Touching Death for the First Time

I remember first becoming aware of death by imagining death, though not my own. One might expect the double insulation of imagining death and imagining it of another to provide double solace from the alternative means of becoming so aware. But I would have rather died.

The moment arrived, quite accidentally, while minding my own business, lying on the floorboard behind the driver’s seat of our family’s ’70-something Buick. We were on our way home to Indiana from our extended family trip to Ocean Isle, NC, where we annually gathered with my better looking side of the family in their better part of the country. My father reached his hand back signaling for mine. I held his hand with both of mine. Suddenly, lightening struck in my memory and I was brought back to another hand I had touched only weeks prior. It was a dead hand.

I must have been about five years old. It was my first funeral. Actually it was the wake. A friend’s great grandmother had died and I guess I had reached the age that a person should start looking at other kids’ great grandparents, dead, a kind of necessary rite to help prepare me for a world in which the oldest people are systematically in the habit of falling off the radar. But I was as dispassionate about this lady’s death as any child is about any other child’s great grandmother’s life. There’s good distance between a five year-old and a ninety-five year-old. And it’s better to introduce death on the far end of the gap before it begins its inevitable process of closing that gap, sometimes in leaps and bounds.

So I was told Matthew’s great grandmother was going to go live in heaven and we were going to go see her off. Heaven was about as concrete as death at the time, and now the two were welcomed into a kind of unholy matrimony in the undiscriminating image pool of my childhood mind. All the same. Death and heaven were both chalked up to things that have nothing to do with being a child. At that time, neither really had anything to do with Jesus either. Jesus was still more like an invisible heart stent that was given to all children en masse by volunteer surgeons at Vacation Bible School. If Jesus ever got into heaven, it would only be through the vehicle of some kid’s heart. But heaven was reserved for dead people, and death was reserved for old people, so as long as I was still a kid, Jesus was safe and I was too. And I had all this sorted out at a young age, because my dad was a pastor. 


Walking in the funeral parlor, two things seemed immediately out of place. First, the funeral director’s smile—it was a commanding smile, either entirely artificial or entirely too eager for the occasion. Second, everything else. Almost everything was coated in a rather unconvincing white. The flooring, stairs included, was carpeted with a blanket of what looked like the swollen tips of overly handled yarn. The walls were nicotine. Worst of all was the lights, the kind you can hear and cannot dim. They were naked and not ashamed and made everything else feel naked and ashamed. The house was haunted with a clinical glow that made the hard black shoes and starchy human outlines all the more sarcastic. Nor did it help that the rooms were small and ceilings were low. It had obviously once just been somebody’s house. I couldn’t tell if everything was trying not to be a house or rather trying too hard to make everyone feel at home, like when nobody feels at home at a church that tries to make everybody feel at home by not feeling like a church. In all such attempts, everything is blasphemed among the gentiles: homes, funeral homes, churches, and heaven. And this was no exception. It was a mix-matched monstrosity, like a heaven filled with old dead people. At that point, I just wanted to go home, and I sure as hell didn’t want to go to heaven.

Also, the strained faces seemed to belong more to the environment than the bodies they were attached to. A few faces were strained like they had been turned inside out, like the lights, the soul in the fully ‘on’ position. They did ugly things with their lips that you wouldn’t do if you could help it, at least not in that lighting. Most of the faces were strained in just the opposite way, trying so hard to match the ones not trying, though mostly trying in the eyes, not willing to match the lower region quiver for quiver. 


I think I remember the experience so vividly because it is the first time I realized that the world of adults is a pretend world because adults themselves, by and large, are actors, at least most of the time. The whole thing was as unconvincing as a movie with a split-second audio delay. I could actually see with my eyes the various distances between individuals and their place in time. There were a few who were consumed in the present moment, those who either could not or cared not to save face. But most kept some measured distance from that moment of death. I was learning that day something about the relationship between being and time or, less philosophically, empathy and being human.

Being human has something to do with being cut off from the whole and yet somehow still part of it. Humans are at once islands of consciousness and a sea of connectedness. Empathy describes the gravity in the tide on every shore, pulling fragments of sand into the sea and blurring the lines of selfhood. And it becomes far more empirically measurable whenever death is in the air, because grief is the sharp other edge of empathy, and it is the edge that crashes against the surface at death and pulls something in the human out like a riptide, something irreversibly lost at sea.

Empathy with the dead is a kind of death, because it reveals the capacity for life to be shared like a hypostatic union. It reveals that the archipelago of human life is not void of isthmuses. We call those sandy land bridges love. Grief, then, or empathy with the dead, is experienced as a sharing in the loss of a life that was shared together in love. It hurts like you would imagine death hurting if death were something you could feel. Turns out you can. And so, humans can feel death and the people looking at the ones feeling it can almost see death in the manifestation of their grief, like the way you can see a demon when it manifests through its human host, or like the way you can see a baby when it kicks a woman’s belly from the inside. Grief throws and thrusts the soul around with such irrepressible immediacy that the embodied bereaver is contorted into the shape of a wordless groan, or of Edvard Munch’s Scream

Grief is love’s wild groping for its beloved in love’s refusal to die. It is love’s desperate dive into the infinite abyss in a futile search for the wholeness that gave birth to it. No love is an island. Love is an isthmus. Love is a singular word that exists only as it cradles together plural referents, like the word pregnancy or God. People die and love does not, and so every life shared in love will inevitably share the cradle with death. And so God gives us grief to teach us something about Being and time.


But on this occasion there was not much of a sense of a love flailing about in protest, like I would eventually see the first time I went to a little kid’s funeral. There was a general sense that, well, it was time. This woman had already extended most of herself into that hospitable abyss in the loss of her nearests. She was more grief than love. And the great majority seemed entirely removed from a sincere capacity to enter into the the moment. There was stuffy proximity and infinite distances. As humans, we’re not good at acting out death. 

I was shuffled from the crowd of strained faces into a single-file line of shifting eyes waiting to see the main attraction. Surely, for most this was the ideal scenario—getting to see a real live dead person without having to care. Since most people at the funeral of a great grandmother are almost entirely dispassionate it allows them to be wildly curious. But nobody wants to look at anybody else because they don’t want to be found out and don’t really know what to say, and perhaps because they all feel a little ashamed that they really just want to look at the corpse.

But as a five year-old I was free of all that pretense. With brows at attention and heels as well, I finally got my first glimpse—but what I saw was not a real live dead person. It was not even a person. It was a kind of rubberized memory of a person. It was very out of place, the most out of place. And this was my first time seeing the inside of a casket, which seemed less like a home for a person who couldn’t feel and more like a vehicle designed to tumble people safely down a mountainside. This made the ex-person look all the more out of place or all the more like a crash dummy with bad makeup. When it was finally my turn to receive my ten second introduction to death, I stepped into position, looked intently at the stranger, and next thing I know we’re holding hands on the first date. 

