Leaving Salem

My youngest son, Braden, has been asking me questions about Speedy. He is particularly interested when Speedy is coming home. Speedy, blessed be his name and God rest his soul, was our pet kitten. He went to be with Jesus last year.

I will not burden you with the details of his unfortunate demise. Let me just say that he was inappropriately named. Had he lived up to the namesake attached to him by my children, Speedy might still be with us today.

Having faced death innumerable times with grieving families, I have learned that it is best not to avoid the Reaper. So, our family had a memorial service for Speedy in the backyard. I laid him to rest in a small shoe box, in a hole dug at the edge of the woods. All three of our boys gave eulogies of sorts. My wife was there, in terrible grief (unknown to our children she was the one responsible for Speedy’s death); and I said a few prayers.

After placing flowers on the grave we went inside for ice cream. There’s no sadness a little Neapolitan won’t make a little better. And there around the kitchen table, I explained best I could about the after-life. I failed, because now, months later, Braden has all these questions. They machine-gun out of his mouth like ricocheting bullets.

Braden asks, “When is Speedy coming back?”

I respond, “Jesus will bring him back one day.”

“Where is Speedy now?” Braden asks.

“He’s in heaven, with Jesus,” I say.

“I thought he was in the shoe box under the dirt?” Braden remembers.

And then the bullets really start to fly: “Am I going to die? When I die will you put me in a shoe box? I don’t think I will fit. Will I be able to see if you put dirt on my head? How will I open my eyes in heaven with dirt on me? Will you and mom die? I don’t want you and mom to die – Who will cook my food for me.” On and on it goes.

I have little letters after my name that mean I spent some time in a classroom learning theology. These letters are supposed to mean I know something about God. Speak for very long with a cross-examining four-year-old, and you learn you don’t know squat, letters or no.

Death is a mystery. We pastoral-types don’t know as much about dying as we let on. But I suppose death is no greater a mystery than life. We don’t know as much about living as we let on either.

Yet, on this weekend, we celebrate both: Life and death. We celebrate the macabre crucifixion of our Lord, Jesus, who died on a cross on the paradoxically named Good Friday. And we celebrate his resurrection on Easter Sunday morning.

“He is risen,” the angel said on that morning so many centuries ago. “He is risen, indeed” has been the response from believers, questioners, skeptics, and doubters ever since. Believers echo the traditional response because, well, they believe.

The questioners and the skeptics and the doubters whisper those words in return because they really want to believe. Yes, questioners, skeptics, and doubters sometimes doubt their doubts. They want to believe that there is a life beyond this one. They want to believe that existence continues beyond the grave.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I don’t have to unravel every tangled ball of doubt about the resurrection and the here-after. I don’t have to be able to explain it all in neat little charts and precise diagrams complete with scriptural references.

I have the risen Christ alive in my heart. That is enough; for he will roll away the stone of disbelief and uncertainty. He will empty the grave of its terror and dread. He will set aside shoe boxes for the purpose of only holding shoes. And when he comes, he will answer all the questions of little boys and their fathers. He is risen. He is risen indeed.

Blood runs along what remains of his left eyebrow. The drop hangs there for an instant and splashes to the ground. Stripped naked, on his knees, he lets his face fall forward into the dirt as the fading chill of early morning blows across his back; a back that more resembles something from a butcher’s shop than a human body. The strong, tanned shoulders of a carpenter are gone. Nothing remains but hanging ribbons of muscle and flesh. On any other early morning he would be carrying great stacks of lumber to his worksite, or carrying loads of fish to the market with his friends. This morning, he can’t even carry the weight of his own body, being drug the last few hundred yards to this place, by a dark-skinned stranger, pressed into service by Caesar’s army.

In the reprieve of these moments so many thoughts race through his mind. The cool of the garden the night before; the bread and the wine – oh for a sip of that wine here, now; the warm, wet kiss of betrayal; the crowd with their shouts of joy and waving palm branches; the faces of his friends: Peter, with that bushy beard, sunburned face and loud, sailor’s mouth; John, so young, so impulsive, with that unruly cowlick he can never comb into place; Mary Magdalene, she who may best understand him, but who is still so conflicted by her past, her failures, her reputation; and then that other Mary, his mother.

He can see her, tottering about in the kitchen of his childhood home, pulling the hot, black bread from the oven, smiling that knowing smile at him across the table. She is here. He recognizes her cry in the distance, the same suffering cry as when Joseph died, but now even deeper than then. She is not crying for a dead husband. She is a mother crying for a dying son. A quick glance at others in the crowd: The few who mourn for him, the Pharisees and Sanhedrin who gloat over his bleeding body, and the ignorant masses, out this early morning to see the spectacle; dumb, but beautiful sheep, victimized by their circumstances, their poverty and public opinion. There is so much they do not understand.

