Less than a week ago I was preaching about how Jesus Christ conquered death and how that in fact has changed everything–both in the here and now, and in the not yet. The next morning I had my dog euthanized.
I still believe every word I said on Sunday, but the fact that a whole lot of it is still “not yet” is front-of-consciousness at the moment, and it’s been a pretty rough week, to be honest. All the emotions have been the ones you just don’t want to feel. On Monday it was shock and devastation. On Tuesday and Wednesday it was deep, deep grief. Yesterday I was just depressed–couldn’t even cry, which was worse than the sobbing. And today I feel pretty darn close to enraged. Enraged, not at God, but at death.
This is the confession–about deathbeds: Death has just never bothered me that much before. I was close to all four of my grandparents, especially my two grandmothers, and I’ve mourned their deaths truly, but I did not watch them die. I did not see their bodies after they had done it. And I had (and have) no doubt that they were going to the better life, the Real Life, that my faith tells me lies ahead, thanks to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
I also worked for nearly three years as a hospice chaplain, and you might think that someone relatively unbothered by death would make a terrible one of those, but actually, it helps. As I said to someone about it once, if I were devastated every time someone died, I would be no help to the family who really was devastated in the moment. As it was, I was able to express genuine compassion and support a lot of people this way, and in some cases I even quietly sorrowed if I had developed a close rapport with a particular hospice patient.
But I never felt the heart-breaking affront to all that’s right and good that death truly is. It has taken the death a sweet (but also monumentally annoying) little dog who, in spite of the annoyance, brought joy to my heart every day, to get me to understand why Jesus wept even when He knew He was going to raise back to life the friend He was weeping for. Watching Oscar die, and then taking his floppy but still warm body home, wrapping him up, and burying him in the cold ground in a cairn of earth and rocks while hurricane-force winds and rain whipped around us suddenly made death a real thing. A horror and an offense. It was never supposed to happen this way. The fact that we animal lovers know that we will have to bury our pets, the fact that we humans know we will have to bury each other, the fact that there’s a disease running rampant around the world right now making that happen more and more frequently, is an affront. It isn’t natural. It isn’t supposed to be like this.
It’s possible to believe in the resurrection of Christ without the sense of death being a real thing–because I have believed it, all my life. I think you can even have a spark of intellectual understanding that the resurrection changes everything and that it enables our resurrection without having deeply mourned a death. But I don’t think the resurrection can become a really visceral hope until you’ve viscerally felt death as a real thing. If you’re someone who’s felt that horror, forgive me if I’ve ever come across as callous to you. And I pray you can move from the horror to the hope–because the resurrection of Jesus Christ overturning the way things are is really all I’m holding onto right now. It’s remarkably steady–even in the tears and the “not yet.”
I’m pretty glad we waited until after Resurrection Sunday to bring Oscar to the vet, because I don’t think I could’ve preached the sermon I needed to after it, and definitely need at least a year until the next go-round. But I wouldn’t say anything different. I’d just say it with more passion. The resurrection of Jesus is the only thing that can transform the world–and take death, and end it.