It was an accident, or kind of an accident—an impulse. Death was in my reach, and I seized it. I remember being surprised, first that I was touching this hand, and second, what really stuck out to me, surprised by how cold it was. It wasn’t cold like ice is cold; it was just cold like a hand is not. There was something downright inhuman about this hand, about this face, about this whole situation (and maybe especially that funeral director). And not in a way that made me understand the reality or finality of death, but which almost seemed to render death unreal, even impossible. It was hard to take death seriously since it belonged to something so obviously not alive. Humans are alive, even old ones.


It wasn’t until I remembered the hand of that corpse while holding my father’s thick, warm hand that I became aware of death in any meaningful sense. Death meant the negation of all things. It wasn’t that I suddenly realized everyone would die. It was the overwhelming fore-shadow that came with the realization that if everyone would one day die, this hand would die, if every hand would one day feel cold like this hand does not, one day this hand would feel cold like this hand does not. This twice-removed encounter with death changed my life. The world became a sea of hungry hungry hippos eating away at love, carving one land mass into millions of castaways until all became sinking sand. But it wasn’t the all that mattered. I still didn’t care about anyone’s great grandmother. It was the prospect of this hand dying, which could not be replaced with the resurrection of a thousand others.

It is not the inevitable death of every person that makes death so unbearable; it is the inevitable death of love that makes certain deaths so unbearable. In my utter wickedness, I can stand the thought of damn near all the peoples on earth returning to the dust, but I cannot, to this day, stand the thought of a handful, my loved ones, returning to the dust. That thought was sent on a rotation in my mind that day and I could not hold it still. It began to consume everyone in its wheel, beginning in that Buick and working its way across the killing fields of my home town that until then had just been made of corn. The more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t not think about it. It was an idea more powerful than all my other ideas, consuming them in the way death does everything. I could do nothing about it. It had to be, and I knew it. I was thrust into life, into love, and I would be thrust out of both. We all would, and there was no solace to be found in any one being thrust out before another. The prospect of my death was no more or less tragic than the prospect of the death of those I love. The death of life is only tragic at all because it is the death of love, or at least the half-death of it, which is always more painful than whole death. 

I started to discover in that moment just how deep the soul goes. I kept holding my father’s hand, and the more I thought about not being able to, the deeper it went. By the end of the trip, I had drilled aching figure-eight canyons throughout my soul with a searching sadness that has never since been able to locate his origin or its end. I’m still looking for home. Indeed, love is so bent up toward eternity, it seems, that it refuses to tire out in the way our bodies refuse not to. And so I live and I look and I long. I love, therefore I’m damned.

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One Final Word

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This is one of the hundreds of letters to my grandfather spilling out of an old, cracked leather satchel, most of which are from listeners of his radio Gospel broadcast. This one is from “Jeffrey L. Woody…at Sandy a Ridge Prison Camp,” requesting a tape of his “Country Talk” (the name, I suppose, of a compilation of recitations, songs, sermons and the like). He indicates in his letter that he sent enclosed with his request “nearly every dime [he had].”

I found the letter paper-clipped to a copy of the response my grandfather sent (copied likely for bookkeeping, likely by my grandmother) that read as follows: “I am returning your $7.00 and will be glad to send a tape to your wife without charge, and if you send the address of your parents, your brother and son, I will send them a tape without charge. Prayerfully, Barney Pierce.” Below this personal note was a copy of a poem he had written, who knows when, perhaps just then, perhaps just for Jeffrey, called “Orphan’s Trial.” It is about a criminal who found an advocate with the Father in Jesus, and, as an orphan, found much more than even that. The last line reads:

“The lawyer was Jesus, the crucified one;

the judge was his Father, now I am his son.”

The last letter in the clip was Jeffrey’s response, in turn, full of praises to God and the addresses for his family.

And so the Gospel was heard, the captives were set free, and the kingdom of God advanced.


My grandfather has had a greater Gospel influence in this world than anyone I have ever known. I have read about the spiritual giants in Church history, and I am not necessarily skeptical of the Gospel influence they had, but I do know that if they had any such influence it was not because they were giants but in spite of it. It is because they were the kind of people who could broadcast the Gospel across the globe by day and write to a prisoner named Jeffrey by night. It is because of all those little things history doesn’t tell us about that grandchildren find evidence of in untold testimonies while cleaning out the attic. The Gospel always comes to us swaddled in smallness, because how else can such a giant God convince such little people of his love?

Despite his Yoda-like stature (or perhaps because of it), Granddaddy was always a spiritual giant in my eyes. I realize now it is precisely because, despite his far-reaching influence and unscalable faith, he always met me at eye level. It is because his God-sized faith never tried to outgrow his childlike heart. He made it easy for all the little people to understand gigantic Love. I learned from my grandfather that the reach of a man’s impact for Christ can only be measured by the size of his willingness to shrink.

Granddaddy died yesterday at the ripe old age of 98. His testimony is now complete. Death delineates every life, carving it out of time as a single word left to the world with greater power than any of the many uttered before it. It both reveals and expresses the testimony of a life in the fullest sense, as legacy, or more precisely, as momentum.

Every life passes through this world like a semi on the highway, pulling life and matter and memory in its wake. Some lives, when buried, pull on the lives around them like a black hole on light. But some lives, when finally broken, release an outpouring of spirit that fills the sails of generations for generations. Granddaddy has left a mighty rushing wind of momentum pushing against the backs of his family and countless others with guidance and confidence and encouragement, indeed a kind of power, to stay the course, resolutely, to follow him Christ-ward headlong into death. We will finally, next weekend, sow his life into the ground, side-by-side with his beloved, where he and my grandmother will together continue to yield an orchard of blessing for all the lives living in their wake.

Thank you, Granddaddy, for showing me how to live and, more importantly, for showing me how to die.

“He who is faithful in very little is also faithful in much” (Lk. 16:10).

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn. 12:24).

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Christmastide (Final) Reflection: Second-born


“And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, ‘Behold, this child will be laid down for the fall and the resurrection of many, and for a sign that is opposed, (and a sword will pierce your own soul also), so that the thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Lk. 2:34-35). 


Originally Titled: Levi Ryser: Born in the Shadow of the Savior

The baby was born. They called him James.

There’s not much to say about James. He doesn’t say much about himself in the letter he left for us. The only other thing the Bible says about James is that he was the brother of Jesus (Gal. 1:19). All we get from Church history about James is in fragments, no cohesive narrative. A guy named Hegesippus called him James the Just. It stuck.

But it’s no surprise there’s not much to say about James, because all that is said of him is said under the shadow of his big Brother. James the Just, brother of Jesus the Judge, born in the shadow of the Savior. A hard act to follow.

