On Friday morning, we were called to Lurie Children’s Hospital to keep vigil with our son and daughter-in-law as they accompanied their 8-week old daughter, Eliana, on her final journey. Late Saturday afternoon, we stood over her bed, her life having slipped away after she had been in their loving arms for the previous 30 hours.
Fourteen hours later, I was standing in the pulpit on the 4th Sunday of Easter, expected to proclaim resurrection when my experience was the raw reality of death. And in this case, a death that seemed particularly cruel and unfair. As fate would have it, I presided at six baptisms on Good Shepherd Sunday.
Eliana was a beautiful little girl. She was active, feisty, and demonstrated extraordinary courage in the face of a disorder that wracked her body with pain. Epidermolysis bullosa is the worst genetic disorder you’ve never heard of. Her skin was finally beginning to heal, but the infection that took over was beyond the reach of even the most powerful antibiotics.
It’s my job to preach Easter, to speak of resurrection and life. Sometimes I find the promises hard to believe. It’s hard to believe the promises in the face of the excruciating physical pain of an infant and the extraordinary emotional pain of two young parents, one of whom is my own child, parents who in so many ways were deprived of the most basic joys of parenting, not to mention handed an unspeakable loss at the death of their infant child. The promise and hope of life seem empty and powerless. At times like these it enters my mind that all the flowery church language we have devised for Christ’s call and promise are nothing more than that. Words. How can those words represent any substantial reality when suffering and brokenness and death seem so much more real, as real as the lifeless body of a tiny baby.
“In the face of this, we have the promises of God?” he asks, a sad and cynical edge to his voice.
“In the face of this, we have the promises of God,” he replies.
A promise is wonderful in that it brings hope. But a promise isn’t any those things that we would like it to be. We cannot hold a promise in our hands as evidence of its reality. A promise is not the mulligan on the golf tee where you get a do-over when you’ve messed it up. It is not a time machine where we can go back and right the wrongs. A promise is not the fairytale ending of a television show. A promise is not Harry Potter’s magic wand that would allow us to fix things with the flick of a wrist and a fancy incantation.
A promise is a word from God, God who down through the centuries has been faithful to God’s Word. A promise is the word of the Word made flesh, the One who invites us into trusting that in the midst of all the death there will be life. The promise carries with it the image of the Good Shepherd with his arms spread wide open, his hands and feet nailed to a cross, his voice crying out in desperation, abandonment, and death. The Good Shepherd has promised to meet us in the horrible places that we are sometimes forced to go.
That’s the voice that calls to me and will keep calling even when what it says is hard to believe and my heart may not be ready to hear because the stench of death still lingers. The Crucified One reminds me that the tomb is still empty; Easter still offers hope and life. Especially in the midst of so much death.