Last week, on one of those hazy, hot summer days, one of those days when jet streams buckle and the earth seems troubled by the dour looks coming from the sky, a lovely (in fact, very lovely) third grade girl and her mom met with my colleague and myself to talk over her concerns about eternity.
“I am” she said quite earnestly, “experiencing anxiety over what happens after we die.” “Existential despair” she added. She sat across from us in the boardroom at the public library, in a sleeveless sundress, her brown eyes reflecting intelligence and fear and great courage, and she told us she worried too much about the reality of non-being and the possibility of nothingness.
She, not even ten years old, already knew the measured drift of time and how it foreshadows what the heart feels when it loses something it loves. And this little girl, in one wildly articulate annunciation broke open the corpus of the Christian message and, with more honesty than most adults could ever muster, flung us into the life of the Trinity and the event of the cross and resurrection.
Andrew Root, associate professor of youth and family ministry at Luther Seminary, writes in his heartrendingly brilliant book The Promise of Despair that what binds us as humans is our loneliness, born in part from our culture’s lack of coherence and meaning. (I cannot do Root’s argument justice here; you simply must read his book). Because we no longer agree upon established truths, because so much has failed us in our world, we collapse truth as posited in the individual. In other words, each one of us is left alone, to our own devices, to create meaning and coherence for our lives.
But what would happen, Root argues, if we as churches did not deny our isolation, but mutually acknowledged it, and found our hope in it? What if the events of the cross and resurrection speak directly into our despair and loneliness, for that is precisely where God in Christ enters our lives? What if the Love between the Father and the Son has already overcome our existential despair? Because in that lonely space between cross and resurrection – when Jesus dies, and the Father grieves – God in Godself knows the absolute alienation of death and their Love is bigger and bolder than death itself, chaining it, freeing us to live in their Love too. That space that never denies that death and sin and loneliness and despair exists, but it allows us to act as if that Love is present now and the eschatological promise is true.
Yes, true. Maybe in our world of unpinned and untamed meaning and truths, maybe that Love, that Word that bubbles forth from the cross and resurrection, is the only thing that is true. And what if we, who feel called to preach don’t soften our message, glossing over life’s realities, but speak that Love into our people’s existential despair, loneliness, broken marriages, overdue taxes, and deaths, large and small. Because now, God, in Godself knows death — in all its forms – and everything has changed. Through this God event, despite what we see and know (or what we can’t see and don’t know), we are never really alone. God’s Love is so great for us it has broken death’s grip. Because we have a God committed God’s entire being to us.
And so we live in that truth. We visit loved one’s graves. We sit on the grass, our bodies resting flowers, and we weep. Then we speak, as if Love is right there.