I wonder if Mary felt guilty. She was found to be with child, again, but not by the Holy Spirit again. This time by plain ol’ unholy Joe. This child surely would not be so godly as her First. I wonder if she felt guilty before James was born, knowing that she could not love him as much as her Firstborn (of all Creation)?

But even more than that, I wonder if she felt guilty after he was born. I wonder if she felt guilty when she realized that she loved her second-born just as much.


I remember when we were expecting our firstborn. All Keldy thought about was the baby. She loved him in I suppose the way only a mother can love an unborn child. I on the other hand felt guilty. I could not relate. For those nine months my reaction to her pregnancy was a kind of surprised “Oh yeah…”, coupled with a nagging fear that I wasn’t going to love him like a father is supposed to love his son. I literally feared that I would love my dogs more than my son. Babies just hadn’t been all that impressive to me, because I am not a woman. The honest men out there know what I’m talking about. Women have no clue.

Except for maybe Mary. Mary knows. Mary had, after all, held at her bosom the one who came from the bosom of God the Father (Jn. 1:18). Mary had indeed “kissed the face of God.” But this second-born would be just another face in the shadow of the Almighty. Mary wasn’t yet used to having children who weren’t God. And middle children already have a syndrome named after them, but what of the one that comes second to the Savior of the world. Mary knows.

When Kezek was born, I started treating my dogs like dogs. I loved my firstborn so intensely that I was afraid I loved him more than God. I was afraid that if anything were to happen to him I would hate God. That fear lingers.

When Keldy told me we were expecting again, I was doubly guilty and doubly afraid. Not only did I love my firstborn more than or as much as God, now I feared that I would not love my second-born as much as my firstborn, perhaps only as much as the dogs.


The baby was born. We called him Levi Ryser. There was no sound. He was blue. The voices of the people in white raised an octave. They stopped looking us in the eye. They were looking at some protocol that was visible only to those who knew some unspoken “code.” Ryser needed decoded.

The doctor handed him to me to carry as I was paced at an uncomfortable pace en route to the NICU. It seemed far too much like a formality for my first embrace of my second-born son, like it was a consolation, a mere gesture, the beginning of some process necessary for some Contingency Plan Z. It felt like I was greeting my newborn son with a goodbye. 

There are no words here that will do.

I held him as close to my heart heart as humanly possible. I tried to hold him as close to my heart as humanly impossible, or as inhumanly possible. I tried to pour my life into his. I tried to empty myself to fill him up. I tried to breath for him. I wanted to cut out my heart and put it into his body. I wanted to die so I could raise him from the dead. Anything. Just please…

I think that was the first day I ever actually interceded for someone. I beat on heaven’s door like one of those old grandmothers who’s earned the right to act that way. I was pleading, then I was demanding, then I was crying. I had felt the joy of a father’s love with my firstborn but with my second-born I was brushing up against the prospect of a father’s grief. I was feeling the very sharp other edge of love for the first time. I learned that day something about the sword Simeon told Mary about (Lk. 2:35). 


Four days later, he was stable. Over those four days I started to understand what I suppose Mary had come to understand with her second-born: that the love of God and the love of a son are not two separate loves. The sword that pierced Mary’s heart and the spear that pierced her Son’s were felt first in the love that was laid at the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8).

God is love in a very nounish sense, like the nounish sense of the word creation or the Word Incarnation. Mary couldn’t compare her love for Jesus with her love for James, because her love for James came from the life of Jesus. There is no love apart from that Life. Indeed, there is no life apart from that Love. If it is in God that we “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), then Love is the ether of all our relationships. To love is merely an act of alignment.


His name has become more fitting than I had intended. Levi Ryser means, by my assignment, death and resurrection, or offering and acceptance, or more simply “Gift of God” (with the intentionally ambiguous genitive). It is the second-born of Mary, after all, by whom we discover ourselves, since we all are second-born of the dead. We discover that unto us a Child is born, to us a Son is given, in order to restore love to its proper form, that we might love our own as we love God, because he loves us as though we were his own. That is the meaning of yesterday’s Birthday and therefore every birthday in the light of its shadow.

Levi was born on the altar, where all gifts are born. He was born without breath, blue. But while he was yet unknown and unknowing, en route to the NICU, he was already being born in the bosom of his father. I think in that moment, if for only that moment, I understood Mary. I think I understood something about motherhood that day. I understood what it was like to carry a life that could not carry itself apart from my own. I understood what it was like to carry life with a sense that if one dies, we all die, if one lives, we all live. I think I learned something about being the Mother of God that day. I’m certain I learned something about being a father that day, maybe even something about being a Son.

We had decided to call him Ryser before he was born. But Levi was Ryser before he was born. He was raised in his mother’s heart for nine months. And he was raised in his father’s for four days. He is now growing up in both. And all this is from God, because he has been raised from eternity in the heart of Love. And my only plea for his life is that through our feeble hands he will continue to be held in that Love. God, help us.

Ryser is our number two, but he is loved just as much as the Firstborn, even if he was born in His shadow, even if we did use leftover nativity scene wrapping paper for his birthday presents this year.


Happy Birthday, Ryser. You are loved with an everlasting love, my son.

“How precious is your steadfast love, O God! The children of man take refuge in the shadow of your wings.” 

~ Psalm 36:7

Christmas Reflection ~

“The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel'” (Mk. 1:1-15). 

Mark get straight to the point. There are no mangers or magi, no sheep or stars, no angels in the sky or shepherds in the field. A Man appears with a message, with News: Times up! The King is come! 

Good News, indeed. 

And the response? Repent. To repent means to change your mind. If the King is come, change your mind about your unwarranted fears, about your uncertain future. If the King is come, change your mind about your hopelessness, your joylessness, your unrest. If the King is come, change your mind about yourself, your neighbors, this world, and your God—because you and they and this world are loved.

So beloved of God, repent, for Christmas is at hand!

“The war is at an end – even though here and there troops are still shooting, because they have not heard anything yet about the surrender. The game is won, even though the player can still play a few further moves. Actually he is already mated. The clock has run down, even though the pendulum still swings a few times this way and that. It is in this interim space that we are living: the old is past, behold it has all become new. The Gospel of God’s Kingdom tells us that our enemies, sin, the curse and death, are beaten. Ultimately they can no longer start mischief. They still behave as though the game were not decided, the battle not fought; we must still reckon with them, but fundamentally we must cease to fear them any more. If you have heard the Gospel message, you can no longer run around with a tragic face and lead the humorless existence of a person who has no hope. One thing still holds, and only this one thing is really serious, that Jesus is the Victor.” 

~ Karl Barth

Merry Christmas!

Advent Reflection 24: Life & Death at the Feet of the Master

“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men” (Mt. 2:16).

