I recall the very moment, after my father’s death, when I found the courage to invoke the biblical question, Where, O death, is your sting? We were on the road, returning from Thanksgiving in Michigan, where I grew up. My father had died of cancer less than two months earlier, and perhaps you know how those first holidays are without your loved one. Colorless. Intolerable. We had endured the holiday with the large extended family on my mom’s side, teeming with small children, aunts, uncles, and cousins. The food was typical for our gatherings at the dairy farm—my aunt’s famous taco salad that finds a way to incorporate doritoes, a side platter of venison to compliment the turkey, the marshmellow jellos adding color to the table. My mom’s famous apple pie was absent. It was my dad’s favorite. Every year he declared that she made the best apple pie on earth, and it’s true. But that year she wasn’t up to making it.
On the long drive home, we were just north of the Tennessee mountains when we began talking about my dad. Remembering his final days, laughing about his funny ways. Admitting, through tears, how awful the whole holiday had been. Wondering what it all meant; he died so young and full of life. And as we crested the first mountain, the rain that pelted down through Ohio and into Kentucky gave way to the most stunning rainbow, arcing like an unmistakable sign between the mountains. It was the first of many rainbows that now seem to show up just when I’m thinking about my dad.
In that moment, the stinging knot of grief shifted just a bit, and I glimpsed the beauty that lies beyond grief. It is a beauty so tenuous and fleeting. But it makes its presence known in bleak moments. It is a defiant beauty, laughing as it does in the face of death. In that moment, I felt my dad’s presence wrap around me, and I knew that even death could not take him from me. You see, I have a lifetime of memories, and the love that my father had for me is a gift that I carry into every day of my life. Where, o death, is your sting?
Those closest to death sometimes live like lions of courage, giants of generosity even as life bleeds from their days. How is it that facing death so often awakens us to life? Maybe, as poet Mary Oliver suggests, it is only when death is breathing down our necks like an iceberg between our shoulder blades, that we can finally take the world into our arms and know true amazement. The kind of wonder that disarms fear and quells bitterness. Perhaps this is why spiritual growth demands a dance with the truth of death; the slow steps that generate unbridled joy and kindle the hope that will not submit to circumstance.
Throughout this holy season of Lent, as we journey with Jesus toward Jerusalem—that place of his torturous death—I grapple with this question: What does resurrection mean in a death-denying culture? You see, beyond the physical death of our loved ones, we’ve entered into an age in which so many of the institutions upon which we rely are facing death. We fear death, and so deny that it will come. In so doing, we refuse to make way for new life.
Many of us have experienced it in the church first-hand. Whether it is the preoccupation with legalism or the habitual exclusion of anyone deemed different, the church has fallen short. Too many young people simply can’t find communities that look like them, places where they can show up just as they are, with tattoos and deconstructed theologies, with pointed questions and a desire to do things differently. From the evangelicals alienating heartfelt people of faith by excusing the hateful rhetoric and immoral behavior of the President to the shrinking mainline congregations that refuse to die even as they fail to revitalize, the church is as death-denying as the other institutions undergoing seismic shifts. The problem with this, of course, is that there is no resurrection without death. New life follows death, and in death we find the seeds for new life.
I wonder if we have the reckless courage to truly forget the things of old. Do we possess the courage to let the old ways die, so that the resurrection might take hold? Do we have the fortitude to release what holds us hostage so that we can grab hold of the new?
Take this hypothetical exercise from psychologist Jonathan Haidt—Imagine you have a child, or a grand-child, and you are handed a script of his entire life. You read that he will be diagnosed as ADD in kindergarten and will struggle academically because of his inability to focus for sustained periods. As a teenager, he will find his place among a tight circle of friends, and then lose one of them to cancer. After two years in community college, he will be admitted to a good university, but while there he will grapple with his sexual orientation and find the friends he once enjoyed no longer understand him. As a young adult he will go through depression and self medicate with alcohol until he finds a strong community of support in AA. As he celebrates a year of sobriety, he will land a dream job, then lose it two years later in an economic downturn. He will marry and adopt a child, then go through the grief of separation.
If this was the script of your child or grand-child’s life, and you were handed an eraser with five minutes to edit out whatever you wanted, what would you erase? Would you take out all the things that caused him pain? Would you wave a wand to erase every failure, disappointment, or broken relationship? Or is it possible that these are the very places where God meets and transforms us? Might it be that in losing the very things that mean so much to us, we discover that God is enough?
What are the things in your life that need to die? Those former things that need to be released so we can take hold of the new life before us? Is it a broken relationship, an old addiction, a long-harbored secret, a wound from the church of your childhood? Is it failure at work, the drowning waters of debt, a painful relationship with your child? Is it the judgment of outsiders or the self-criticism that shames you?
One Easter, I took home the Easter lily I had purchased in memory of my father. I left it out on the porch in early spring frost. It soon turned brown and parched, a sorry sight for a plant honoring the memory of my dad. I was on the verge of throwing it out when suddenly it disappeared. The next day I was out in our fruit garden when I saw a sad Easter lily planted nearby. My child had taken the lily, dug a shallow hole and stuck it in, filling the top with gravel. I confess I was a bit sad at how it had been unknowingly abused by an ambitious, unstoppable 4 year old so eager to help. The lily promptly died, despite his attentive watering. The next year, imagine my surprise when I saw green peeking up through the soil. Around Easter, it began to bloom, and I realized that, in spite of my neglect, in spite of the careless hands of a child, new life does follow death. God meets us in grief, in failure, in loss, and makes of them the seeds of transformation. Where, o death, is your sting?