With apologies and condolences to Erik, who reminded me of what day it was yesterday, and why it matters.
Section 1. The first Monday in March of each year is a holiday to be observed throughout the State and to be known as the birthday of Casimir Pulaski. – Public Act 80-621, Illinois General Assembly, September 13, 1977
Golden rod and the 4-H stone
The things I brought you
When I found out you had cancer of the bone
Your father cried on the telephone
And he drove his car to the Navy yard
Just to prove that he was sorry
In the morning through the window shade
When the light pressed up against your shoulder blade
I could see what you were reading
Oh the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications you could do without
When I kissed you on the mouth
Tuesday night at the bible study
We lift our hands and pray over your body
But nothing ever happens
I remember at Michael's house
In the living room when you kissed my neck
And I almost touched your blouse
In the morning at the top of the stairs
When your father found out what we did that night
And you told me you were scared
Oh the glory when you ran outside
With your shirt tucked in and your shoes untied
And you told me not to follow you
Sunday night when I cleaned the house
I find the card where you wrote it out
With the pictures of your mother
On the floor at the great divide
With my shirt tucked in and my shoes untied
I am crying in the bathroom
In the morning when you finally go
And the nurse runs in with her head hung low
And the cardinal hits the window
In the morning in the winter shade
On the first of March on the holiday
I thought I saw you breathing
Oh the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications when I see his face
In the morning in the window
Oh the glory when he took our place
But he took my shoulders and he shook my face
And he takes and he takes and he takes
-- Sufjan Stevens, “Casimir Pulaski Day”
As a young Christian in college, a friend handed me a stack of books written by the Reformed theologian Francis Schaeffer and assured me that they would provide a better intellectual foundation for my faith than anything else. And to some extent he was right. But in one of those books Schaeffer took on the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who wrote about “the leap of faith.” Schaeffer, following Descartes, went to great lengths to emphasize the rational nature of the Christian faith, to assert emphatically that it makes sense, that it holds together in the light of the most rigorous intellectual questioning. And he took Kierkegaard to task for the seemingly irrational response of “the leap of faith.”
I never bought Schaeffer’s argument, and here is why: he never knew Sarah Scott.
Sarah Scott was four years old when she died. She was the daughter of my friends Paul and Shirley Scott. She was a “surprise” baby; one of those kids born when her parents were close to 40. And her conception was only the first surprise. Upon her birth, Sarah showed all the evidence of having Down’s Syndrome, which was confirmed within hours of her birth.
There were many other surprises along the way. I watched my friends closely, watched their initial shock and dismay turn to unconditional love, watched what initially seemed to be a great burden turn to many moments of joy and deep pleasure. And it wasn’t hard to understand why. Sarah herself loved unconditionally. In a world where everyone else’s efforts seemed halting and stumbling, Sarah simply loved everyone she encountered, in the most natural and unforced way imaginable. She had a big smile and a hug for everyone she met. I believe I learned more about love from her in her short life than anyone I’ve encountered.
Then one normal, mundane Monday afternoon her mom put her down for a nap. She woke up, somehow got her head caught in between the bars of her crib, and in her efforts to extricate herself, strangled to death.
I heard the news and reacted the way countless others have reacted through the millennia. You’ve probably experienced it. The air is sucked out of your lungs. You feel like you’ve been sucker punched, and that you may never breathe again. There is a hole in your soul, and all the finest sentiments in the world cannot address it, because you cannot replace what cannot be replaced. And I found that death wasn’t abstract at all. It was very, very personal. A little girl named Sarah was gone, and the million things that made her special, that made her unique, were gone with her, and the hundreds of well-meaning friends did not and could not help at all, for the simple reason that they were Not Sarah. I felt that, and despaired. I truly cannot fathom what her parents must have felt.
At her funeral members of my church said the kinds of pious platitudes that only made things worse. “She’s in a better place now,” they told Paul and Shirley, who were overcome with grief. “God wanted her to bring joy to the angels.” I bit my tongue and sat on my hands, for fear that I would use them to punch some well-intentioned, clueless brother or sister. I didn’t say anything. There was nothing I could say, and there was nothing I could do to stop from crying, crying that just seemed to go on and on, without respite.
In these times the idea of a loving God seems like a cruel illusion, and I frankly wondered if Schaeffer had ever experienced the death of someone close to him. Because in those situations, Christianity is anything but rational. It is the difference between the logical C.S. Lewis of The Problem of Pain, with its nice, neat arguments, and the undone C.S. Lewis of A Grief Observed, a great, aching mess of a book, the story of a mere thinking, feeling man, not a theologian, dealing with his wife’s protracted and painful death from cancer.
For what it’s worth, I am a firm proponent of the leap of faith. And make no mistake. It is a leap across a great chasm. Sometimes it seems a lot like pedaling your bicycle as fast as you can to the edge of the Grand Canyon, and flying off, and believing that you’re going to sail all way to the other side, defying gravity. It seems to me that there are only two options if one is intellectually honest (hi, Mr. Schaeffer). One can believe that senselessness has the last word, that people simply die – brutally, inexplicably, without meaning or purpose – and that is all there is. Or one can believe that the senselessness will one day make sense, that we really do live in the shadowlands, that real life is yet to come, that every tear will be wiped away, that there will be no more death or mourning. I believe the latter. I hold on to that truth. But surely the author of the Book of Hebrews is right: faith is the evidence of things not seen. And I profoundly distrust anyone who tells me that the Christian faith makes total sense in this life. It does not. They either have not thought enough, or they haven’t lived enough, and time will bring them to that place of the silent scream that they have not yet experienced.
On Casimir Pulaski day I remember a great song, and a great loss, and the great hope that still some days doesn’t make sense.