We simply cannot wish it away. The Christmas story comes to us in a world of unbelievable evil, sin, and death, even infanticide. A Baby is born and laid in a manger, countless others murdered and laid in graves, and all under the dominion of “king Herod.” The true Christmas story is about the world’s true King coming to restore his dominion in a world under the dominion of death—human dominion. Below is a reflection about the day I became more convinced than ever about the futility, the destructiveness, of my own dominion, one of the days I began to truly long for Christ to come back and restore his dominion

May God teach us how to long for his Tomorrow.


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Originally Titled: Eulogy for A Beast: Life & Death at the Feet of the Master

Pulling out of my driveway I felt my tires roll over something. I noticed it lacked that dispersive crunching sound common to toys under the tire. Outdoor toys typically have exoskeletons. This felt soft and intact. When I turned to see what it was my heart sank. Ringo was lying on his side, his little legs stretched wide and vulnerable and unrelaxed.

I jumped out of my truck and ran to him. He was alive and focused, straining with all his will to fill his crushed lungs with air. Every ten or so seconds he would choke down a hiccup-full. He was too focused on trying to breath to acknowledge my presence. I bet that broke his heart.


For the last 14 years Ringo has lived to acknowledge my presence. Before he lost his hearing, he would hear my presence before I ever entered the door, where I would find him already waiving at me with his tail. Even after he lost his hearing I often found him there, waiting and waving, who knows for how long. If he didn’t greet me at the door, the moment I walked into his field of vision he would perk up his big square head, struggle up with his little old legs, and carry his big long body over to my feet.

There were two places Ringo lived: on his blanket by the wood stove and at my feet. While I was gone he would lay on his blanket by the stove. While at home he would sit at my feet when I sat, stand at my feet when I stood, and follow my feet when I walked. Sometimes I would acknowledge his presence, often I would not. But he never took it personally. He never repaid neglect for neglect, evil for evil. He was always more Christian of a dog than I am a man. 

On average I probably stepped on or tripped over Ringo about once a week, sometimes responding apologetically, other times erupting volcanically, depending on my mood. But he was always forgiving of my mistakes and remorseful under my wrath, always showing deference to my judgment, whether just or unjust, whether I treated him like the family dog or my personal scapegoat. Regardless, nothing I ever did or didn’t do diverted his good will toward me. He was unwavering, a far more principled dog than I am a man. But I suppose to him I was more than a man. I was his master. And he lived to affirm me as such. He lived to sit at my feet.

When God created Ringo he used only one substance: one hundred percent pure, undiluted loyalty. His form, however, was not as pure as his substance. He was an admixture of odd proportions, the body of a wiener dog, the head of a pit bull, and the howl of a Canaanite. But shapes and sizes aside, his substance was sure. He had the pure and undivided heart of a saint—until I broke it in two with my truck.


Now he lay there, divided, no doubt wishing he could acknowledge my presence in this rare moment I was acknowledging his with such undivided attention. I was more present to him in that moment than I had ever been in his 98 dog-year-old life, with my face pressed gently on his neck, my hands stroking his head, as I told him over and over how sorry I was and how good of a dog he was. But it took all the energy he had just to live, to keep breathing straw-fulls of breath. So he just couldn’t acknowledge my presence—he was hardly able even to acknowledge his own.

I was torn. I didn’t know what to do or what he would want me to do. I wanted so badly to assure him that he had done nothing wrong, that I was not displeased with him, that I did not hurt him on purpose, that he was a good dog and I was a bad master. I wanted him to know that this was not the intent of my will toward him; but it was the fault of my will, my reckless and wayward will, and I was so sorry. Ringo deserved a better master than the one I proved to be in the end. I wanted him to know that I had failed in my responsibilities to take care of him, but that I have a Master who has not failed, and that the Master who gave me dominion over him would return in the end to take his dominion back, to fix this broken world and Ringo’s broken heart. I wanted him to know that on that day I will join Ringo’s side and we’ll sit together at our Master’s feet.

I wanted to assure him of all this but I think I was just making it worse. I think I was just consoling myself and prolonging his suffering, if not adding to it with my disquietedness, if not making him feel guilty, like he was failing me. He probably felt he was not giving me the honor and attention I deserved, which he spent his whole life giving me—despite the fact that I never deserved it.  

Making the decision to kill Ringo was not the hardest decision I had to make—I wanted his suffering to end immediately. The hardest decision was leaving him to fetch my log-splitting axe from the woodshed, the same one I use to split the wood to burn the fire to keep the house and the dog warm. I knew I had to end his suffering but I hated to leave him for even a second. He proved his whole life that he valued my presence more than his comfort, especially in these latter years as he limped around in my shadow, doing his best to keep up with someone 62 years his younger (when you do the dog-math). I wanted to give him the gift of my presence as far as I could possibly extend it into that void which takes all presence away. I tried to yell for Keldy to grab my axe, but she was inside putting the kids down for a nap and couldn’t hear me. So I told him again how good of a dog he was, how sorry I was, and that I would be right back. I ran as fast as I could to the woodshed, cursing the day, damning the divisions in my heart and the one in Ringo’s too.  

I returned in a matter of seconds and knelt again as before, cheek to cheek, doing my best to embrace him without adding more pain to his sadness and suffering. I told him again how sorry I was, how good of dog he was, and that I loved him so much. He gasped again, probably trying to tell me how sorry he was—though he had done nothing wrong—and how good of a master I was—though he deserved much better—and that he loved me too. He was probably trying to tell me he forgave me for running him over with my truck and for now having to kill him, for he knows I often know not what I do. He had never once held a grudge against or withheld his forgiveness from me. As far as I could tell, he had never kept a record of wrongs against anyone. He loved more like my Master than any man I’ve ever met. 

I put my hands under his head and hips and pulled him off the edge of the driveway into a bed of pine needles as gently as I could, leaving a crimson smear against the black surface and all over my unclean hands. He winced subtly, his eyes widening in acknowledgment of a more acute moment of pain. I winced too. I wanted to scream, I wanted to breath fire, I wanted to pour out my wrath on sin and death and suffering, I wanted to punish the darkness with searing light and the silence with shattering thunder. But I kept quiet. I didn’t want to add any more panic to the moment already wrapping around Ringo’s thick copper neck, shortening his breath in the long dawn of night. So I told him one last time that I was so, so sorry, that he had done nothing wrong, that he was such a good dog, that none of this was his fault, that I’m the guilty one, that it was because of my divided heart that his was now broken, that his blood was forever on my hands. I felt it would take no less than hellfire to burn the stain off my hands, or perhaps burn my hands off the stain. [At least it felt like that in the moment. It’s wearing off. The heart is fickle. Pilate’s basin will do.]