Dehydrated, exhausted, thirsty – so thirsty – near delirium from shock and blood loss, he prays for just a few more moment’s rest; but there is none. The Roman centurion steps forward, barking orders, cursing the gathering crowd, and kicking at his tormented victim. This is the same soldier who hours earlier, with horsewhip in hand, had reduced this young man to a bloody stump. He must now finish the task. This isn’t cruelty, the soldier explains to his own conscience, an explanation he had tendered many times. This is just a job. Some are farmers; some bakers; some are merchants; some carpenters. I am a soldier. I keep the peace. This is what I do. He had presided over many executions, preserving the Pax Romana, this Roman Peace. Bandits, insurrectionists, terrorists, freedom fighters: Countless such criminals had earned the sharp end of Roman justice.

This isn’t my idea, not my policy. I am just following orders, enforcing the rule of law. This carpenter, this amateur rabbi, this would be messiah, this king of the Jews, whoever or whatever he was (just execution number three on this morning), had apparently refused the way of Roman virtue; thus, he would pay the price. The centurion’s anger, always boiling there, just below the surface returned anew as he picked up the hammer. These seditious Jews can have their king, he thought to himself. But they better pay homage while they can, because here he lies, soon to be fastened to a stick, soon to be dead. There was only one king, as far as this soldier was concerned: The one who pays my salary and whose image is engraved on the handle of my sword.

Let’s get on with it, he says to his fellow executioners. I haven’t had breakfast yet. The cohort works to align two massive beams on the ground beside the crumpled carpenter. They roll him over on his back, his bloody shoulders now pressed against the coarse wood. Flashing through the condemned’s mind, he returns to the carpenter’s shop: I cleaved many a beam, just like these, he recalls. But I never remember the finished product being so rough, so full of splinters. With dreadful skill the legionnaire finds the depression at the front of the wrist. He drives a heavy, square, iron nail through the wrist and between the bones. This prisoner must be nearly dead already, the legionnaire assumes. It takes no one to hold him down. This freedom-fighter has no more fight left in him. Good enough, the legionnaire mumbles, over the sound of his growling belly and the sickening clatter of iron splitting wood and flesh. Quickly he moves to the other side and repeats the action. He is careful not to pull the arms too tightly, but to allow them to flex and move. Arms pulled to tightly will shorten the dying process. Remember boys, this isn’t a mercy killing. On cue, they all laugh and begin lifting the cross into place. Violently it is dropped into a well-worn hole, and the weight of wood, body, and gravity – the weight of the world – bears down on two single nails, two single hands, one single carpenter.

The left foot is now pressed over and against the right. With both feet extended, toes down, a nail is driven through the arch of each, leaving the knees flexed. The centurion, the bulk of his gory work completed, seeks a place to sit, to rest, to eat his breakfast, and dream of going home to Italy, a home with a wife and children; a home with horses and fields of barley; a home he has not seen for many years; a home he protects by killing the enemy here, in this rebellious, God-forsaken province at the edge of the world. Better to fight the enemy at a distance, than in the streets of Rome, he reminds himself. But Oh, to be at home, where I can sleep under clean sheets, eat a kitchen-cooked meal from my own fire, where I can make love to my wife, and tell stories of far away lands to my son and daughter. Would to Jupiter and Mars and all that is holy, that I could get out of this place! Soon. Soon enough; just a few more months.

And yet, the carpenter is dying. He is crucified. As he slowly sags down with more and more weight pulling on the nails in his wrists, excruciating, fiery pain shoots along his fingers and into his arms, exploding in the brain and washing over his entire body. The nails in the wrists are putting pressure on, if not nearly severing, the median nerves. As he pushes himself upward to avoid this stretching torment, he is forced to place his full weight on the nail through his feet. This he cannot stand. The searing agony of the nail tearing through the tissues and nerves between the bones of his feet is too much, far too much. He must collapse, only for the angry outburst of pain in his wrists to begin all over again.

The arms fatigue. Cramps sweep through his muscles, knotting them in relentless, throbbing suffering. The carpenter begins to lose the ability to push himself upward to breathe. He is suffocating; slowly, gradually, in the heat of the now rising sun. He fights to get even one small breath, just one. And with that breath he screams, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?My God…oh dear God…Why? Why have you forsaken me? Finally enough carbon dioxide builds up in his lungs and in his blood stream, partially relieving the cramps. He is now able, sporadically, to push himself upward to exhale and bring tiny bursts of oxygen into his lungs; oxygen that will not save him, that will only prolong his suffering.

