Death and Life

I only met my mother’s cousin, Dotty, once, yet I have known her story my entire life. Dotty had a child who died in infancy.  He was born with a rare heart defect wherein the ventricles of his heart were reversed. At 6 months of age, he underwent aggressive heart surgery, and while the surgery appeared successful, her son died a few days later.

Devastated, Dotty and her husband faced a daunting decision. As her child’s condition was rare, they were asked if they would allow an autopsy to be done for research purposes. The two consented.  Dotty particularly believed that this act would be an important step for future children. She had a feeling deep within her that the death of her child could mean life for someone else.

This decision, however, was not met positively by her family.  Dotty’s family, who were radically conservative in their faith, objected to the autopsy. They saw the autopsy as a desecration to the child. So, on top of grieving the loss of her first-born child, Dotty now had to contend with being vilified by her family.

Faith is never defined by easy answers, simple steps, or uncomplicated lives. Living out our faith often rubs against the expectations and desires of those around us. The hard reality of faith is that we sometimes live out a hope that remains distant and unrealized, a hope that others rebuke us for.

Is this what Jesus means when he asks us to take up our cross and follow him? (Mark 8:34) We sometimes forget the extremity of Jesus’ language. For Jesus, the cross is hard and cruel. It was not an easy thing to carry. For Jesus, the cross was the place of his rejection and death.  It is to this place that Jesus bids us to follow.  Is it any wonder, then, that the cross is hard reality in our lives? We feel it viscerally pressing against us. The cross upsets our lives.  What is more, taking up our cross means we may need to walk with it for a while. This can be involve walking a difficult and sometimes lonely path.

Yet despite all of this, taking up our cross is an act of radical hope. Although the world around us sees the cross as an end and a defeat, in faith we recognize the hope of new life. The way of the cross is the way of resurrection. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that “when the Lord bid’s you to come, he bids you to come and die.” This is only half true. The Lord calls us to die, but then to live again.  The cross opens the way for us to experience the transformative power of God. Yes, the cross is hard, but it is also filled with hope.

In a way she could never fully articulate, Dotty lived with an unconquerable hope. Despite the hardness of the cross she bore she believed that life would be revealed, and, approximately 25 years after the death of her child, she saw this hope realized.

Obviously, there was no way for Dotty to know I would be born with the same rare heart condition as her son. There was no way for Dotty to know that during the 18 months between our two birthdays, some important refinements were made to the heart surgery I would also undergo.

Dotty followed my progress from afar, never wanting to get too close, but when I was 27, we met for the first time. I walked into the backyard of my grandmother’s house, and before I could say a word, Dotty threw her arm around me and began weeping into my chest. As we talked, Dotty recounted how the success of my own surgery brought a sense of healing to her. In my life, Dotty saw the outcome of her child’s autopsy; she saw the intricacy of God’s hand beyond anything she could imagine. And while the grief over the loss of her child never lessened, Dotty could see how close God was to her.

Do you feel the weight of the cross you are carrying? Are you feeling discouraged or lonely in your journey? May you recognize the presence of the crucified one walking with you. Even when Simon bore the cross instead of Jesus, Jesus kept in step with him.  This means you can have hope, for hope is rooted not in the lightness of the cross, but in the new life that is promised.

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