For my friend Pete….
You never know what to expect when you log in to Facebook. As we all know, the site could dramatically change at any moment without warning.
One thing you can expect to see, however, are status updates you didn’t want to read or know anything about.
That happened to me on Monday, but this time it wasn’t a Farmville update, a plea to repost a message to prove you’re a Christian, or link to a YouTube video that isn’t really that funny.
That would have been better. Much better.
Instead, I opened up Facebook to read that my friend’s brother had died in the middle of the night, suddenly and unexpectedly.
A couple of weeks ago my friend Pete sent me a text message asking me to pray for his brother who was sick. Of course, I said that I would.
Over the past several years I have gotten many prayer requests from Pete for his brother Dan, who had struggled with mental illness for several years.
I can still remember when we were in high school and Pete’s brother, one of the most generous, brilliant, and kind people you could ever hope to meet, suffered a mental breakdown while away at law school. It was a tragic moment that rocked the family and everyone that knew him. A bright and promising future had been snuffed out in a moment. It wasn’t fair. For him or his family.
My friend Pete had to grow up over night as he took on the challenge of caring for the older brother who for so long had cared for him. To this day I don’t know how he did it. He went from being just one of the guys, without a care in the world, to having a level of maturity far beyond his years as he bore a burden of responsibility no person should have to bear.
Over the next ten or so years Dan would have good days and not so good days. So, when I got the prayer request from Pete last week, I figure he was just having another bad day. I never imagined that Sunday would be his last day on earth. Neither did his family.
I can’t imagine their pain, especially his parents. No parent should ever have to bury their child. But in their typical family fashion Pete’s mom demonstrated an other worldly level of grace and strength as yesterday she sat in front of the coffin of her oldest child as his siblings eulogized their lost hero.
I had the great honor and privileged of serving as a pall bearer at the funeral. As I sat in the church listening to the stories of Dan’s faith, generosity, and kindness, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so impotent. I had no idea what I could possibly say to my heartbroken friend and I knew that even if I tried to speak, my words would be of little comfort.
I don’t know about my friend Pete, but it is at times like this that I struggle the most with my faith. I’m sure the same is true for many of you. I know the tone that is often set at Christian funerals today, is one of celebration that our lost ones are now in the hands of their Lord. And perhaps that is appropriate when our grandparents die. But when the person lying in the coffin is in their 3os, and I can only watch helplessly as my friend and his family are racked with grief and pain, I don’t really want to praise God. I don’t want to put words in my friend’s mouth, but I don’t think he was wanting to do much praising either.
Instead of hymns of praise, I want to cry out with the Psalmist
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.
I do not and never will understand why God chooses to intervene in some moments and not in others. With a word, God could have healed Dan and spared his family so much pain and suffering. But for whatever reason, God did not give healing to Dan. And that makes me angry. Angry that Dan is not still with us. Angry that my friend and his family are having to endure such an senseless tragedy. And angry that the God who I preach about so often, who is supposed to be the source of life, has instead allowed death to win the day.
So, in moments like this I find myself asking whether or not this God is someone worth believing in. He is supposed to be “the great physician” and yet He didn’t act. For many people this is enough to renounce their faith in what seems to be either an impotent or callous God. And if this was the final word on Dan’s life, then I would agree and join them in agnostic protest.
But I don’t believe it was the final word.
Try as I might, I cannot escape the story of the cross and resurrection.
If you recognize the words of the Psalmist it is most likely because you heard them come from the lips of Jesus as he hung on the cross: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” If we were to stay at Golgotha, these words would be the final death nail in an epic tradegy. The words of a Son abandoned by his Father.
But the story does not end there and because it does not end there, death was not the final word. Nor was this the cry of a Son abandoned by his Father.
Every word that proceeded from the mouth of Jesus went forth with great intentionality, drawing the people of God into the story of faith, retelling it in a way they had never seen or even imagined before.
When Jesus cries out from the cross, he speaks the words of all of us who have suffered through loss, “where are you God?” So often, it is in these moments that God feels most distant, that he has abandoned us, his children.
But when the Son of God speaks these words from the cross, He is not crying out in hopeless desperation. Rather, as God incarnate He is answering this immortal question with definitive and divine presence. Even in this, the darkest moment in human history, when mankind has beaten, cursed, and murdered their Creator, God does not abandoned his people, even though, as the criminal on the cross pointed out, he could have called down angels to carry him away and smite his enemies.
Instead, in this darkest of moments God chooses to stay with us, incarnating his love in a moment of deepest pain. Where is God in our darkest hour? Standing before us with his arms spread wide ready to heal our pain through his suffering.
But, comforting though this may be, it is still not the end of the story.
God does not leave us at the cross. Death is not the final word.
After the cross, there comes the resurrection. Without it, death is hopeless and all our words of comfort are empty.
With it, painful though death assuredly is, we can endure the pain and look forward with hope and confidence to the day when that same Jesus who walked out of the tomb and conquered death will return to bring the words of John to completion:
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
I don’t think Dan’s story ended on Sunday night and I don’t think our stories will end when we are the ones lying in the coffin as our loved ones gather around us to mourn.
I believe that the story does not end at our death beds. I believe this because I see resurrection breaking into the here and now. It happens in ways both big and small, in moments both seen and unrecognized. It happens whenever the people of God are willing to step into a hopeless, lifeless situation and declare that death is not the final word.
It happens, when a family steps in to adopt the child from Africa who parents have been killed in a civil war and then is left behind to die from disease and malnutrition. It happens when someone decides life is better spent running a rescue mission for those without shelter, food, or hope, than it is running a corporate office. It happens when a child decides their allowance can be better used to buy mosquito nets for villages on the other side of the world, than used to buy a new toy.
And, it happened when my friend Pete stepped up to care for his brother when his future looked as if it had come to an end. You may not be willing to admit it, Pete, but the love, grace, strength, comfort, and generosity you showed to your brother over the past decade was an act of resurrection. You gave him new life when mental illness tried so relentlessly to take it from him.
So Pete, I know that no words of mine will assuage the pain you are going through. But I hope that in the midst of these dark days and those that are surely to come, you will find a way to cling to the promises of a God who does not abandon His people, and you will be able to look forward with hope to the day of resurrection when you will be with your brother once again.
Until then, I hope you are able to see the world through resurrection eyes and recognize those moments when God is working in your life to bring you comfort, peace, and everlasting life. And I pray that He will continue to use you to embody for others the ressurection power you so wonderfuly embodied for Dan.
Death is not the final word. The tomb is empty. He is risen.
Grace and peace my friend.