I sit in the back of the room because we are late – again – and because there is a table here with room for coffee and coloring books. I am tired. Deep tired. Tired of the platitudes and the things that are not working right now, but I come because I’m also hopeful. Because getting up on Sunday morning and walking into a church building is a liturgy in itself for me. It’s a pattern I am hoping will sync me into something (I’m not totally sure what yet).
The message is about Jesus so the music is about Jesus and it’s lovely. But a lyric hits the screen and my ears and knocks my heart into a strange rhythm. My head gets floaty and I have to open my mouth to find air. I am so shocked by this that I wonder if it is a joke. It feels cruel.
Death, where is your sting?
I don’t know if anyone is actually asking, but I want to scream, “HERE! I’ve found it!” It’s in the sweater I wear from her closet – the one I think may still smell like her. It’s in the impulse I have to text her photos of these beautiful children and share their milestones and hearts with her. It’s in the moments between sleep and awake when I re-realize that she is actually gone, that this nightmare isn’t ending. Death’s sting is in my wanting to ask her questions – about my history, about hers, about how she navigates the world.
At first I am mad that anyone would write this. And that at funerals Christian pastors say that we don’t have to be so sad because death can’t really hurt us. I am angry because I’ve been stung and the religion I grew up in, the culture I am surrounded by seems to be telling me that it shouldn’t hurt. I am here and I am broken from this thing they keep insisting cannot break us. My experience is being hushed and that feels like an assault on the person I am missing which is insufferable. That’s why my heart and lungs are jumping around.
The next morning I start the day as I rarely do anymore: I grab my Bible and find the passage quoted in that song. I don’t know why Paul decided to address this issue, but I assume it was brought up to him. Maybe the Corinthians, like me, were feeling weary of death. Maybe they heard the story, even believed it, but were having a hard time understanding what exactly they were supposed to be hoping for when everything looked the same as it always did. Their loved ones suffered and died and what is going on? Is there a plan here? Why is my mother still dead?
That’s not new or surprising. That is being human. Being awake.
I get the impression that they thought the resurrection they’d been taught of would happen more immediately. We take for granted the spiritulization of this stuff, but the Corinthians were Jews first. They did not grow up hearing about heaven and hell. Judaism seems (still, and beautifully) focused on being Here Now, not getting a ticket into heaven or out of hell. The Christian claims are kind of crazy even as we understand them today; it isn’t hard to imagine that maybe they assumed a belief in Jesus would bring about a resurrection like his: physical, closely following one’s death. Paul’s response to them includes a pretty deep explanation of what he meant when he told them they would rise from the dead. He seems to imply they are missing the point.
“Death, where is your sting?” is posed as a future question for a future victory. Paul finishes this part of his address by saying, “Wait a minute, guys, I’m not telling you it won’t hurt. I’m not saying you won’t die. I’m telling you that this isn’t it. Our story doesn’t end here. I’m telling you to go ahead and hope for more because it’s coming. And some day all those promises from way back, the ones you read as a kid, the ones that haven’t come true yet – when God told your lost ancestors they’d be found – those promises still hold weight. They are still coming true. Right now it doesn’t look so great and I get that, but what we’re getting is way better than what you want right now. Trust me. Hold onto this because it’s going to be worth it.” He can offer hope only because he is honest about the pain.
Over and over again the Old and New Testament stand witness to this sting. Over and over the Bible not only acknowledges the pain and the victory of death, but it’s characters share in solidarity. Nobody is above death, nobody escapes it.
This is why I am holding onto this tradition; why I’m still going to Sunday services and why I haven’t thrown out all my Bibles: Jesus weeps.
In the Christian story, Jesus comes to tell the world that they are loved and because they are loved they are free and their freedom includes an eternal reckoning resulting in eternal life. Jesus heals sick people to mimic total healing. He tells the most undervalued that they are actually the most important. He insists on loving like fools and speaks harshly against those who refuse to do so. He sees a universe-sized picture, but stoops down low to paint the square inches of our experience.
Still, when faced with death, Jesus is utterly phased. He stands before the grave of a friend he is about to call back and cries (I imagine agony. Not polite funeral tears, but messy, snotty, wailing tears). He is tortured by death as he approaches his own and begs to be spared just like the rest of us do. Jesus, the hero of the story, the crux of the Christian faith, is afraid to die. Then he delays the climax. Jesus doesn’t conquer death like Genghis Khan. He does it quietly. He waits three days while his followers look around and wonder what the hell is happening, they ask each other if the whole thing was a joke. They bear the disappointment and anger and terror and confusion.
Jesus lets death sting.
When he returns it isn’t announced with trumpets or fanfare. He doesn’t even introduce himself. He insistently honors the sting as he walks with some of his confused, grieving friends, explaining things slowly, offering hope in humility. He doesn’t try to overrule their grief. He walks in it with them and cooks them breakfast (maybe he knows that grieving people forget to eat).
There is so much hope in the Christian faith. It is right and honest to talk about it. But it can only really be talked about when we admit that for now, the grave does have a victory. For now, we are still getting stung. A religion which overlooks the suffering and whitewashes our experiences is of no use to us here except to pacify and distract us from reality. A religion which focuses on heaven and hell, on things eternal while ignoring the temporal is like a drug that only feels “good” because it strips us of feeling.
Jesus seems to hold both the finite and the infinite with equal regard. He seems set on a mission, convinced of more and bold because of it, but he also seems deeply present and intimately involved. Real Christianity is brave and compelling because it looks around and notices the ways humanity is losing, it calls attention to the stinging. And it’s brave because it dares to hope that there is more, that what feels too good to be true could be good enough to trust.
In the truest expressions of this tradition there is a place for me to be disappointed and confused. There is space for me to sit in the back of the room and cry over song lyrics I can’t sing just as much as there is space for people to sing them with abandon. I don’t know if I’ll be able to trust what seems now like a story we’ve made up to feel better about dying, but I know that Jesus and I feel the sting.