Ringo, like all the beasts of the field, would have to die because I willed him to death, because I willed the death of all things. God entrusted his creaturely world to human care, and we turned on God and on each other and on all God’s critters and creatures. We were created to be God-reflecting masters of a good garden world (Gen. 1-2) but became blood-thirsty tyrants of a shadowy desert wasteland (Gen. 3-rest of the Bible). All of our creation companions now rightly live in the “fear and dread” of us (Gen. 9:2), most species simply keeping a safe distance from us, preferring flight over fight unless backed into a corner. But one species above the rest has not allowed their fear of our dominion to drive them to rebel against it. They insist on acknowledging our presence as the presence of royalty, humbly moving toward us, bowing before us, sitting at our feet. They can still perhaps see reflections, refractions rather, of Light splintering through us from the shadows that come out of us. Ringo seemed only to see my God-given light as though I were its source, as though I weren’t its eclipse. So he trusted me, his master, with his life. But I betrayed him, the most loyal of all God’s creatures. He entrusted his life to me and I ensnared him in my death. 

If I’d had a means of killing him quickly without releasing him from my arms I would have used it, but I had nothing of the sort. I hated having to withdraw my presence from him, but I had no choice. I had to forsake him of my presence to end the presence of his suffering, the only presence he would ever know again until he knew none at all. So he had to die alone, at the hand of his master, who stood away from him, against him, at arm’s length. I kissed him on the mouth, like Judas, snapped back like a rattlesnake coiling up to strike, and in a storm of fury I sent all my rage at that godforsaken moment through the broad side of my log-splitting axe into the left side of my loyal dog’s head, condemning him to the death I deserve, the death I created.

His legs dropped, his body relaxed, and his life ended where it longed to live forever—at my feet.

I dropped to my knees and put one hand over his heart and the other over my face–the moment was naked and I was ashamed. Now that I was certain he was no longer aware of my presence, that I could add no more pain and unrest to his life, I opened my mouth and filled my neighborhood with a curse. Mark says that when Jesus died he “uttered a loud cry and breathed his last” (Mk. 15:37). There are things that should be said near the point of death if at all possible—things like “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” and “I love you.” But perhaps something must be said at the point of death itself, at death itself, and perhaps that can only come out as a loud cry or a groaning, or thundering, curse. That is what love sounds like at death. Love hates death with a Passion. Love screams at death. Love “casts Death and Hades into the lake of fire” with unrelenting wrath and inexorable fury (Rev. 20:14). Love condemns death as the unforgivable sin.


I used to imagine Jesus sitting silently at the right hand of God until he returns. I don’t anymore. I think he is screaming. I think all of heaven is raging against human sin and death in a loud, grinding battle cry, first heard from the cross, which will not cease until Jesus returns on the clouds of heaven to give form to his thunder in a bolt of Light that strikes death in a merciless command of life:

“For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout of command…and the dead in Christ will be first to rise” (1 Thess. 4:16).

I think Ringo will hear that command. I don’t know if all dogs go to heaven—who am I to judge?—but I believe Ringo will. I was Ringo’s master. If I have any say in whom or what Jesus raises from the dead when he returns I suppose it would be limited to those creatures over whom he gave me dominion. As Ringo’s master, therefore, I want to hereby make an appeal for his life. I want to confess that I was never fit to be another creature’s master, much less such a good and faithful one as he, and plead with God to take back the dominion he gave me over Ringo in the first place and give it to Jesus, who is fit to be Ringo’s Master, my Master, Master of all. In my kingdom, everything ends up dying because of my reckless and wavering will. I get it. I’ve learned my lesson. I don’t want to be king anymore. I want a Master who can keep the world alive, the garden alive, Ringo alive, life alive.

If God’s grace brings resurrection to the sinners he loves, should we not expect it also brings resurrection to those creatures most loyal to the sinners he loves? He’s the one who created them, no doubt to teach us something about loyalty and unconditional love, about friendship and humility and forgiveness and joy and trust. Most every dog I’ve ever met knows more about all of the above than any human I’ve ever met. Besides, innocent dogs in heaven makes more sense than sinful sinners in heaven, so I’ll keep looking forward to a reunion with that great cloud of K9s who will no doubt lead the way in showing us how to properly live at our Master’s feet when he returns. 


So we corralled the boys and Sissy together for a “family meeting.” My children have never known life without Ringo. He was part of the reality into which they each were received, an odd but delightful part of the family. Ringo, on the other hand, had known life without my children, a life where he got far more loving attention and far less physical abuse. But he was raised in the south and had the gift of hospitality. He never repaid horsey rides with doggy bites. I was actually a little concerned about how he would react to the kids at first, because he did once kill our neighbor’s (evil) goat, but he proved to be discerning. He knew the difference between the children and the goats, and the closest he ever came to biting my children was licking the sticky off their faces.  

Our tone was lower and our herding efforts more firm and focused than usual. They kept asking what we were doing and why we were meeting, and we kept not answering. We eventually got them all seated on the couch in the living room, where Ringo could usually be found if he weren’t found at my feet. It was the place his presence could be felt most, and now, therefore, his absence, which already had begun to swell out of proportion to the limited spaces his presence formerly inhabited: in the heaviness on my face, the cracking of my voice, and, indeed, the loneliness at my feet. It’s as though a creature’s body veils an essence that is only fully disclosed after it is broken, after it is dead and gone. Only then the veil is torn, releasing the true nature of the life represented in the body, the life now dead in the body. I kill a mosquito and it is gone. I kill my dog and he begins to haunt me, his absence more revealing than his presence. A centurion kills a Man and God begins to haunt him. Out of His absence comes the terrifying confession in a shower of water and blood (Mt. 27:54; Mk. 15:39). 

I told them I had some really sad news to share with them: “Ringo died today.” A breathless look of surprise contorted each of the boys’ faces and was followed by three distinct responses: Maccabee (3) trying to comfort me and touch my face, Ryser (4) asking troubled and heavy questions about Ringo’s death and the nature of death itself, and Kezek (6) entering the ebb and flow of those initial impact waves of grief, wavering between questioning incredulity and wailing sorrow. I stumbled over words trying to respond, Keldy helping, clarifying, filling in the blanks as I would get choked up. It’s hard to watch your children’s first real concrete encounter with death. I think Kezek and Ryser both encountered death yesterday. It brushed against Ryser’s mind and pierced Kezek’s heart. I think it was once removed from Maccabee. He encountered it by way of my grief, his compassion for me shielding him from too direct an encounter. But each of their responses only took me deeper into my own encounter, because I knew the death of their first dog would be their first step toward discovering the death of all dogs, all people, all the living, including each of them and the ones they’ve shared their life and presence with from birth.

