Sometimes, just sometimes, disparate threads in a story are drawn together in such a way that the reader can but marvel at the authors skill.
Sometimes, just sometimes, we see the same thing happening accidentally in the real world. I’ve been reading Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Testaments’, which I’m reading after devouring and enjoying her ‘Handmaid’s Tale’. My wife has also just crossed the 27 week mark in our first pregnancy. We hope to meet our daughter in March. I write the word hope not because there have been problems – indeed, we’ve been very fortunate – but because we do not know what the future holds.
In the republic of Gilead, the fictional nation that the two Atwood tales are set in and around, one of the key questions is that of childbirth. In amongst the wider questions of womanhood, politics, religion and society lie poignant questions about fertility. In a recent social event at work I felt for the older single colleagues who watched beatifically as some of us talked about childcare – in a way that made me think of my own nerves ahead of confirming that my wife was pregnant. Will it ever happen to me?
As a teenager, I wondered if I’d ever get married. It wasn’t promised to me. I’m not even sure if my teenage self hoped for it. I’ve known and know enough people whose hope has dwindled. I’ve learnt from my own weakness and sin that I am not enough for my wife, and that our hope as individuals and together must be in someone else.
With these musings flitting through the caverns of my soul I saw a story start to emerge on social media. It caught my wife’s eye because some of the names involved are names which we may or may not have considered for our own daughter.
Over in the USA, a little girl has died. Her parents and faith community are praying that she would be revived, resurrected.
As a father, I’m heartbroken. I have friends, near and far, who have lost children at all sorts of different stages. As I haven’t met my daughter yet, I can’t possibly imagine what it would feel like to lose her (actually, to some extent, I can, because I’ve dreamed nightmarishly about this in darker moments, but from what I understand from others, the pain cannot be imagined).
As a Christian, I’m torn.
At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of a baby. A baby born to die. A man who died to rise again. This is the centre of the Christian faith. And it is a paradox that has wrenched the heart of Christians since the earliest days of our faith. The Apostle Paul wrote to a young church in Philippi:
“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me.“
As I read about this little girl, Olive, and see the outpouring of prayer and well-wishes and funding that the story has attracted, I see that tension written out again.
On the one hand, it would be a marvellous miracle, one that would catch the world’s attention, if little Olive came back to life, like Jairus’ daughter in Matthew 5. On the other hand, what if to be with Christ is better by far?
It raises the spectre of a myriad of difficult, perhaps impossible, ethical questions. Who are these prayers for? What about the grandparents and wider family? How do we explain faith to small children?
In Philippians 1, where that quote from Paul is drawn from, there is no dead little girl, that we know of. But what there is, is something else. The focus is not on the miracle, but the one who does miraculous things. The focus is not on those who Paul loves, but the one who loves Paul, and drives Paul to love others. The focus is on Jesus.
My heart goes out to Olive’s family and community. Part of me longs for her resurrection now. Deeper, I can look forward in hope to the resurrection of the dead that will involve everyone. As I read those words of Paul, I feel that tension, that tearing – and see it even more clearly written in the words of Olive’s family and community.
Death will not be the end.
Until the end, though, Death happens.
I’ve been reading Fleming Rutledge’s marvellous book Advent this advent. She writes this about the season of Advent, the season in the Church’s year that perhaps most reminds us of the reality of darkness and death, yet tantalises us with the possibility of impossible life and light:
“We do not know why God delays so long. We do not know why he so often hides his face. We do not know why so many have to suffer so much with so little apparent meaning. All we know is that there is this rumour, this hope, this expectation, that the Master of the house is coming back…
This is not the end of the story. It is the beginning of the end.
To be a Christian is to live every day of our lives in solidarity with those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, but to live in the unshakable hope of those who expect the dawn“
Knowing where we are helps us think more hopefully. More realistically. Knowing that we live in this time between the times, the now and not yet of the Kingdom of God, means that we can resonate with the tension of Paul’s words to the Philippians, recognising both the pain of Olive’s family and the possibility of resurrection.
In another letter, to a little church in Thessalonica, Paul writes this:
“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him“
Christians live in a different place than everyone else.
Christians live in hope.
We all live in the time between the times – the possibility of resurrection is ridiculed just as we try to legislate and individualise and control death.
The Christian, from Paul to Fleming, and myself included, dares to wonder that there is something better. There is one who beat death. There is one who knows death. There is one who is not dead, and with whom it is better by far to be. And this one, whose name is Jesus, invites us all to consider him. For Christians reading this, I would encourage you to both pray for Olive and her family, and pray that others would not know the name Olive but would know the name Jesus. For those of you reading this who would not call themselves Christians, can I point to the hope hidden behind this family’s prayer? That Jesus was raised then, and Jesus is coming back.
I’d love to talk to anyone who wants to about this.
For another perspective, on the loss of a child, my friend Tom Lyons shares his story in this sermon: