And yet we know that death must be a liar
when no goodbye is ever good enough.
Could it be? That everything sad is coming untrue?
–Jason Gray, Everything Sad is Coming Untrue, Pt 2
Whenever it’s time to say goodbye to someone deeply beloved, whether sudden or expected, I find myself coming back to CS Lewis’ joviality as he sent Sheldon VanAuken back to America: “Christians never say goodbye!” was his jolly bellow, as VanAuken’s bus left the station.
There always seems to be two sides to that statement: on one hand, the comfort and consolation of knowing that we will meet the Christians again, and that our venue will be far greater, far richer than all of which we have lived through together. On the other, the worry that for those who did not absorb and internalize the good news in their lifetime, it truly is goodbye.
My best friend was 9 when he died of heart failure, too young to know of the gospel beyond the superficial. Even if our missionary-Catholic schools in Hong Kong taught of a Jesus in our “Arrr-Ess” (Religious Studies) class, usually titled “Ethics” in the earlier years, I doubt any of us really understood what it meant to be ransomed or rescued, much less redeemed. He was buried in a casket that was shaped like a lotus, and as per Chinese custom, I didn’t look back as we left his grave, so that he could pass on to the afterlife without longing for the world he was leaving behind.
I’ve never been able to make sense, then, of that popular question that sympathizers ask, of whether or not the departed was “saved”. Those who ask it seem to do so as a hopeful allusion to the assurance that, if they were, we are promised a certain reunion. But what are we doing to the people who must answer “no”? For them, the answer is an admission that their loved ones will only live on in their memories, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, another occasion in which they’re forced to forfeit the person they once held so tenderly in their arms. Another twist of the knife. Another occasion in which they have to wrestle with the question of whether their unseen, distant lord demands that their love for him supercede their love for those who, over the span of many years, taught them how to love, at all.
Christians never say goodbye. But not because they hold the golden ticket. That’s a far too individualistic way of understanding the good news. Rather, it is because the heavens and the earth will someday converge. The kingdom will come here, and with it, rewrite the rules of life and death. The blessed assurance is not that we must choose the narrow road to survive lest we perish, but that we will come to realize where that road takes us, come to recognize what went into building that road, and seek it out.
I have no words for those who have recently lost loved ones, because I just don’t know, I just can’t know what other surprises are in store for us beyond the threshold of our time on this earth. For all I know, this is merely a good venue for learning, rather than the stage on which we must perform. And thus, in those times when the convention is to reassure the bereaved of some Jesus coming to save the selected, I offer an embrace, and a resolve to be there with them in their time of loss, affirming that though our knowledge of the “how” is still fuzzy, the sadness, the sorrow, the separation will one day be made right — it is the core of what we have been promised.