I told them we would now have to say goodbye to Ringo and bury him in the backyard, between the garden and the briar patch. Keldy had wrapped Ringo in his blanket and I had laid him at the edge of the garden next to one adult- and three kid-sized shovels so the boys could help dig. I uncovered the intact side of Ringo’s face so the boys could pet him one last time. I tried to press Ringo’s eyes shut, but they insisted on staying open. I think he was still trying to acknowledge my presence.

We laid him in the hole with his only two toys, which he had paid little attention to in the last few years, and an old pair of my shoes, where all his attention had been paid, especially in these last few years. When the boys asked why I put my shoes in the hole with Ringo I told them because he lived his whole life to sit at my feet and I wanted him to stay there forever. And then they heard their father weep like they had never heard before and all three climbed in my lap to console me. Kezek wept with me.

death, lifeAs we began shoveling dirt into the hole Radley (1) began saying “Baaaaah” (Southern for “Bye”) over and over, matter-of-factly.  Once the hole returned to ground level, the green ground now marked with a big brown scar, I told the boys I needed them to help me make a cross. We went to the woodshed and picked out a long red cedar branch I hadn’t yet cut for kindling. I cut it in two unequally sized pieces and notched each to be fitted into the other. Each boy helped me secure the crossbeam using one decking screw a piece—they pressed the trigger while I held the drill. We then returned to the gravesite to stake a claim on Ringo’s life. I dug a narrow hole and poured a half bag worth of leftover concrete down to the bottom. I used the broad side of my log-splitting axe to hammer down the cross as deep as it would go until it began splintering at the top, the same one I use to split the wood to burn the fire to keep the house warm.


I told the boys we were marking Ringo’s grave with a cross because the cross reveals to us what is on the other side of death, so we need not live in fear of death. I continued along those lines, weaving the moment into the Big Story of death and life using two kinds of thread, one made of dreams, the other of visions: dreams of a Garden in the world and visions of the world as a Garden. Probably a little less wordy but something like:

Death does not belong in God’s original or final intent for the world, for us. God created the earth to become a garden planet, wholly good and void of death, void of thistles and thorns. He gave it to us as a gift and blessed us to fill it and keep it and care for it, to expand the garden wherever we went. But we did not take good care of it. We have buried his blessing in a curse, filling the earth with thickets of pain. Under our dominion, the garden has gone to seed. We need a new Master to restore the garden–and God has sent One to us. 

Jesus came to earth carrying the dominion of heaven in his Person (Mt. 3:2; Mk. 1:15), which he revealed to be a servant-shaped dominion (Phil. 2:6-11). The Master ruled by crawling under the table, down there with the dinner crumbs and the dog hair, and washing his servants’ feet (Jn. 13:1-17). He ruled by allowing the will of his Father in heaven for all creation rule over the self-preserving creaturely will he had inherited from the womb (Lk. 22:42; cf. Rom. 8:1-4; 2 Cor. 5:21). And so he was crowned with a braided halo of flightless thorns and buried in a garden tomb, in which the thorns remained buried but from which he was raised to life. Mary mistook him for a Gardener—it was no mistake. The Master Gardener just had to go underground to lay the axe at the root of creation’s curse, that ground-grown will to be like god apart from God (Gen. 3:5), so that God could raise him from the ground as the “firstfruits” of new creation (1 Cor. 15:20,) indeed the “firstborn from the dead” (Col. 1:18; Rev. 1:5). God has made a fertile womb of this barren world. 

So we are living between the times, between God’s age-old creation and brand-new creation, between Friday’s night and Sunday’s morning, where the thorns touch the Garden, where death is the conclusion to life. But death is only the conclusion to life under our rule, creation under our rule, where men crucify their gods and run over their dogs. We too must learn to long for the death of our wayward, willful rule, for all creation to be born again under the will of God. But we can, we must, be born again even today, because God is present to us now, in the in-between, to all who call on the Name of Jesus, the One who has come, the One who is coming back–his Name is God’s number (Acts 2:21; Rom. 10:13). To all who offer up their dominion to him, who cast their crown at his feet and confess that Jesus is Master, God has sent a downpour of his Spirit to begin washing away the deadroots of the curse entangling our hearts and restoring the blessing of heaven (cf. Acts 2). When he returns, he will finish what he started, burning off the dross of our ground-rule estates and welcoming us back from below up into the Garden–under his rule–the dirt as it is in Heaven. 

Until then, we stake a cross at the sharp edge of life’s end, between death and Life, between the thorns and the Garden, because we believe that though death is the end of life, Jesus is the end of death. We must not, then, wish for Ringo to return. We must wait for Christ to return. Lazarus returned and had to die again. When Jesus returns death will have to die again–and we’ll all celebrate our birthday on Easter.  

I also told the boys that Ringo wanted to die first because he loved us so much. I didn’t really explain what I meant. I don’t really know what I meant at the time. Looking back, though, I can’t help but wonder if it were true. Ringo never got in the way of a vehicle. He was street smart, a stray when I found him, wearing a chest harness attached to a broken chain. I can’t help but wonder if God gave Ringo the opportunity not only to love his master in life but now to love his master in death, to die in such a way as to give life through his death, to take up his cross and die for me. Perhaps he or God saw how careless I can be pulling out of the driveway and knew I needed to learn a lesson, a hard and convincing lesson. The fact is, it could have just as easily been one of my children in the wayward path of my truck. And Ringo knew the difference between the children and the dog. He knew what a child is worth to his master. Perhaps, then, in his last gesture of love for his master and his master’s family he threw himself under my truck to prevent me from killing one of my own children, which could have happened just as easily, just as quickly, just as permanently. There is a very real possibility that Ringo’s death has saved a child’s, my child’s, life. Ringo is a hero, perhaps even a martyr, and for that he deserves nothing less than the Lion’s share of my inheritance.  


Yesterday morning, before all hell broke loose, I woke up way earlier than my alarm and could not fall back to sleep. So I made my coffee and walked over to the wood stove to sit beside Ringo, who was still asleep on his blanket, snoring. I startled him when I put my hand on his head, one of the few times in our relationship I can remember acknowledging his presence before he acknowledged mine, and only now because he was in a deep sleep, and because he was deaf. I touched him and he was jolted out of his slumber, awakening to his master scratching behind his ears, that place God installed dogs’ love receptors. He didn’t move his body but stretched his chin toward my thigh, waiting for me to meet him the rest of the 9/10s of the way. He knew I would. He knew how much I loved him when the kids weren’t around and I wasn’t in a bad mood. So I scooted over a few feet and he rested his chin on my leg. I was acknowledging his presence, and it was one of the best mornings of his life.

