Trying to understand a tragedy
Not long ago, some friends of mine experienced a horrific tragedy. On their way to the beach for a much needed family vacation, their car was t-boned at an intersection when another vehicle ran through a red light. Three-fourths of the family walked away from the crash relatively unscathed. Their eldest son, Ryan, was killed on impact.
I cannot fathom the anguish a parent goes through in losing a child, and I pray that I never have to. For my friends, though, this pain is all too real. A tragedy like this is so senseless, so violent, so abrupt that our minds just can't ever comprehend it. Their son was here, and then he was gone. Just like that.
Recently I visited Ryan's gravesite for the first time in a while. I'm not quite sure why I ended up walking over to his grave. It was a beautiful May morning: the sun was bright, the Boy Scouts were out placing flags on the graves of fallen soldiers, and the air felt like summertime on my skin. It was Memorial Day weekend, a time of remembrance and reflection. Recognizing the beauty, peace, and solemnity of the day, something inside me was stirred to the places in this world that are broken, where the sun does not seem to be shining quite as brightly. I thought of my friends who have lost so much, and who will probably never be able to enjoy a day like this in quite the same way. I was so thankful for it all - for everything - that I felt compelled to associate with and, somehow, draw closer to the people and places where thankfulness did not abound quite so easily. However those thoughts processed in my subconscious, I just knew that I wanted to go to the place of someone else's grief and, through simple prayer and presence, lift them up.
I made my way along the circuitous path through the cemetery, weaving slowly around thousands of headstones. I thought about how quiet it was. I knew none of the people who are buried in that cemetery, save the one. I could be walking among princes and paupers, the influential and the marginalized; I had no idea. The only thing I knew for sure any of them had in common were the definitive moments of birth and death. Those, they all shared. The rest - everything in between, everything that matters - was a mystery to me. "Like that Seinfeld episode," I thought, allowing myself a smile in a somber place: "you're born, yadda yadda yadda, you die. But you can't just 'yadda yadda yadda' over the best part." The best part can't be written on stone like a name or a date. Words couldn't do justice to the worth of a life, and no stone would be large enough to carry the stories of the person whose name is engraved there. No, we can't etch any of that in stone, nor do we have to. Those parts are written on our hearts.
That's why I was there. This child's life that was cut tragically short, it mattered. He mattered. His parents and family, the ones who have his everything-in-between written on their hearts, they matter. So I came to the place where so much of their heart - their grief and pain, their smiles and memories - had found a resting place. In spending time in that place, I hoped to feel closer to them, closer to everything in their hearts. In some small way I didn't want them to sit alone in that place.
Approaching the spot the parents had picked out for their son, where his body would rest until the day Jesus returns, I realized just how important this place was. A small bench had been placed at the foot of the grave, serving both as a memorial gift and a seat in which to pause and remember. This bench has seen countless hours of use in the last two years. Mother and father sit there every day recounting memories, reading stories, weeping quietly, praying hard, deep prayers. Every day they visit this gravesite, sit in that seat, and beg for mercy.
The mercy seat
In the Old Testament, the presence of God moved with His people, the Israelites, and was found in the portable place of worship - the tabernacle. The innermost section of the tabernacle, known as the Holy of Holies, housed the Ark of the Covenant, upon which the Spirit of God would rest. The lid of the Ark was referred to as the Mercy Seat, signifying both the presence of God with his people and the forgiveness for their sins that took place by means of a sacrifice in that very spot each year on the Day of Atonement.
In the New Testament, Jesus became the perfect and ultimate sacrifice for sin. He did once and for all under the new covenant what had to be repeated over and over under the old, rendering the old temple and sacrifices unnecessary. Jesus, dwelling among humanity as a man and then offering himself as a sacrifice for our sins, is our Mercy Seat. He is the presence and person of God, and He is the place at which we can find forgiveness and, thus, a right relationship with God.
Jesus did not stay distant; he drew close, into the middle of all the suffering of this world. And then He did the unthinkable: He became our sin and He bore all of our suffering so that we could know what it is like to be alive and free. When we experience that freedom, our own suffering takes on new meaning. We can endure even the worst pain this world has to offer because we know God is both present and at work in and through our suffering, and that He will one day even redeem our suffering. This is our present mercy: seeing today in light of eternity and looking forward to a full and complete redemption of all creation, of all our confusion and pain, of all that feels lost.
God with us, even when it hurts
I stood near the head of Ryan's grave and imagined that it was my own son's name carved into the stone. Turning around, I made my way over to the bench that stood silently, keeping watch over the newly occupied plot. It was a small, decorative bench built for two. Small as it was, it looked empty when not in use. Benches are made for sitting, after all. I obliged, and put the seat to use. I was suddenly quite aware that I was sitting in the exact spot where Ryan's mother sits every day. I looked at the empty seat next to me and knew immediately that it was not vacant. Jesus left his own grave empty so that our places of grief never had to be. Because Christ became the Mercy Seat, and because he sat down next to us in our suffering, we can know that we are closest to God in precisely those moments when we are most desperate for Him to deliver us. In that quiet moment I knew that God was present. Even this bench, which has felt the full weight of a family's grief and desperation, is a seat of mercy. In whatever sadness I felt in that moment; and more so, in the deep sadness this child's family feels as they sit there each day, Jesus sits next to us soaking it all in, bearing it. "Yes, I know," He whispers softly. "I feel it, too. That's why I came. It's why I'm coming back. In the meantime, your everything-in-between matters, and I'll be here for that, too."
So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive His mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most (Hebrews 4:16).