A childhood friend whom I have not seen since we were young passed away last week from renal cell carcinoma after heroically battling the heinous and aggressive cancer for over a decade. He was actually my younger brother’s friend, both Star Wars aficionados. They spent hours planning out light saber battles. We often worried they would eventually pass out in the middle of their sweat-soaked Nerf basketball games. It is hard to imagine some version of that little boy is no longer here.
He was willing to travel for a cure. He tried new methods and treatments. He never rejected the option to undergo another round. He took his daughter to dances. I have no idea what the silent nights were like as he went to sleep, or the days he sat in hospital rooms, but I am told his determination to remain positive was fierce. He suffered well. I don’t know details, and honestly, I am not sure how appropriate it is for me to comment on his ordeal. I was not present. All my information is second and third-hand at best. But this I know: his example in his last years and days matter. I wonder if he knew others were watching, admiring, witnessing him live out the good news, even from a distance. The cancer was the evil, the bad news, the untrue thing in his life. And somehow, he held on to hope and joy. I don’t understand how. But I am so thankful for it.
The apostle Paul poses the question to the Corinthians,
“O Death, where is your sting?
O Hades, where is your victory?” (I Corinthians 15:54-55)
Except, we know exactly where the sting is, because we feel it. The sharp pain and suffering from sickness and loss and death is all too familiar. And sometimes it takes our breath away with its injustice.
In his book Art + Faith, artist and theologian Makoto Fujimura reminds us that Jesus “wasted” time weeping with Mary at the death of her brother Lazarus. He knew he would shortly raise his friend from the dead. He knew Lazarus’ resurrection would prefigure his own resurrection soon to come.
“Often, Jesus does call us out of despair. Jesus doesn’t want us to be stoic, but rather to be honest about our pain.” (p. 110)
It is nearly impossible to overemphasize how much Jesus cares about us, how much he cared for Mary and Martha and Lazarus. His ache and his tears were not mere sympathy. They were visceral. He wept.
Later, Fujimura points out,
“[Jesus] does not see us simply as instruments of his purpose for salvation; he sees us as human beings in our full reflection of God. Jesus is not only our Savior, but he stands with us as he did with Mary at Bethany, to weep with us as a true friend.” (p. 142)
His love is great, and so he suffers greatly with us.
God mourns our death. He weeps over the disruption in communion and relationship, and he weeps because we find ourselves suffering these consequences. While we fear death, God mourns over it. His compassion is great enough that he empathizes with us. More than that, however, because God is eternal and because he is suffering Love, he is the only one who is capable of understanding the profundity of the loss we experience, that he experiences, at our death.
And so, Jesus wept (John 11:35). He wept at the inevitability of the death of Lazarus. Although he waited to return to Bethany, he knew Lazarus would eventually die. Whether as the Triune Creator, or as the first century carpenter, Jesus had seen all the death he had wanted to see. “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of all his saints.” (Psalm 116:15) Here, the Holy Spirit through the psalmist intends not that God wants death, but that God deeply cares for the lives and souls of God’s own creation. We are precious in the eyes of the Triune Creator.
The life of my brother’s friend was precious and all too brief. Yet God holds him up proudly. I am grateful to have heard of his determination and hope and faithfulness.
And here is the truth: there are people hanging on because of your kindness, because you are quietly modeling a life of deep trust in God, because your graciousness is a rarity in their world, or because they have heard of something good you have done. You don’t know when, nor for how long, the gospel will be preached because of you.
Waste time weeping. We are all precious.