When I boarded my plane for Geneva, Switzerland, I didn’t imagine that I would meet death at my destination. I was more worried about coexisting peacefully with my host family and making deep friendships. My thought processes weren’t unusual. I was a 21-year-old college student about to study abroad for a semester. What student imagines, if they’ve experienced solid life for two decades, that they’ll encounter one of humanity’s greatest weaknesses and pains during their “semester off”?
Yet, with little under two months before I returned to the U.S., I suddenly and intimately became acquainted with the cobblestone streets, colorful humanity, and steep hills of Geneva’s Old Town. This familiarity came so quickly, not because I had discovered a newfound fascination with the city’s topography, but because one of my new friends had suddenly died. Death makes things vivid. The brilliance of the sun and the rise of a foggy mountain and the smile in a friend’s face become more vivid after death; and things become duller too, so that the things you do see are made brighter by the clouds that surround them.
In Geneva, I met an authentic man – strong and compassionate – who happened to work in extreme sports. A few weeks after I met him, he went to film that extreme sport, partaking in it while he captured it on film. During the shoot, there was an unforeseen problem and he and his fellows were killed. I had never felt death’s reality; his death punched me in the gut and elicited emotions I didn’t know I could feel.
But his death was transformative, not debilitating.
I learned that death, in this broken world, makes us human. After my friend died, I tried to sing praises to God. I had prayed for my friend’s recovery, but I had also asked God to glorify himself in the accident. I knew that Father’s answer might involve my friend’s death. So, when that answer was given, I crouched in a secluded spot in one of Geneva’s parks and tried to sing.
I couldn’t. Instead, I sobbed and my tune went haywire as snot dripped from my nose and my eyes transformed into puffy slits (and as a helpful Swiss lady informed me that dogs normally urinate in the spot where I was crouching). You can almost laugh at the messiness and awfulness of human pain. The Swiss lady’s comment made my legs move, if only to get her disdainful glance to find another object. As I walked away, I called my mum. My mum gave me sage advice. She told me to cry.
“Reeeally?” I managed to choke into my cell. “Yes, sweetheart, good grief!” she said, exasperated.
Sitting outside the U.N. headquarters in Geneva, frightening delegates and passerbys with my wet face, I listened to my mum. I allowed my “Christian” mask of togetherness to completely slip from my face and posture. My mum’s words prompted a conscious consent to the vulnerability that was already pulsing within me. Her words invited me to be vulnerable with my Father.
That first night, I was exhausted, spent from crying. The grief that billowed through my heart had spilled onto my face, into my voice, into my public persona. I let it seep into my conversation with Yahweh, which sounded less like a conversation and more like the silence of those who are quiet from mutual grief.
I lay on my bed, finally still. I think I spoke five words to Father. Yet, my heart asked him to come. Oh, he came. My heavenly Father drew nearer to me than I could ever have fantasized in my “holiest” dreams. His peace was like a thick blanket over my thoughts and my body. His peace didn’t erase my grief. He grieved with me. Jesus made my grief transformative, not debilitating.
From death, I came to believe that our attempts at Christian performance must fail. I can’t express strongly enough how much I long for our actions of fake holiness to wither in damning darkness. When we attempt to be Christian in our own strength, we try to shove God from his place of worship, placing him beneath our feet – those of the new gods. He will not go there. We must embrace our weakness. Our weakness is right because, in it, Jesus deigns to demonstrate his strength with love. In being really human, we allow him to show himself as really God. Death weakens humanity, but death can also open our hearts to the touch that makes us really human.