A Tiny Casket, A Hole in the Ground, and Heaven
Bill Stauffer is a pastor in rural NJ, where he mostly chases around his eight-year-old twins. He likes to chase his wife, too.
It was a terrible tragedy – unspeakable – and it was making the rounds on Facebook: a local two-year-old boy killed in a house fire. As the details came out, there were a number of families in town sharing in the grief of this boy’s death. A little boy, lost to his father, his stepfather, his mother (sedated and in the hospital still days later), and all types of extended and blended families and relationships. A number of them in the church where I am an associate pastor.
The weird thing about death for me is that it was so present in my early life, that even the worst of tragedies now require me to step way outside of myself to feel them for others. It’s like a scar with no nerve endings. By the time I was ten, I had lost all of my grandparents, two uncles, a number of family friends, and my father. Death shaped me. I knew it was shaping these people, too. It was carving out new chasms of pain. They were becoming more human.
Because one of the boy’s cousins was in my youth group, I was asked to lead the graveside service, as the Catholic priest who was presiding at the funeral mass could not be there because of a prior commitment. Whenever you get asked to preside over death, something happens. You sense a seriousness come over you. It’s involuntary. You will have the final say in people’s interaction with their loved one. Perhaps more than that, you will have the outrageous privilege and responsibility of helping them bridge this world and the next. In this case, it was connecting the infinite with a little boy in a tiny casket suspended over a gaping hole in the ground.
I was raised Catholic. When I step inside a Catholic Church building, unlike most other ex-Catholics I know who went over to the protestant dark side, I have a sense of coming home. My uncle, a priest himself, was one of the finest men I ever knew. He was the constant in my family when death reigned during my early years. The smells, the sounds, the liturgy, the bad music – it’s like putting on your favorite pair of comfortable, but woefully out of fashion shoes. You would never wear them in public, but in private, you miss them and occasionally slip them on to knock around the house in.
What struck me this day as I entered the narthex of the church was the open grieving already taking place. That was familiar, too. I can clearly hear my Aunt Peggy crying and screaming over the open casket of my uncle, her brother, Billy, dead in his early 40’s. I was five. It was surreal, but very emotionally honest. We button down Protestants need some of that in our emotional mix – honesty. This little boy’s family was grieving like that, and strangely, it gave me a sense of hope for them. It certainly gave me love for them.
During the funeral mass, from my vantage point in the back row, I viewed a room full of people full of sorrow, hopelessness, pain, and anger, with no outlet but flowing tears. My friend Sue was next to me in the pew. When she saw the tiny casket, she wept. “That’s not right!” The father and the stepfather carried their little boy up to the front of the church. Impossible to fathom.
At the graveside we stood at that intersection, the visible and invisible, and tried to make sense of what we could. I told them that little Zack was safe in Jesus’ arms. I told them that Jesus hated death; that it frustrated and angered him. I told them Jesus knows. He knows. He knows.
About their anger. I told them to take it to God in full force, that he was big enough to handle it from them, that is was real and needed to be voiced. God is such a pragmatist. He uses what’s at hand to grab hold of us. He uses pain and suffering to draw us to him. He uses joy and pleasure. Anything, really – whatever is in the emotional cupboard at the time. And that’s when it struck me.
Death is a spiritual ear opener. It unplugs the hard, waxy buildup of mundane, self-consumed life and lets us hear eternity calling. And in that moment, standing by that tiny casket over a gaping hole in the ground, it happened. There, in the cold, listening to the weeping and sniffling and occasional outbursts of tears, heaven spoke. It was Jesus saying, “Come to me, and bring your suffering. Bring your sorrow – I know. Bring your anger – I know. Bring your hopelessness – I know that, too. I’ve got what you need. Me”
Jesus was there, in Zach’s most frightening hour. He was there to comfort and take Zach home.
And I pray that Jesus — as Zach’s family grieves in the months and years to comes — takes this broken and beautiful family in His arms and ravages them the only way a good God can. They, and we, can live in the love of a God who wants nothing more than for us to simply “Come.”