This week we went on vacation. Anyone who has young children can tell you that vacation with kids is not really a vacation at all- it’s just doing the same things you do at home but with less of the accoutrements that make life easier. The only tradeoff is that you are hopefully closer to a body of water.
It usually takes about one full day to get de-aggrivated, unpacked and settled in. And somewhere in the middle if you are lucky you discover the sweet spot, and all the schlepping and sweating and, ‘Are we there yet?!’s and ‘I WILL TURN THIS CAR AROUND!’s becomes something sort of magical. On our second night I took this picture:
This was the sweet spot for me. The sun showing off her colors, the sound of the waves crashing in my ears mixed in with the squeals of my delighted children. The boys swimming out further than we’d like, because they are boys, and Claire sticking close to her dad, because she is His Girl. Fiona parked next to me content in her sand digging. All was well with the world.
Just after taking this picture on my phone a text came in from my friend Kristy. Kristy’s husband, our dear friends, our people, our tribe, our Simon, was dying from cancer. In the text she told me the doctors had just said he only had days left. Maybe a week.
The cancer progressed so quickly. In my last interaction with Simon we were pushing our kids on the swings at the park, the band in the gazebo our background music. We were all oblivious to the cancer ravaging his body as we told kid antics, the twilight sun warming our calves. That was six weeks ago.
Now he was a shell of himself, relegated to a hospital bed, dependent on tubes for breathing, for pain. Now with even less time than we thought. My heart swelled with grief.
I looked up at my kids, squealing, splashing. Drew at waters edge looking at me and pointing to them as he saw me holding my phone. He was mouthing for a picture, “Did you get this?” He, beaming, a bigger version of a child himself, content to enjoy their joy. Yes, I nodded.
I’m getting this.
I sat and thought of what to say to this dear friend, how to thank her for letting me into her tribe, how to hold up her grief as I hold up my own, how to bring a truth or a comfort to her aching soul. But all I could think of was her children. They would be just like mine in the water. James and Violet (especially Violet) the two oldest, would be pushing the boundaries of comfort and safety, they would be farther out in the water than their parents would like. But not Maggie. From her face to her temperament she is all Simon. The third born like our Claire, would be close to her Daddy, because she too, is His Girl. My heart ached for those babies, for Kristy, for us all. It ached because life seems so unbearably unfair, that I get to sit at waters edge while she sits next to a hospital bed. But like all things in this upside down kingdom with a servant King and the least being the first, it didn’t diminish my joy in my own children. It didn’t give me guilt. Instead it enhanced my joy because joy is meant for the taking when it is given and like grief it must be accepted wholeheartedly.
I had a dream about Simon that night. Some of the more Pentecostal among us may call it a vision. I call it the space between sleep and consciousness, somewhere along that cliff we fall off of. I won’t judge where we land.
Simon was rowing a boat, alone in the ocean. He wore a white-buttoned shirt. He rowed towards the shore. He was the mirrored opposite of what my family had been that night. My children wanted to journey out farther into the sea, but I could tell from Simon’s steady determination, his only goal was to make it to shore. I watched his boat touch the edge, he put down his oars and got out. I woke up when his foot touched the sand.
I didn’t need to see where he had landed. I knew exactly where he was. He had entered the shores of God’s Kingdom. I knew without looking that the beach contained a long table, outfitted with white linen and sparkling china. I knew it was what Revelation calls the ‘Feast of the Lamb’. I didn’t need to see the embrace between Simon and the Lamb to know that he was heartily welcomed onto those shores. As sure as I am without looking that there is skin on my own body, I didn’t need to see the feast to know that it was there.
And that was it. He crossed over. He merely went from a boat to dry land. And I woke up thinking of 1 Corinthians 15. I read aloud that morning verse 50,
“Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.”
I thought all last week of his perishing body, wasting away, just waiting for the imperishable to take over and row him to shore. I thought of it as I tucked my kids into bed and when I made breakfast. I thought of it when I heard the news that he died yesterday morning. I thought of it today in Church as we sang hymns of our future hope. And as we took communion, my eyes emptying their tears, Dan spoke the familiar words from Mark 14,
“While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to His disciples, saying, ‘Take it; this is my body.’ Then He took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, and they all drank from it. ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”
Dan instructed us to drink of this promise and eat of this assurance. I waited for him to finish the next words written in that account of the Last Supper, I mouthed them myself willing them to be spoken. When everyone had put down their tiny plastic cups, the sanctuary clinking with life, I finally heard the words that give me peace,
“I tell you the truth, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew with you in the Kingdom of God.”
I whispered thanks to Jesus for this promise that He sees our suffering. Although He is, even now, at the right hand of God, He is not celebrating. He is not drinking and feasting. He is suffering with us. He is making the point that until all His children are home, and all suffering has ceased, the chapter is not closed. And while we wait He proves Himself again El Roi, as He described Himself in Genesis when He spoke to Hagar in the desert. To grief stricken, banished, alone and afraid Hagar, “I am El Roi, the God who sees you”.
I AM El Roi, Kristy, the God who sees your suffering. The God who does not witness it from afar, detached, but the One who engages in your suffering to the point of abstaining from celebrating until all is made right. And I will make it right.
I closed my eyes for the closing hymn. I saw Simon, toes in the sand wearing his white-buttoned shirt. I saw the Feast, laid out and ready. I saw a knowing smile play on Simon’s lips as he held the glass of wine. I saw the Lamb with a mirrored smile hold His too.