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This column begins with death and ends with life. This column begins in this world and ends peeking into the next. This column begins where we are and ends where we might hope to be.
Too often, I can easily be accused of burying the lede somewhere in my columns so that the search might be akin to an Easter egg hunt. I don’t write like a journalist (don’t they value brevity and not having parenthetical thoughts?) and more like a humorist or short-story writer. But at least for this week, I wanted to get my point up front and at the outset.
Everyone knows that the fairy tales all end: “And they all lived happily ever after!”
But to be honest, I actually think most would agree that Neil Gaiman in his great Sandman saga has it right: “The real problem with Stories — if you keep them going long enough, they always end in death.”
If you think about Gaiman’s assertion, at face value, it is indisputably correct. For every long-fought battle against injustice, disease and tyranny, our heroes in the real world are always laid to rest with a eulogy that only ascribes immortality to their acts and not their person. The great and grievous all tend toward that same demise whether it is some heroic feat that brings about their death or justice finally being brought to bear upon an evil actor. And of course, there is the simple passage of time for the course of life to run out in simple old age. Yes, most certainly, in this world, Gaiman seems to have it right on the money.
Fairy tales, on the other hand, simply seem to leave off the inevitable as if the bliss found in the prince and princess finally being joined in marriage now grants an immortal state that is so imbued with love, death isn’t given a second thought. How many weddings have such verbiage entwined so tightly that the idea of “Till death do us part” is simply chocked out! But, somehow, that nihilistic “reality” that Gaiman so slickly points out does not seem to overwhelm the bulk of humanity — at least most of the time.
Last week had a lot of death, both publicly in the news and privately for me. There were, of course, the mass shootings from the previous weekend as well as the incident in Philadelphia which we all still cannot understand. In my extended family, we had one relative who was taken off chemo and put on hospice care in one afternoon, making the idea of life expectancy a relatively short consideration. While on another front, one of my “extra moms” from down in Florida let me know that she had lost a second son to alcoholism. He was my age and ended up in a coma with no possibility of recovery. The family pulled the plug.
Gaiman’s assertion seemed tragically to be correct one more time.
I asked my mom-like friend how she was doing. She said, “Fine.”
I pushed a little: “Really?”
She said, “I’m living on God’s anesthetic.” Then after a pause, she added, “How do people do this without Jesus?”
Her question was profound not only about her son, but about people dealing with cancer’s final grasp, and with so many affected directly and indirectly by those shootings recently.
And of course, we know all of those situations are not limited to just last week, but so many times before.
Even though it is not so difficult to see the tragedy in the deaths from last week, isn’t it always tragic in some way for someone every time death makes its mark? Death’s tragedy is precisely in the very act of ending the story with that person’s name on it. But somehow most people go on. There are some who are broken by death’s grasp. But there are others who somehow are not constrained by either the bounds of death or this world’s limitations.
I take my friend’s question and turn it around a bit. Instead of “How do people do this without Jesus?” I ask, “How do people deal with death who have faith?”
Faith goes back to that idea of a hope in something that is beyond what we see here and now. It is hope in something that goes beyond the grave. It is hope that flies in the face of what this world says, that all stories end in death, and posits a new story.
You see, the Gospel story is one that only reaches its midpoint at death. The story of the Gospel is the only story that ends in life! Jesus’ resurrection is a promise of your resurrection! It is a story that Jesus says we, as God’s children, are a part of. It is a story that ends in life everlasting because it moves from this world’s ending of death to the next world’s promise of life!
It is a story that takes the flawed creations of God and makes them whole! It is THE story that gives hope where before all we could see was death.
This afternoon from 4 to 7 at my church, we are having another Family Movie Event. It’s based on the “Teen Titans” movie, and we will have the opportunity eat, see the movie and learn how to draw the characters with a real comic book artist. But it’s also an opportunity to be and do something that sees beyond this world as we engage this very Gospel story in a different context than the starkness of the world. It’s an opportunity to join together with folks who “do this” with Jesus, with hope.
Because, you see, where all stories in this world inevitably lead to death, the story of hope in Jesus is the one that really does end the way those fairy tales once promised: happily ever after: empowered by faith, embraced by hope and joined together in love.
Pastor Zach Harris has been an ordained minister for 28 years and currently serves Ascension Lutheran Church in Wilson. His column, “Through a Lutheran Lens: A Pastor’s Perspective,” appears weekly in The Wilson Times. Previous columns are available at WilsonTimes.com.