It’s been exactly one week since the news. Someone I held in high regard died. His name was Jeremiah. Jeremiah Small. He was a dedicated Christian, profoundly humble and deeply caring for other people. He was one of those uncommon types who saw every person as an end in themselves. When we talked together, he talked to me, not at me, and listened in the same manner. He had the qualities of a keen listener. That is probably what made him such a great teacher. He taught at a Christian school in Sulaimaniah, a city in Iraqi Kurdistan. He was on his sixth year, teaching History, English, and the like. Jeremiah was wildly popular with his students. They were crazy about him, because he was crazy about them. This teacher poured himself into his teaching and his students. He didn’t aim to just give facts. He aimed to inspire. And show people the goodness of his God he loved so dearly and the awe of God’s world. I could go on (two further articles from World are here and here). But it ended.
On the morning of March 1st, a Thursday, Jeremiah was opening up his class with a prayer, his pupils in front of him as normal. He thanked God for a beautiful day. Before he could finish, one of them pulled out a pistol and shot him three times. I hear he died with his hands still clasped together. The student then shot himself, and also died shortly thereafter. To this day no one knows why he did it. No note, no clues, nothing.
It is so senseless. It shouldn’t have happened. His existence was important. Men like him are rare. Teachers like him are very rare. Why? It’s as though it left a hole in the world that shouldn’t have been there. The atmosphere itself seemed to disrupt over it. Within 24 hours of his death, a winter storm blew into Sulaimaniah. Frigid wind screamed down from the Kurdish mountains Jeremiah loved so much. Cold snow tumbled down from the frozen sky, thunder and lightening grumbled in displeasure, and grey clouds brooded over Kurdistan with their gloomy presence for several days.A winter storm so late in the year is strange. From ancient times, strange events are reported to accompany the death of great men, from Julius Caesar to Jesus Christ. Truly, a great man did pass from us.
One thing that made Jeremiah great is his love for forgiveness. He saw himself as a much-forgiven man. I keep hearing how whenever he realized his wrongness on something, he didn’t tarry to apologize. Sometimes he wasn’t even wrong. I found he grew up in a family where apologies and forgiveness were highly prized. His parents and some of his siblings flew out to Kurdistan to bury their son and brother. The memorial service was filled with an unusual quality, for victim of a murder – forgiveness. The teen’s family was invited to the service. Mom, brothers, and his dad all voiced the same anti-bitterness medicine. Dad said this was a momentary act by a confused young man, and repeated his goodwill towards the family. When they left the podium, the teen’s father came to the front and embraced them. I’ve never witnessed anything like this. It redefined love and reconciliation.
But its touching benefit was for the living. That day they buried Jeremiah. I regret I wasn’t able to attend that one, needing to go back to my place of work.
Regrets are haunting. I have many. I wish I had a chance to get to know him more. We were both so busy. I had hoped to see him during the Nawroz holiday now upon us, where all the schools in Kurdistan let out for two weeks. So much for that. Yet I can hear his deep, kind voice saying those pleasant things if I concentrate.
I don’t know how much of this post is nonsense. This is grieving. I just miss him. I will miss our authentic conversations. The way he was with kids. His smile. His voice. Everything. Times that I’ve seen him run through my mind like a movie. Tragedy like this makes you think. Death means “over” in our experience. The dead are gone. No more of their presence and all that goes along with it.
But two thousand years ago in the mourning of another dead man, Jesus told the mourners he himself was resurrection and life. Those who believe in him will live again (John 11.25). Tall claims. But what hopeful claims, no? These humanist platitudes of “death is a part of life” and “at least he lived (once)” are idiotic to me. How is that hopeful? May as well say nothing. Put a bow-tie on a rotting eel. Hope doesn’t accept death as the victor. Hope means death isn’t the end: Those who die can go right through death and out the other side to a new kind of life, one that is eternal. Jeremiah firmly believed in that hope. His conviction was that his dead bones will rise yet again. That’s what made him the person he was. He believed he had a heavenly future. So he lived as though he were a heavenly man.
A memorial video made by a student
My long-time boss has recently suffered some heavy losses in his life. In one day, the warehouse for his company with over a million dollars worth of equipment burned to the ground; worse, his brother drowned in a lake, leaving a wife and five children – at a family reunion no less. My boss and his brothers are dedicated Christians – if you wanted to find the definition of a ‘good man’ it would be men like these. Generous, hospitable, friendly, excellent fathers, loving husbands. A tragedy like this can ruin your life and question everything. Some would walk away from God. But this family runs toward God – and in doing so, find a meaning, purpose, and hope in the midst of death that others simply cannot find nor understand.
Through it all, I have been impressed with how they’ve handled it. I want to have the same attitude when I come to that point. It was moving to hear how his sister-in-law is managing the loss of her husband.
To give an example: on the drive back from the reunion their younger son, (he’s five I think) would happily chat about this and that (he’s a very talkative child), but soon break down in tears. His mother would comfort and speak softly to him so that he feels better enough to chat away more; only in five or ten minutes to go back to sobbing again, and again mother comforts and loves him. This cycle continued for the drive home. She is determined to keep enough composure to put her children first and love them through the pain. My boss said something very perceptive I will paraphrase (from the best I can remember) here:
“The real test of dying to yourself is looking to help other people first – when you’re the one who had the highest loss.”
It reminds me of Jesus’ powerful words in Mark 8.34: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” In the midst of bearing the cross of suffering and loss, denying yourself to love others and love Jesus must be the essence of meaning and purpose in life.