The words below are from an email I sent to Amy and Juliette late Saturday night. These words have a lot of context, but the short story is this: Eva, a Ugandan orphan Juliette knew very well, died in a freak accident last week. This was a girl who had been left alone as a child after tending to her dying mother. Somehow – miraculously by Ugandan standards – she had been rescued into an orphan village to be raised. Then, too soon, her life was ended by a thrown rock and a tale of “medical” care that shames folks on all sides of a western health care debate. We have no idea how rich we are, even if we are uninsured and poor.
The news about Eva’s death was devastating to Juliette, who lived for several months last year in a small Ugandan home with both Eva and Sharif, the boy who threw the rock. It was also very sad for our family even though we didn’t know Eva. We feel very connected to these kids through Juliette. Also, as I’ve shared here before, we have a particular affection for the children of Uganda. Juliette’s time there and our family’s journey with Uganda are very intertwined. And beyond all of that we’ve been in a season where the harder edges of life are more real to us and to many of our close friends.
In the midst of all of that, and after returning from a day-long out of town wedding, I wrote these words. I’m copying them here mostly to record them for myself. I expect I’ll need to read them again and again in the years to come.
Tonight as we were driving back, Amy was silently reading the letter about what happened to Eva. I was thinking about all the sadness – in the world, but especially in Eva’s life and death; especially in Sharif’s life; especially in the lives of all the Alma and other Bethany children – lives so surrounded and deeply altered by death, even before they were born. I was thinking about how we can’t explain all that sadness; how we can’t even take it in. At some point my ability to even think about and feel it breaks down. At some point I realize that I don’t have enough capacity to perceive – much less carry – all that sadness.
And that’s where I find Jesus.
That’s where I decide again that there is no other story that can possibly be true except the one of a good, gentle, ferocious King who is gathering all his people and preparing to devour death forever. It’s not just that no other idea of God will do. It’s that no other idea of existence will do. All of our living and dying can’t have any real meaning if there is no love – and no Lover – bigger and better and faithful to redeem it all.
In the midst of all of that, I thought of Andrew Peterson’s new song, The Reckoning. Somewhere years ago, Rich Mullins helped keep me alive. When I was discovering that there was something really wrong – with the life I knew, with the people I knew, and most of all with me – Rich sang to me. He sang mostly with his songs, but also with the way he lived and talked. He was the best there was back then at acknowledging everything that was wrong about everything and then living and singing like there was something that was making everything that was wrong right again. He embraced the tension of God’s goodness and life’s cruelty.
Most people think it’s best to ignore that tension as much as possible, probably because we fear we’ll discover God can’t be good if life is so cruel. It’s understandable. That discovery would be the most hopeless of all discoveries.
And that’s why I love Rich. He stared that tension in the face, as scared as anyone else, and he came back from it with songs and stories about hope. Those songs and stories helped me know Jesus and his good news in ways that were both very old and very new to me. I discovered he is not only the good guy among lots of bad guys in life’s big drama, but that he is the guy who shows up in the midst of life’s cruelest moments, whispers hope, then raises the dead. He isn’t the guy who is biding time until he comes to steal us all away from real life to the sweet by and by. He is the guy who appears where God shouldn’t go and does what God shouldn’t do – love everything that’s so wrong with the world until it’s right again.
Rich said he was the guy who would bloody your nose and then give you a ride home on his bicycle. I’ll never get over that one.
I know it’s weird, but damn I miss Rich Mullins. When he died in September of 1997, it was the first time I cried over someone I didn’t know dying. I never met the guy and I actually miss him on a regular basis. He helped keep me alive by seeing that something was really wrong with me and everyone around me, then telling me that Jesus only really hung out with people who were screwed up; that he wasn’t a million miles away from all of us. He was right in the middle of all our mess – all my mess. He was the hint of life in the midst of a sea of death; the hint that could swallow the whole sea, if only we’d just have the faith to believe…and the guts to admit we don’t have the faith to believe.
Anyway, this note isn’t about Rich Mullins.
Andrew Peterson sees what Rich saw, and he writes songs about it like Rich wrote. He embraces and exposes the tension. The new song I mentioned – The Reckoning – is one of those. I wanted Amy to hear it, so I played for her after she finished reading the note. I don’t know if she was able to listen or not. After I got home and read the note, I realized she might have been so overwhelmed by the sadness that she couldn’t hear words in a song. We also passed a wreck surrounded by no fewer than seven ambulances, fire trucks, and police cars while it was playing. Life is weird. God is weird.
Anyway, I need songs like this – songs that are infinitely hopeful, but also honest enough to ask: How long is this the song that we sing?
Also, after that song played, I just hit “shuffle” to let it play through Andrew’s other stuff. I was taken aback by the songs that played, one after another. They were all about the same thing, at least to me. One of the songs is called Lay Me Down and the punch-line is: “When you lay me down to die, you lay me down to live.” The bridge of the song says this:
I believe in the holy shores of uncreated light
I believe there is power in the blood
And all of the death that ever was,
If you set it next to life
Well I believe it would barely fill a cup
‘Cause I believe there’s power in the blood
I’m sad about Eva. I’m so sad for Sharif that I hit that point where I can’t take in the sadness every time I think about him. When I reach the end of myself like that, I only have two things: the Jesus that shows up where I can’t imagine something that good showing up and the hope that “all of the death that ever was, if you set it next to life…it would barely fill a cup.” That has to be true.