It is comforting to know that yesterday, on the day he died, I got to surprise him into life with my presence, to acknowledge his presence before he acknowledged mine, awakening him to his master’s unsolicited love—because I believe Tomorrow will happen for him in just the same way, as it will for us all who call Christ our Master, when the loud cry at death enters into the ground commanding the briars to die and the Garden to grow, when the grieving of God over death erupts from below as the command of Life everlasting, Light everlasting, Love everlasting—the world under the command of its Master, all creation at the feet of Jesus.

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Advent Reflection 23: Homeless

Another special guest post from my sister, ChristiAnna Coats. For more of her writings, you can buy her first book on Amazon (also a great stocking stuffer!): click here for link. 

“And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son'” (Mt. 2:14-15). 

I had lied to my mother. I had lied to her about where I was going, who was with me, and what I would be doing. Those were the three questions she always asked and I had lied about each one in order to go on a double date…fully two years before I was permitted to do so.

And I regretted it immediately.

I thought it would be dinner and a movie. Like an episode of Saved by the Bell, where we ended the evening laughing at the diner drinking milkshakes. I was fourteen.

We had ended up at someone’s home. No. Someone’s house. But did anyone really live here? I couldn’t figure out what they were doing with the spoon over the fire. I remember feeling invisible. No one seemed to notice me and I tried not to look directly at any of them. Being invisible was the only solace I had. Should anyone have spoken to me, or attempted to engage me in whatever it was they were doing, I fully expected to become a puddle in the floor. It was the Saturday night before Easter.

I wanted to go home. I was 14, but I may as well have been 5. I longed for the scent of my mother, the creak in our wooden floor, and blankets that would envelope my shame. I imagined that she would be preparing our baskets and the morning would come and it would be the most glorious feeling in the whole world. I couldn’t wait. I looked around the room and knew that no one else there had a mother like mine. I was so close to home, but had never felt so far away. My gut had such a wrenching ache.

This was my first true experience of longing for home.

My second longing, however, is much different from the first. The second longing comes with an assurance that the first longing only dreamt of. There is no longer a hollow ache in my gut. My second longing is accompanied with hope. The second longing is accompanied with peace. The second longing is able to experience the kingdom already but not yet the kingdom to its fullest. The kingdom to its fullest is still yet to come. Until then, we sojourn on. Until then we are all foreigners here, strangers in a strange land. Even when the babies are tucked in tight, and there are soft carols playing, and the glow of the twinkling lights provide the only evening light we need, and I am in my home…I’m not home. Permanence here is illusive. Because for every child nestled all snug in his bed, there is a restless one with no earthly ear to hear his cry.

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

I’m not home until there are no more homeless refugees, trying to makes sense of their plight. I’m not home until there is nary a need for a gun, nor a fence, nor a password, nor a calendar, nor antidepressants. I’m not home until the fatherless get evening bear hugs with real touchable beards. I’m not home until babies sleep from a full belly, rather than hungered exhaustion. I’m not home until there are no more orphans smoking in crack houses on the Saturday night before Easter. I’m not home until there is no more night. In his book, Longing for Home, Frederick Buechner writes, “be really at home is to be really at peace, and our lives are so intricately interwoven that there can be no real peace for any of us until there is real peace for all of us.”


Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

But there will come a Day!

Until that Day, we wait. We wait as Israel waited. And we wait with the promise that “The Lord watches over sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless…”. Until that Day, we wait not as we wait in line at WalMart, passively biding the moments until we can get on with our day. We wait as we wait for Christmas. We wait in constant preparation and proclamation. We wait, all the while proclaiming to the orphan that she has a Father! We wait, all the while proclaiming to the addict that the void can be filled – filled to overflowing! We wait, all the while proclaiming to the hungry, and the weary, and the worn – hope! And we proclaim to the refugees – all of us longing for a home – there is a home with table prepared, and where everyone has a Father.

And the Father is always, always home (John 14:2-3).

Advent Reflection 22: Violence

“Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”

All was not calm, all was not bright for Joseph, Mary, and the Baby. Christ came into a world that was turned in on itself. The people of God were divided, their hopes were divided, their allegiances were divided. Alliances were formed as much around what people were against as what they were for. It was a world of violence, a world all too familiar to our own. One thing virtually everyone could agree on, however, is that they were not interested in crowning a “Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6). The Son of God came into the world to bring peace and from day one the world sought to destroy Him. Everybody hates a peacemaker. May the Church of Jesus Christ be willing to be hated by all.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God (Mt. 5:9). 


american-civil-war-abstract-expressionism-zeana-romanovna

~ American Civil War by Georgiana Romanovna

This article was recently published at Asbury Theological Seminary’s Seedbed website during the height of conflicts that precipitated from the Ferguson ‘incident’. Below is a revised and slightly expanded version that better qualifies the most salient points. 


Originally Titled: A Confession of Violence

As a person who regularly tries to encourage fellow brothers and sisters in Christ to try to spend more time concerning themselves with the Good News of Jesus (that produces hope) than the nothing-new-under-the-sun headline news (that produces fear), I think it is necessary at this time to acknowledge a certain need for followers of Christ to speak out publicly—with a distinctly Christian voice—in light of the recent tragedies and the increasing angst in our nation’s cultural climate. There is only one such voice: 

For that reason, I have a confession I need to make. It is a confession of violence.


I was reminded this week of what Karl Barth once wrote in his journal at a significant turning point in his life and thought during the First World War:

“It is not the war that disturbs our peace. The war is not even the cause of our unrest. It has merely brought to light the fact that our lives are all based on unrest. And where there is unrest there can be no peace” (Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts, Eberhard Busch). 

As fingers continue to point, defenses continue to rise, and the wilderness is increasingly populated with a rapid influx of expatriated goats (Lev. 16), I hesitate to say what I feel I must say, because I am quite possibly wrong. But with that disclaimer: I want to suggest that there is a very real possibility that the recent tragedies in this nation were not simply caused by a few bad apples in an otherwise innocent bunch. I have to consider at least the possibility that somehow the increased supply of violence in our culture is suited precisely to meet the increase of a cultural demand, of which we are all complicit.

Consider for example the current political circus. There have been no shortage of aggravated complaints and expressions of puzzlement over how, of all the people our nation could have produced, we ended up with Cruella Deville and Leopold II as the two representatives of our nation’s principle values and common visions. And yet, I can’t help but think we are just willfully ignoring the obvious and only explanation; namely, the reason we ended up with the current representatives of this nation is that they are most representative of this nation.

This is not simply a principle of democracy. It is a principle of the more decisive governing factor in our consumerist culture, the principle of supply and demand. We have been feeding on this extended campaign season with an irrepressible appetite. Media networks, profiting outrageously from our patronage, have risen to meet our demand, and we in turn rise to feed on the surplus (a few tweeting feuds, some scandals, and a delicious array of ad hominem attacks). All the while the people blame the networks for the results, while the networks blame the other networks, while the other networks blame the people. Everybody is taking from everybody and then turning on everybody. It’s like a group of smeared-mouth toddlers blaming each other for cookies missing from the pan, but actually it’s a lot more like a twisted praying mantis love triangle.

