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
Life is a very sad affair when you think about it. Even the most indelible optimist would admit life’s dark side: Time goes on and on, making you age, and never waits. Longings are never truly fulfilled even in the best of times, and when good times pass, you can only grasp at the fleeting memory. Heartbreak and hard-knocks, disappointment and death punctuate our lives. Death is inevitable, and so is being forgotten by this world.
Is it a surprise that depression is a widespread human problem? Everyone is sad at least sometimes. But the ancients recognized various personality types, that some were more prone to it than others. The Greeks called the person “Melancholic” who happens to be bent toward sadness — maybe because they weary themselves on thinking too much about life and are driven crazy. I take Michael de Montaigne tongue-in-cheek when he writes “Plato calls meloncholics more teachable and excellent; at the same time there are none who have as great a propensity to madness.”* But if sadness is a reality of life, there’s no harm thinking about it. Maybe going insane over it highlights the problem better.
It’s unfortunate that we ignore melancholic people so often. At least, I do. I regret this especially with one person I knew in college. He considered his overall college experience to be a negative one. He told me about midway through our relationship that he tends to be “emo” (in temperament, not fashion). At the time, I valued that he would say this to me. Pity I never followed up on it. In the busyness of school we didn’t spend even an hour hanging out before we graduated. I didn’t stop by and say goodbye like I said I would, before he got on a plane back to the Midwest. I’ve lost track of him now and was “defriended” on facebook some months later. I don’t blame him. I wasn’t a very good friend. Fleeting good intentions don’t mean much unless acted out. It makes me sick to think how careless I was.
Why is it so easy to brush others aside and forget them? My friend was so quiet, I hardly noticed him. We’re attracted to vivacious people maybe. Depressed people are a drain. What’s worse, you sometimes really can’t get them out of it. They’re inconsolable, like Eeore in Winnie the Pooh. Perhaps they like to be sad? Sometimes sadness is a relief to me too. But really, I can’t imagine people wanting to be sad all the time. Maybe they find some comfort in depression? I should stop, I’m no psychologist. But I am a friend to others. That means sticking with them, even if they are inconsolable. Helping an inconsolable person is quite a trick. One idea I’ve mused on is from King David’s Psalm 42, a Lament Psalm for the spiritually depressed:
“Why are you in despair, O my soul? Why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet again praise him.” (Psalm 42.5 NASB).
The Psalmist recognized something that everyone needs in order to survive through the dark: hope. Maybe hope should be the focus more than consolation. Sometimes, life is a bear; so saying “It’s not that bad” doesn’t help. Tim Keller says “Human beings are hope-shaped creatures. How you live today is completely shaped by what you believe about your future.” There is some undying spark of hope within those who press on in hardship that prevents them from doing something to stop their heartbeat. Some hope for better times in the future. But though there are no guarantees on life getting better, are there? This is what we might call “wishing” hope. You don’t know, but it might get better, and the possibility is keeping you up. But how do you know it won’t get worse? And chances are we will get old and decrepit eventually, unless we die young, which is kind of hopeless in itself. This is why the Psalmist hopes in God. It’s hope in someone who is eternal and doesn’t fade.
I haven’t found yet how to hold a “this-world, this-life only” kind of hope and live a consistent, meaningful life. Transcendent or other-worldly hope, of heaven, or paradise or whatever you call it, is needed to make a “this-world, this-life” hope make sense in the first place. If the object of hope is indestructible, so can you hope be.
*Apology for Raymond Sebond by Michael de Montaigne, p 53
Today is World AIDS Day. AIDS is a horrible, deadly disease. You’ll find info about it on news websites all over.
But here is a story I found yesterday, “GOP Reps blast Smithsonian Exhibit Exhibit Featuring Ant-Covered Jesus on Cross.” Conservatives are angry that tax dollars are disrespecting Christianity. The shocking exhibit was apparently meant to draw attention to the plight of AIDS victims. Again, I’ll leave the political debate to others, but what about Jesus and the AIDS victims themselves?
The co-curator of the art, David Ward, says, “That it is violent, disturbing, and hallucinatory precisely replicates the impact of the disease itself on people and a society that could barely comprehend its magnitude.” Is Ward willing dishonor to Jesus in order to bring attention to the pain of people with AIDS?
If so, this is a common attitude among secular advocates. They care more about AIDS victims than they do about Jesus. Is it bad to care about AIDS victims? No, not at all, it’s what Jesus would want. But not more than about Jesus. Why? Because Jesus is the AIDS victim’s only hope, the artist’s only hope, mine and the world’s only hope. His crucifixion was to save them. And more, as important as we are as human beings, God is more important. He is the Maker, the Sovereign of the cosmos, the Holy One. And Christ is the Essence of God in a human form.
“He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities- all things were created through him and for him…. For in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” (Col. 1.15-16, 19-20).
In this exhibit though, they crucified Jesus again, mocking Him just like those in 33 CE. If Christ were here today, people would crucify Him again. But even as they do, Christ loves them. Jesus prayed for His crucifiers as they nailed Him to the cross, He died for their sins and calls on them to come to Him for salvation from their destructive ways. But nobody listens. They just keep crucifying Him, negating the reason He came to die and replacing it with their own hopeless dead-ends and disgusting injustice. If only they would turn to Him before it’s too late.
But Christ is sovereign. He’s not wringing His hands helpless. He stands above these cheap attacks against Him and pseudo-compassion for His victimized creation. There is a day in the future when all injustice will be set right. The crucified Savior will be King. And all the suffers who’ve looked to Him will be freed and live with Him forever. Haste the day.