over the ways I fall short.  Whatever we say in our creeds, we secretly believe that we can be good and not-a-mess.  I know this, because we do just about anything to keep people from finding out otherwise.

Christians, it should not be so.  My deadness should not be a shocking revelation.  The fact that you aren’t a Good Person should not be gossip-worthy news. That sin you’ve labeled with capital letters?  The one you gasp and shake your head over? It’s just a slightly different hue of death.  

© Copyright Silvia10 and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright Silvia10 and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

It’s laughable to think of a zombie playing at the game of keeping-up-appearances.  The only thing more absurd is a crowd of zombies posturing in front of each other.  We are talking about opportunities for resurrection.  The hope of healing.  The doorway out of death and into life.  There’s no room for corpses to tsk their tongue at someone else’s rottenness.  There’s only room for love and the prayerful footsteps that dare to approach the door of another’s pain. It’s hallowed ground, this sacred space of someone’s encounter with Jesus.

Besides, we should have learned by now that our expectations are all off-kilter.  I’m beginning to see that isolation is really an illusion.  I guarantee you: whatever tomb you are in, whatever disease besets you today, whatever threatens to choke the life out of you – you are not the only one.

If we can bravely walk into the light, we might not find a community holding their noses and retching.  We might find other once-corpses who also know the bitterness of death.  We might find friends and family, ones who have grieved over our suffering, ones who cheer at our struggle for transformation.  We might find someone who looks us in the eyes and shares a knowing glance: “You, too?  You’ve worn that grave-cloth?  Alas!  I’ve known the inside of that tomb well.”

Because we all are the once-dead.  Whether in this moment you lie trapped with Lazarus or stand questioning with grieving Mary – you can’t escape the reality of death, the utter hopelessness of our situation.

© Copyright Jessie Eastland  and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright Jessie Eastland and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

“If only you had been here, Lord,” we say, crouched low in the rubble of our broken world.  “If only you had been there, he would not have died.”  The groaning of the world is too great for us to bear.  “If only you had been here, Lord.  I would not have died. My pain, my deadness, my illness, my depression, my besetting addiction, my you-fill-in-the-blank would not have crushed the life out of me.

Jesus does not tell Mary and Martha why he waited.  Why the few mile walk took two full days.  Why he knew Lazarus was sick but didn’t heal him.

“I am the resurrection and the life,” he says instead.  “Do you believe it?”

What a question.  Do I believe? In the darkness of the tomb, face to face with the living death of my own sin and the bitter poison of sin done me, do I believe that I can yet see the glory of God?

Is it possible?  Can his glory manifest in such a rotten, dying place?  Can good come from seemingly-needless suffering?  From tragic sudden loss and circumstances that flay us with their “if only’s”?  From the endless evil that hounds the most vulnerable?

We lie paralyzed in the tomb.  We stand grieving outside it. In this dark and seeming-hopeless moment, Christ is who he is.  He is life.  At his Word, death is overcome.

Lazarus comes forth, but his hands and his feet are bound.  Unable to create or to go, he cannot be fully human, until, at the command of Christ, he is completely loosed. 

He cannot be fully known until, at the command of Christ, his face is unmasked.

I wonder if in that moment Lazarus felt a flicker of fear.  Casting off death requires one to truly live.  Or perhaps he was so hungry for life that his reborn fingers ripped those last shreds of linen off his face.

Perhaps he was, like me, sick to death of death – eager to be rid of the paralyzing bonds.  I like to think that in the darkness of the tomb, his eyes fluttered open.  His heart quickened, stronger than before, his newly reborn blood pumping hard in his chest.  Nerves tingled, ones that were long asleep now quickening, and then.  Then, there was the voice.  The one he knew so well.  Full of life and joy and delight.

© Copyright Nicolas Perez and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

© Copyright Nicolas Perez and licensed for reuse at Wikimedia.

I think Lazarus didn’t wait a moment.  Bound up like that, he must have been unsteady.  Tottering.  Hopping and crawling, perhaps, until he had escaped  from death into the presence of Resurrection himself.  I see his eyes, blinking at the brightness as the rags come off.  His gaze fixed on Jesus.  Can you sense the breeze?  I feel it stirring even here among us.  That whisper of fresh air that blows away the stench of death.  It smells good.  It smells like Life.