From All Things New
A friend of mine, a gifted playwright, won an award for his script about a man dying of AIDS. The protagonist is an endearing young artist who grows weaker and more frail through the course of the play. Even so, he has a touching compulsion to take Polaroid shots of everyone and everything he cares about, looking at the images as they appear and tucking them away in his satchel. It is a poignant obsession, of course, because he is dying, and no attempt to hang on to his world will prevent that. We the audience experience a sad empathy for him: Poor fellow – he won’t be needing those. And miss the point entirely. We are he.
You will say the last good-bye to your parents. It is inevitable.
God forbid you have to say the last good-bye to your child.
What is it, my readers, that you hope to hang on to? If you love your athletic condition, surely you realize it cannot go on forever; eventually your body will succumb to age and your performance will diminish every year. Inexorably. If you relish your mind, you understand that your mind will dim with age; even if you dodge the great leveler dementia, you will forget many things, and may eventually have the mental capacity of a small child. And the people you love? You will lose them or they you; your very life is but a passing breeze, “Each of us is but a breath,” (Psalm 3:5). The fall and winter of your life will come; they are perhaps upon many of you even now. There is no holding back that winter.
You understand, dear friends, that you will say good-bye to everyone you love and everything you hold dear.
I am not a fatalist, not even a pessimist. I find joy in many things. I am practically a hedonist in my love for life. A novel based on the life of Vincent van Gogh bears a title I used to swear by: Lust for Life. But if we are going to embrace the hope God is so lavishly extending us, we must be honest about the nature of this life. As Henri Nouwen admitted:
Our life is a short time in expectation, a time in which sadness and joy kiss each other at every moment. There is a quality of sadness that pervades all the moments of our lives. It seems that there is no such thing as a clear-cut pure joy, but that even in the most happy moments of our existence we sense a tinge of sadness. In every satisfaction, there is an awareness of limitations. In every success, there is a fear of jealousy. Behind every smile, there is a tear. In every embrace, there is loneliness. In every friendship, distance. And in all forms of light, there is the knowledge of surrounding darkness.
Or as Paul said, “And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world,” (1 Corinthians 15:19).
The first time I lost a dear, dear friend was in May of 1998. Brent and I had just coauthored our first book; we shared a counseling practice. He was killed in a climbing accident on the first retreat we led together. I remember the grief well; it was excruciating. I remember saying I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. Death is such a violent assault on God’s design for our lives, our souls experience it as trauma. It took me years to recover.
And then this summer it happened again. I know exactly where I was when the phone call came; I can describe to you the gravel driveway and the bushes in front of me, the woodpile beneath them. Trauma does that – it sears memories into your soul like a branding iron.
Craig and I met in 1979. We shared a love of backpacking and wild beauty. We both had come out of the drug culture and into the Jesus movement. We had worked as janitors at the same church. Over the years we watched each other start our families, move to new jobs. Seven years ago he was diagnosed with leukemia. He went through a number of research trials; some of them took him to hell and back. But this spring there were promising signs – the new protocol seemed to be working marvelously. His doctors said he was a month or two away from remission. Suddenly he began to have abdominal pains; it struck in May, as it had with Brent, a timing that carried the same sort of extra stab as my father dying on Father’s Day weekend. Craig and his wife, Lori, had to miss Luke’s wedding to get down to Houston for more tests.
A CT scan revealed the worst of all nightmares – his cancer had morphed into lymphoma. Some of you have lost a loved one to lymphoma, and you know what that diagnosis means. It is a voracious and untreatable cancer; it is the kind of diagnosis where they simply tell you, “Get your affairs in order.”
The thing about grief is, it opens the door to the room in your soul where all your other grief is stored. Which can be a good thing if you handle it well, take the opportunity to heal the neglected grief. But still. Life begins to feel like it is only and always going to be loss. After I threw my phone across the neighbor’s yard, I took a very long walk. Then Stasi, Sam, Susie, and I sat on the porch for an hour or so. We cried, but said very little. What is to be said? Finally, Sam spoke:
“There is only Jesus.”
Sam is a keen observer of people and situations; he has a quick eye for the truth no one else wants to admit. He is the boy in the fable who points out that the emperor is buck naked. It was only two months since he had buried his first child, Patrick. Now it would be Craig. He knew what this meant for me. For all of us. But I think he had also traveled pretty quickly to the inevitable – that one day he will be getting that phone call, carrying the news about his mom or me.
“Yes,” I said. “There is only Jesus. What you believe about the kingdom changes everything.”
Odd things come to your mind at times like these. I thought of that passage from Ecclesiastes, claiming, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting,” (7:21). I’ve always hated that verse. I’ve been to houses of mourning; those were the hardest visits I have made in my life. When Brent was killed, I was the one to bring the news to his wife and two boys. I will never forget the wailing of those boys. Now I would have to make another of those visits; not just a visit, but to linger there. I was thinking about writing this book as we sat on the porch, and the kindness of God in having me deep in these very truths at a time of massive loss, recurring loss. Solomon was simply trying to say that until we face the facts, we are deluded human beings, “For death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart,” (v. 2b).
There is only the kingdom, friends. Everything else will slip through your fingers, no matter how strong your grasp. Why do we fight this hope, keeping it at arm’s length? We nod in appreciation but ask it to stay outside our yard. It is as though some power or force is colluding with our deepest fears and keeping us all under a spell. Pascal understood:
Nothing is so important to man as his own state, nothing is so formidable to him as eternity; and thus it is not natural that there should be men indifferent to the loss of their existence, and to the perils of everlasting suffering. They are quite different with regard to all other things. They are afraid of mere trifles; they foresee them; they feel them. And this same man who spends so many days and night in rage and despair for the loss of office, or for some imaginary insult to his honor, is the very one who knows without anxiety and without emotion that he will lose all by death. It is a monstrous thing to see in the same heart and at the same time this sensibility to trifles and this strange insensibility to the greatest objects. It is an incomprehensible enchantment, and a supernatural slumber, which indicates as its cause an all-powerful force.
Pascal was bewildered, dumbfounded. What is this dark enchantment that keeps the human race from facing the inevitable? You cannot protect your hope until you face the inevitable; maturity means living without denial. But we are mainlining denial; we are shooting it straight into our veins. We are grasping at every possible means to avoid the inevitable. We give our hopes to all sorts of kingdom counterfeits and substitutes; we give our hearts over to mere morsels. We mistake the promise of the kingdom for the reality and give our being over to its shadow.
But when you raise the white flag, when you finally accept the truth that you will lose everything one way of another, utterly, irrevocably – then the Restoration is news beyond your wildest dreams.