The Day After Blood and Ash

~But the fact is, it was our pains he carried -
our disfigurements, all the things wrongs with us.
We thought he brought it on himself,
that God was punishing him for his own failures.
But it was our sins that did that to him,
that ripped and tore and crushed him - our sins!
He took the punishment, and that made us whole.
Through his bruises we get healed.
We're all like sheep who've wandered off and gotten lost.
We've all done our own thing, gone our own way.
And God has piled all our sins, everything we've done wrong,
on him, on him.~
- Isaiah 53.4-6

"But I will not be convinced of the impossibility of resurrection until I have suffered the fact of death.
And I will not completely suffer that fact until it is someone I completely love who dies and whom I desire to come again. It must be my heart that dies. All other deaths I can file away in some corner of my understanding, because they are lesser than me. But this death kills me because her life had been so necessary for my own.
There must first be love.
And then there must follow truly the death of the beloved, and the grief, and the grief.
Or else the hope of the resurrection remains a formality and its fact a pious doctrine."
- Walter Wangerin Jr., The Orphean Passages

I agree with Walt Jr. (I'm sure he's relieved) that until someone I completely love dies and I desire that someone to come again, the "hope of the resurrection" remains something wordy and mental. It is always tempting in thoughts like this to say, "Well, what if it was the death of a dream or a pet or something?" But Jesus wasn't a dream or a pet or something. At least I don't believe so. Jesus was a man, a man with earwax and toenails and knuckles and a heart. And until some flesh and blood that I completely love dies, any thoughts I have about the resurrection remain somewhat removed.


He called and said, "Come by and visit." His wife was one of the pillars of the church I'd recently come to pastor. Her husband, however, was well-known to be very learn-ed in the scriptures, but not at all interested in the church. It was also said he struggled with the bottle. I would learn that many in this small town did. And so I went by to visit Clifford in hopes of wooing this lost sheep back into the fold of God. I had graduated not long before with a Master of Divinity degree, so this was within my power, right?

We'd "walk his place" and he'd show me the pecan trees he lovingly planted years ago. He'd ask me circuitous theological questions and the young Master of Divinity would readily take the bait, answering with a certainty the church demands but life seldom understands. He suffered the fool gladly. I liked him though and his wife always thanked me for "talking to Clifford" and I'd leave with a wave and a bag of pecans or tomatoes.

The caller said, "Brother John, get out to Clifford's place, quick!" As I drove up, the yard was full of pickups, a firetruck, and an ambulance. With a necktie on and a Bible in hand, I walked through a group of men in boots and unshaven faces. James, the fire chief, stepped forward and waved me on through. We then walked no more than ten steps, to a place where a pecan stump sat, a place where Clifford would sit and think. I'd drive by sometimes and see him sitting on that stump; he'd wave as I drove past. There, on the ground beside the stump, was a pistol and Clifford's crumpled body. Blood was caked around his right temple and the daffodils beneath his head had grown red. The demons in the pecan trees had finally won.

James said, "She's inside. You'd better get in there."

There was a clear demarcation to the moment: all the men were outside, all the women inside. It felt like church. As I stepped into the kitchen, she raised red eyes and cried, "Oh, brother John! Pray for me! Pray for me!" It was the death of someone she completely loved, her beloved, the death of her heart. Now followed the grief, the grief. We sat at the kitchen table I knew well and I held her trembling hands and prayed for her with words the church demands but life seldom understands. The initial waves of grief eventually subsided, we talked of "what happened," and then the waves became angry once again. The grief, the grief. The women were washing dishes and making Folgers coffee. The phone would ring and was answered in hushed tones.

I liked Clifford, but I didn't love Clifford. I had grown to love Lucille, but she was not my beloved. And so I formally officiated at the funeral and spoke the doctrines of resurrection and piously filed his death away in some corner of my understanding because he was less than me. Do not think me cold or calloused. The tears I shed over that kitchen table and graveside were real. But Clifford was not my heart. I did not know of the grief.

1 comment:

  1. In my Bible study of Walking Through the Old Testament, I mentioned that even though I believe the Bible and even seek comfort and solace there (sometimes, to be honest), that I didn't always relate to the people. They truly are like stories to me. This pains me because I know that the Bible IS the living, breathing Word. My instructor told me that I should try to go to Israel if I possibly can, to make those people and places come alive. This is how I sort of related to "it's not my heart" that died.

    Thanks again for an awesome post.