Despite my restlessness, Christianity has always been a part of my life. I haven’t always embraced it wholeheartedly, but even when I didn’t, it always seemed to hang around the fringes. I suppose that’s how it usually is with the faith you’ve been raised in.
I don’t nearly always “get it” though. Sometimes it just seems like a strange thing to believe in. Sometimes it just seems like a strange way to direct your life. And sometimes it seems like there aren’t very many Christians I actually like very much.
Mostly, though, I think my restlessness stems from the fact that the central story of the Christian faith – the story of Christ’s death – doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I’ve heard every explanation in the book, and sometimes I’m okay with accepting one or another of those, but other times they’re just not enough to convince me to continue to commit to a faith that has such a gory, complicated death as the central focus.
I’ve been through a few rejection phases along the journey. Sometimes it’s because the questions run so deep and sometimes I just can’t get past how messed up the church can be. In university, I studied eastern religions and found myself quite drawn to some of them. Buddhism, for example, had many principles that intrigued me, and there was something appealing about a faith perspective that didn’t involve believing that someone needed to “die for my sins”.
For whatever reason, even when I wandered away and tasted other fruit, I always found myself coming back to the faith of my ancestors. Perhaps it’s like coming home – it’s not necessarily always beautiful or an easy place to be, but it’s safe and known.
This afternoon I sat in the Good Friday service, once again puzzled by the story we’re asked to believe. The music team sang of the sacrifice of Christ’s life for our salvation, and I sat there feeling numb because it just didn’t make sense to me. Why? Why did he have to die a brutal death? If God created us, why couldn’t he just forgive us and redeem us? I know the church answers – I’ve heard them all my life – but sometimes the answers escape me and I’m left with nothing but more questions to add to my considerable heap.
While I listened to the songs, I prayed that somehow, something would be revealed to me – that I wouldn’t go through another Easter season with this numb restless feeling that plagues me so often. Almost against my will, I stood up and entered the stations of the cross.
I read the pages describing the stages of Christ’s death, and I tried to imagine the pain and agony he suffered. But WHY? Why did God have to forsake him? Why did he have to go through that to “reconcile us” to God?
I felt an angry knot form in my stomach. Why didn’t this make sense to me? Why is faith so easy for other people but not for me?
Somewhere along the line – I think it was the station that describes the nails in his hands and the sword thrust into his side – the story of Jesus’ death started to intermingle with the story of my father’s death. I’ve been thinking about that again recently, because my mom got a phone call from an emergency room nurse who was with him when he died. My dad died a brutal death – run over by the tractor and baler he’d just been driving. Passers-by saw it happen and stopped to try to help him. The emergency nurse was one of them.
I never saw my dad’s injuries (he’d been prepared by the undertaker by the time I saw him) but apparently he’d had some serious internal injuries as well as a deep gash in his side. Imagining that gash in his side brought the image of Jesus to mind.
I think Dad died fairly quickly, though the nurse told mom that there was still a faint heartbeat by the time they got him to the hospital. We now know a couple of things – the first people who stopped asked him if he was okay, and in his understated way said “I don’t think so”; and he must have stood up at least for a short time after the machinery crushed him because the blood flowed down his legs.
I have gone through that scene many times in my mind. I envision him lying in the ditch trying to comprehend what was going on. I imagine the excruciating pain he must have felt. I envision him speaking to those people and probably thinking “oh I don’t want to be too much trouble for you”. But most of all, I imagine how lonely he probably felt as he drew his last breaths. If he had any thoughts at all (and who knows really, since he was probably in shock), he was probably thinking “oh if I could at least speak to my wife or see my kids and grandkids. If only I had them to hold my hand right now. Maybe then things would be alright.” I can even imagine Dad crying out “My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?”
By what I can only describe as God’s grace, though, Dad did not die entirely alone. The first people who stopped – the people who’d watched the baler roll over him – were a pastor and a nurse. The next person was the emergency room nurse who phoned mom recently. The pastor prayed with Dad until they loaded him into the ambulance, and the nurses administered CPR. It has always given our family a great deal of comfort knowing that they did what they could and that Dad was not alone. His faith was always a great source of comfort for him and that pastor’s prayers must have been a form of solace as he passed on from this life.
As all of this circulated through my mind this afternoon, I envisioned Jesus hanging up there on that cross. While he died, no-one administered CPR. Nobody held his hand and prayed for him. No ambulance arrived. Everyone had abandoned him, including his closest friends. After brutally slamming nails into his hands and slashing his side, the soldiers taunted him and called him names. While he breathed his last breaths, they gambled over his clothes.
Can you imagine feeling so abandoned? I have felt lonely before, and sometimes even abandoned by friends or family, but never in my time of greatest need. Whenever I have been hurt – physically or emotionally – someone has always showed up to offer comfort. I just can’t fathom the agony of crying out to your own father while you die “why have you forsaken me?”
As I completed the stations of the cross, I found myself weeping. No, I hadn’t come much closer to understanding why it was all necessary, but I realized that – regardless of my questions – I was still committed to this difficult story at the centre of my faith.
This much I know – if Jesus could suffer through all of that, and then forgive those soldiers who taunted him and the “friends” who abandoned him, then there’s something about him that intrigues me enough to keep me coming back.