For six hours on this Friday – six long, wretched hours – while Roman soldiers eat their bread and dream of home, while his mother wails with a dagger in her own heart, while the crowds laugh and mock, while his friends hide in abject defeat, while the government washes its soft hands clean, while the sky turns black and God himself weeps – the carpenter hangs there, strung between heaven and earth, suffering in hell.

Infinite pain, cycles of twisting and contorting to get a breath, joint-ripping cramps, periods of asphyxiation, searing agony as his lacerated back moves up and down against the rough timber. Then, as if he had any more blood to spill, as if he had any more pain to feel, any more ways to suffer, a bottomless, devastating agony is born deep within his chest. The pericardium of the heart begins to fill with serum. The heart compresses, constricts, and spasms as it drowns in its own fluid. Pushed beyond its limit, the heart can no longer pump the heavy, thick, blood. The tortured lungs, working like panic-stricken bellows, gasp for the last gulps of air. The chill of death, with all its welcomed mercy, crawls across his body. Finally – finally – he can allow his body to die. Over a misshapen, swollen tongue and cracked, bleeding lips he whispers, Tetelestai. It is finished. The carpenter is dead.

“Do you believe that God is in total control of this world?” Someone asked me that question the other day. We had been discussing the difficulties of life and the trajectory our planet so dishearteningly seems to be headed.

Being asked about God’s control of the universe is a lot like being asked, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” Either answer you give condemns you.

So rather than answering “yes” or “no,” I opted to talk about my Aunt Betty’s goulash. Goulash is supposed to be an Eastern European stew of sorts. For my Aunt Betty I think it is more a way of cleaning out the refrigerator.

She puts meat in it; noodles, tomatoes, paprika, onions, coffee grounds, peanut butter, grass clippings from the last time Uncle Joe emptied the bagger on the lawn mower. Everything. It consists of all these strange, typically unrelated ingredients.

But my Aunt Betty is a good cook. Her dish tastes pretty darn good in the end. In the hands of a lesser cook, however, I’m sure goulash would be a culinary disaster.

This is my chosen metaphor to explain God’s “control” over the world. God takes all the ingredients of life as they jumble together in the pot: Heartaches, triumphs, failures, and accomplishments; bad decisions, injustices, and hope; our creativity and our stupidity – all these things.

We can’t imagine how any of this fits together. How can this be worth anything? Yet, God is able to make something wonderful out of it. He masterfully brews this magnificent gumbo we call life, and it will taste pretty darn good in the end.

But don’t dip in your spoon and taste it too early. It’s not done yet. It still has a ways to go. God is still bringing it all to a boil, waiting for a few essential ingredients to be added to the mix before it’s put on the table.

This then, is the Christian hope: God is redeeming the world through his Son, Jesus the Christ. We believe God is putting his creation to rights and will accomplish this purpose no matter how gloomy life sometimes appears.

So, does God control this world? Sure he does, just not in the mechanical, unconscious way we may have always imagined. I don’t think he is pulling levers and punching buttons dictating the minutia of life. He seems to have left a great deal of autonomy for us his creations.

See, in the greatest act of grace short of the cross itself, God has given us a role to play in the redemption of creation. His good pleasure is, amazingly, to do his will and work through us.

That God is all-powerful over his world, masterfully cooking in his kitchen, does not diminish, negate, or marginalize our role and responsibility in the least. God will do what God will do. You and I must do the same.

Now, if I was God, and you should thank God I’m not, I would have never entrusted my good creation to beings so irresponsible, so short-sighted, so corrupt and depraved. Yet, this is exactly what God has done. We haven’t earned this glorious responsibility. We don’t deserve it, but it is ours. What will we do with it?

Frodo, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic “Lord of the Rings” series is that little hobbit on whom the One Ring falls. He and only he must bear this terrible possession to the fires ofMountDoomto save Middle Earth.

He protests his assignment, having not asked for this awful burden that has fallen into his hands. He says to his mentor and guide, Gandalf, “I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.”

And how we wish our world was different, just like young Frodo. But Gandalf wisely responds, “So do all who see such times. But that is not for us to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that we are given.”

If given an audience with God we might be so bold as to ask him, “Why don’t you do something about starving children, genocide, the violation of the innocent, and unending war? Why don’t you intervene in your world?”

Such queries are dangerous. Not because God can’t handle it; he certainly can. But he just might ask us the same questions.