But all this misses the point, because it is not the candidates we support that have produced this conflict; it is the conflict we support that has produced these candidates. And indeed they were perfect candidates for the task.

I think I can say unequivocally, if only because it can be neither proved nor denied, that what has most resonated with this nation in this campaign is its unprecedented rhetoric of violence. A civil war of clumsy words and gasoline passions is raging throughout our nation. We’re not looking for representatives of social values–we’re looking for spokesmen of social angst. Thus, rather than candidates engaging in principled arguments with regular appeals to the constitution, candidates must engage in a hyper-reactive surface battle of uncritical sentiments and prove most capable of weaponizing trivia and amplifying slander. Who will prove to be the biggest bullhorn for the mob? Who will prove to have the loudest arguments? Who will lead half of this country in a campaign of disgust against the other half of this country?

The nominees may not represent much of what we stand for, but they represent quite exactly what we stand against, which is why we ended up with the two candidates who are supremely competent at attacking the incompetence of the other. It has become far easier in our nation to rally people around whom they hate than what they love. The appeal that resonates with this country’s soul is a an appeal to our restlessness, for which we are miserably fearful or passionately infuriated (a rather pedantic distinction), the only cure of which is blame or blood or some other sacrificial motif. But since we have long rejected “religious” categories to explain “secular” realities, we have nothing to sacrifice but one another. But far be it from me to suggest a source of our violence so outrageous as an existential need for atonement. Suffice it just to say it seems quite evident that we are a nation increasingly naked and commensurately ashamed. 

Indeed, “the [violence] is not even the cause of our unrest. It has merely brought to light the fact that our lives are all based on unrest.”


But perhaps I should be more transparent. The truth is I was confronted by my own complicity with this restless violence this week in a way I wish I could have kept hidden from myself.

If I am uncomfortably honest, I must confess that I have grown completely numb to the pain of the wider world. I don’t think I qualify as a sociopath or anything, but neither will I suggest that I am an accurate representative of the human heart. I know my capacity for pride and self-indulgence, and I should only hope that by and large human nature is at least better than my nature. All that to say, when I read or hear about a person being shot or multiple people being shot or riots breaking out because of all the people being shot, I am sorry to say that that it in no way affects me, at least not in a way that elicits compassion. If I feel anything it is invariably a kind of distracted, yawning anger, which isn’t really concerned with human beings and in fact is quite amused with blood. But most of the time I just don’t care.

I don’t know if I have always been particularly numb to distant tragedies or if I am just particularly sensitive to local misfortunes that hardly rank anywhere near the level of “tragedy,” but the truth is I am more likely to weep with my son weeping while getting shots at the doctor than I am to weep over strangers getting shot at a distance. And I know this to be the case, because I did weep–just a few tears–a few weeks ago when my son got five immunization shots in a single visit, and I did not weep upon hearing about the five police officers killed in a single shooting–not a single tear.

Until this past week. This past week I was confronted with an unlikely encounter with compassion. While watching a newly widowed woman give a public statement regarding the injustice of her husband’s death, suddenly the camera panned over to a young boy (15) covering his face with his shirt. It appeared he was trying to restrain himself at first, but his efforts soon proved futile. He began to weep, loudly. Recognizing the moment’s need, supporters began gently escorting him off stage, at which point his tears found their deepest and purest interpretation in a simple and repeated lament: “I want my daddy! I want my daddy! I want my daddy!”

I think this was the first time I have ever felt real compassion for someone so removed from my everyday life. I am certain it is the first time I have ever wept with such a person so removed from my everyday life. But in that moment it wasn’t about what the cops had done or what the man had not done, or vice versa on either side. It was about the longing of a lost boy’s heart for the presence of a father who is forever gone. That felt too close to home in too many ways for me. And perhaps for a moment I became a little more human and discovered the possibility of a far-reaching compassion.

But my empathy was short-lived, rather short-fused. In a matter of seconds I was moved from a blooming compassion to disturbed desire. I found myself looking up information about the police officers. I am ashamed to say that I wasn’t looking for anything about a “fair trial” or “due process” or “the other side of the story…” I was looking for blood. It was irrational. It was I imagine the way I would act if something were to happen to one of my own children or tribe. At first, I just wanted that little boy to have his father back, but I got over it. Rather than wallowing in that boy’s hopeless pain, perhaps in truth just to alleviate my pain, or perhaps more likely to satisfy my wrath, I grew up. I gave up on the childish hope of redemption, and frankly I wasn’t satisfied with even the rational desire for justice. I wanted revenge.

At some point after scrolling through headline after headline in a trance I snapped out of it. And in a moment I was confronted by my own hypocrisy, my immense capacity not only for violence but for a kind of self-righteous violence, if not a kind of self-congratulatory violence. And as such, I was confronted with the fact that even (or especially) my life is based on unrest, that I have no raw materials within me for peace, because what is in me is death and death must come out in blood (Heb. 9).

But rather than arbitrarily seeking it from a few cops I don’t know from Adam–or perhaps I know them precisely from Adam–I looked up to the print of Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece hanged above my desk, and I acknowledged where I must go for blood if I am ever going to find peace. For there is a Victim whose blood cries out from the ground with a word of Life louder than the word of Abel (Heb. 12:24; Gen. 4:10). But to go to him for blood, I must not attempt to take his side: I must go as the soldier with hammer in hand, for I am the reason for all this bloodshed, I have preferred Pilate’s basin to Jesus’, I am the executor of my own standard of justice, I am the restless criminal, I am the self-righteous murderer, I am the greedy thief, I am the hair-triggered abuse of power, I am the taunting spectator standing safely at a distance with no compassion for the pain of this Man and no tears for the sorrow his mother, for I have refused to be my brother’s keeper (Gen. 4:9) and instead have become his accuser (Rev. 12:10). I am the over-exacting vengeance I too often refuse to hand over to the Lord who demands that I do (Rom. 12).

So I surrendered: I handed over every last drop of my vengeance to him by way of an iron stake.

And I wept again. I wept for myself, for that boy, for my boys and my family, for that boy’s family, for that widow, for all those police officers and all their families and those widows, for all the restless souls caught up the violent whirlwind of our fire-breathing nation.

But I did not weep for Jesus. I don’t know why. I don’t know if it’s because I didn’t feel worthy or maybe because he seemed too distant and strange. But maybe it was just the opposite. Maybe it was the first time I was able to weep with real compassion, the kind that refuses to give way to violence, because maybe it was the first time Jesus was able to weep through me.

Lord, have mercy.