A few weeks ago I gave the chapel devotion at Minnesota Valley Lutheran High, speaking on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. I decided that my approach would be to write a story. What follows is that story.
Andrew was a happy four year old boy. His parents loved him, his grandparents loved him, he almost always got what he wanted for Christmas. He was the apple of his father’s eye and his mother’s pride and joy.
But sometimes he felt lonely. He wanted someone he could play with, and he was always asking his parents if someday he could have a little brother or sister. And they would always smile and shrug and say, “Maybe someday.”
Well, one day, “someday” came. Andrew didn’t understand at first. He started to notice that mommy was getting bigger (but he knew he wasn’t supposed to call people fat). He noticed that she cried a lot, and this worried him, but she always told him that she was crying because she was happy, which just confused him. She went to the doctor a lot, but wasn’t sick. Finally, one day his mom and dad explained it all to him – very soon he was going to have a little brother.
Andrew couldn’t be happier, except perhaps on the day that little brother was born. His mom and dad asked him what he thought they should name him, and he said “Dragon,” because that was his favorite creature. But his mom and dad thought Collin was a better name, and Andrew decided he was okay with a little brother named Collin.
Of course, at first Collin couldn’t play much. He was fun to watch, but Andrew had to be careful. And he had to be patient. But he knew someday he would get to play with Collin all the time, and that made him very happy.
Something changed. Andrew didn’t know what it was, but something seemed to be wrong. His mom was crying a lot, but not saying anything about being happy. She and Collin were going to the doctor a lot. Andrew wasn’t allowed to play with Collin much.
Then came the day when they told Andrew that Collin had fallen asleep, and that he wouldn’t wake up until Jesus came back to take them all to heaven. This made no sense to Andrew. Why would anyone sleep so long? At the funeral, he tried shouting really loud in Collin’s face to get him to wake up, but his dad just pulled him away, and they took the box Collin was in and stuck it in the ground and covered it with dirt and put a big rock over the dirt with words carved into it that Andrew couldn’t read.
Andrew didn’t understand, but he felt the hole inside his heart. One day, a few months later, Andrew got very angry and screamed and yelled at his Sunday School teacher because she said that when people die they go to Jesus, and Andrew said that wasn’t true, because Collin was asleep in a box in the ground and how could he be with Jesus if he’s asleep in a box in the ground?
Years passed and Andrew grew up. Though he missed his brother, he thought about him less and less. He learned about death and what it really means, and carried the scar of his brother’s death with him. He visited his brother’s grave once in a while, and wondered sometimes how it all worked, if Collin was asleep in a grave, or asleep somewhere else, or in heaven… It was a mystery he never really understood.
But he experienced the normal joys and sorrows of life, and the daily struggle of human flesh versus godly desires. A penetrating fear of death pervaded his waking hours, and so he always played it safe. He avoided risky behaviors and reckless activity, he paid close attention to his health and warning signs that something was amiss. Most of all, he made sure that if there was a right and wrong in God’s eyes, he was going to do the right. Death held so many uncertainties, he wanted to at least be certain he had done everything in his power to find favor with God before getting there.
At age 22 Andrew got married to a girl named Jessica. He was crazy about her. She was beautiful, she really got him in all the best ways, and she sort of filled that lonely place in his heart so that suddenly death wasn’t so scary and life was suddenly very worth enjoying.
It wasn’t long until, blushing and shaky, Jessica told Andrew that they were going to be parents. Andrew couldn’t be more happy. With all this life surrounding him, what could he possibly fear? He was sure God was on his side, because life was going so well.
But at the 11 week point of Jessica’s pregnancy, she miscarried. All of Andrew’s feelings of fear over death, his uncertainty about his standing before God and what really would happen to him at the end of his life, and the powerful loneliness he had grown up with… all came crashing down on him. In his grief, he went out to the cemetery where his brother was buried.
“What am I supposed to do?” he said, standing by Collin’s grave. “Death is so unfair, so relentless. You were taken from us so early, and I miss you so much. Now my child has been taken from me before it even had a chance. I’ve tried to be a good person, but I can’t find any peace about death. I know it’s supposed to be alright in the end, but how can it be alright now?”
He read again the inscription on Collin’s gravestone, one he had seen many times but never really thought about because it had always been there. It was a Scripture reference – 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. He couldn’t remember ever having looked it up.
With no more answers than when he had come, he walked away from his brother’s grave. For a while he just wandered through the graveyard, lost in thought. He came upon a place he’d never been before, a small path that wound into the trees, with a wrought-iron arch and bronze letters that said “Via Victoriae” – the Way of Victory.
The path led him past statues depicting scenes from Jesus’ life, scenes he recalled from his years of Sunday School. His eye was caught by a scene of Jesus lifting a young girl from a bed, and again by Jesus drawing a boy out of a box carried by several men. He stopped when he came upon a scene of Jesus weeping. A small sign nearby said, “At the grave of Lazarus.”
“Did you fear death too?” Andrew wondered. But he kept walking. The next scene was titled “The Raising of Lazarus.” Andrew stared for a long time at the statue of Jesus holding out his hands, and the dead man coming out of his grave. Along with the title of this scene were the words of Jesus, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though he dies. And he who lives and believes in me will never die.”
Further down there was a sign that read, “In the Garden.” There were statues of the disciples, but no Jesus. A dirt path went back into the trees. Following it, Andrew found a statue of Jesus on a little grassy knoll, kneeling in prayer, tears carved into his face.
“Do you remember what it was like to be lonely?” he asked.
Returning to the stone path, Andrew found the crucifixion scene, and heard in his head the voice of his pastor from his last Good Friday sermon, “When Jesus said, ‘It is finished,’ he was telling you that all your sins have been paid for. There is nothing you need to do. It is already done.” And Andrew thought to himself, “How have I forgotten this?”
At last he came to an empty tomb, and a statue of Jesus standing in glory, alive, but with scars in his hands and feet. It occurred to him then that all along the Way of Victory, the story was about Jesus, and every time death entered into the picture, it was turned back by Jesus.
Thoughts consumed with these things, he returned home, and held his wife as they grieved together. The next day their pastor came, and he read to them from Exodus when God passed in front of Moses and said of himself, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness.” He reminded them that whatever God’s intent in allowing their baby to be lost, it was not an act of condemnation but an act of love. Jessica asked, “Pastor, is our baby in heaven?” And the pastor answered, “The Bible doesn’t tell us what happens with miscarriage, but where Scripture is silent, we rest on God’s mercy. I think that is reason enough to hope.”
After their pastor left, Andrew was still sitting with his Bible on his lap. He remembered that reference on his brother’s gravestone, so he opened to that passage and read:
“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
And Andrew found that, for perhaps the first time in his life, he was at peace with death. And he prayed, “I know now, Lord, why you call death a sleep. Before you, death flees, and all that is left is to rest in you, and to know that you are the way to victory.”