Rachel Held Evans is not the only Christian to die before her time this past Saturday, May 4, 2019. My cousin’s daughter, Elle, died May 4, also. Elle was 7 years old. Elle’s older sister, Milla, died two years before her, following her sixth birthday. Both girls died of the rare genetic condition known as Batten disease.
God blessed my cousin, Frazer, and his wife, Dana, with three daughters, not just two. Their oldest, Ann Carlyle, did not inherit the genetic mutations that predetermined Elle’s and Milla’s fate. Elle’s and Milla’s were short but happy lives of family, love, and seizures. You can learn more about Batten disease here: https://bdsra.org/what-is-batten-disease/. You can read Frazer’s and Dana’s blog about their family’s journey here: http://thegieselmann5.blogspot.com.
Perhaps you might feel uncomfortable with my use of the word, happy. Indeed, at least half the life of each child included significant suffering, not just for themselves, but for their family and community, as well. Their lives wound down slowly and fitfully. Happy, though, because life is still life, even in the midst of death. And unlike us, the two of them, being small children, had not yet appropriated the promise of a long life for themselves. Short lives were the only type of life each would know, meaning they were born to die, if you will forgive me for saying so. They knew no different. Short was their norm – they did not realize they were supposed to live to four score, plus.
I don’t mean to suggest that God ordained their deaths. God did not and is weeping just as deeply as Frazer, Dana, and the rest of us. These girls were born, however, to bring an inescapable joy and happiness to this family, and to so many others. You can read about the life and joy experienced through the challenges that Dana and Frazer describe in their blog. More importantly, if you will forgive me for this observation also, these two girls’ lives challenge the rest of us – challenge us to remember what is truly important in life. About life’s meaning. Or a meaningful life.
What does it mean to live a meaningful life? Can a life be meaningful only when it is long? Which value is more important: a long life or a meaningful life? Would you trade the back ten years of your life for more complete meaning? Twenty, fifty? What is it worth to gain the world and lose one’s soul? (Mk. 8:36) There is far more to life than that which appears at the surface, and often what is most important is overlooked. Or looked over.
Children run and play and scream with joy at the smallest things. They believe just because they believe. They hope when there is no hope. I remember when my own wife died years ago, my own eight-year old son reached up during her burial service and wiped tears from my eyes. The little things in life, you see. From a child. There is a reason Jesus said, Suffer the little children and forbid them not … for such are the kingdom of God.
What meaning do you find, then, in young and premature death? Not just Elle’s and Milla’s, but in Rachel Held Evans’, and in too many other young deaths? In one sense, there is no meaning. Early death is senseless, or at least not part of the plan. We were lovingly created to live, not to die. Early death is an extension of the curse (whatever that may mean to you). The shroud across humanity. The sensation that God has forsaken us, and who would not feel that way at the loss of a child? My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
Yet even at the grave, we make our song, Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia.
Recently, there has been some discussion about a controversial interview in which Nicholas Kristof interviewed Serene Williams, President of Union Theological Seminary. One might expect the president of a prominent Christian seminary to uphold doctrine, yet Ms. Williams stated plainly she does not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Moreover, she hints but does not quite say that she does not believe in any resurrection at all. I am not sure how one can claim to be a Christian without believing in any resurrection at all – without experiencing Easter. Without the defeat of death at its very throne, the grave, all of life casts a colorless hue. Death wins. And there is no ultimate meaning. None.
And, what of those who die early? Being happy and bringing joy is no longer sufficient meaning if there is no life to come. You cannot say to Elle and Milla that their lives were happy and therefore full of meaning – not without the defeat of what appears to have defeated them. What do you say to Dana and Frazer? Who held them so many sleepless nights while their little bodies seized? No, the fundamentals of Christian faith are in a God who wins. Over death. Over hate. Over darkness. Suffering and division no longer win. We are, after all, Easter people. First and foremost. And always.
Which is why, even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
I wonder, and maybe you do, too, how Dana and Frazer will cope, how they will manage family life without crisis. I’m not sure, but I know they will.
Many people die before their time. Rachel, Elle, Milla, Jesus. They leave behind mothers and fathers who will grieve for them the rest of their lives. But whose hope rests in life.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!