On Thursday afternoon my children and I went outside to investigate an odd object on our sidewalk, and unfortunately discovered that it was a badly injured bird. I won’t go into the sad details, but it was a chick who had most likely been blown out of his nest by the storm the night before, and he’d been attacked by an animal. He was in bad shape. Along with the help of some neighbors, we put him in a little box and tried to take care of him as best we could, but it quickly became clear that he was beyond help. The neighbors ran off to find someone to take him to the local vet, and my three-year-old son and I waited with him in the garage.
I’d tried to shelter my kids from the sad situation, but my son got a pretty good look. He turned to me with deep concern on his face, hoping for an explanation. It was obvious that this little animal was dying. With tears in my eyes, I glanced from him to the bird and stammered, “It’s OK, honey. The birdie is going to be with Jesus.”
It was strange to hear myself say something like that.
In my culture growing up, suffering and death had no transcendent meaning. Living things suffer, life is unfair, everything dies, and that was that. When we heard Christians comfort one another by saying that deceased loved-ones had “gone to heaven” or “were with Jesus, ” their assurances seemed like nothing more than attempts to drown out reality with platitudes.
Yet there I was, saying the same thing to my own children. And, oddly enough, I meant it, and found it deeply comforting. It doesn’t seem like a statement so simple could have much importance, and yet I found those few words contained truths more important than almost anything else. As I heard myself repeat the words that I once thought were bromidic sayings for people who couldn’t face reality, I realized that they contained the truths that are the very core of reality.
I thought I’d write out what I understand them to mean, now that I am a Christian myself. If I could have articulated it all to my son in that moment, here’s what I would have said:
I’m sorry you have to see this, son. I’m sorry that at the tender age of three you’re already starting to get a glimpse of some of the terrible things that happen in this world. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you that you’re going to see any less of it as you get older. You’re going to see more — a lot more. We live in a bit of a cocoon of stability and wealth here in our suburban American location, but as you study history, and as you step out of our little bubble and take a look at what goes on in other parts of the world, you will see that there is a lot of unfairness, a lot of pain, a lot of cruelty, and a lot of suffering. If you look beneath the surface, you’ll even see it here.
As you educate yourself about current events and the history of humanity, you may even begin to notice that the sum total of the experience of life on earth seems to contain just as much, if not more, unfairness, pain, and cruelty as there is fairness, comfort and charity. Throughout the history of the world there has probably been just as much, if not more, suffering than pleasure. What you will also notice, however, is that we humans have an innate sense that this is not how it “should” be.
On the surface that might seem like an irrational proposition: given that there has been at least as much bad as there has been good, it seems that a rational person would assume that the bad is the normal state, the way things “should” be. And yet you know, I know, and every person who has ever lived has known, that it’s not; we know as much as we know anything that a world of peace and harmony is the way it “should” be. Where does this disconnect come from, this seemingly illogical yearning for a type of world we’ve never seen? It’s because we are not products of this world, and it is not our real home; we are travelers through a fallen land that was infiltrated by evil long ago, and we’ll never find perfect peace until we’re home.
To be “home” is not to go to a physical place as much as it is to enter a state, a state of being in full communion with the Source of all that is good. We call that “heaven.” Because to be “in heaven” is to have a perfect relationship with God — who is that perfect Love and Peace and Goodness that we’ve always yearned for — we must rid ourselves of all those yucky things we do that separate us from perfect love. Because of God’s unfathomable purity and perfection, even our slightest rejections of love separate us from him immeasurably. These rejections of love, also called “sin, ” not only prevent us from being conduits of God’s beauty and love to the world, but they will prevent us from entering into full communion with him for eternity — not because God doesn’t want us, but because if he were to enter into full communion with us while we were in a sinful state, he would no longer be perfectly good and pure himself. So these sins, even the smallest ones, are a big deal; in fact, they are such shocking rejections of God’s perfect love that we could never make up for them on our own. Through sin we move ourselves so far away from God that we simply don’t have the power to get close to him again. This is really quite a mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. Sounds like a pretty dismal state, right?
That’s why we need a Savior.
God took it upon himself to bridge that gap, a gap that only he has the power to bridge. And how did he do it? That’s what we must always remember, especially on days like today where the sadness of our world is impressed upon us. As we stand here barefoot on our filthy garage floor, wasps and mosquitoes buzzing around our faces, looking down upon a poor little bird who has been terribly wounded, we must remember that God bridged the gap to bring us back close to him again through suffering. We can never let the sadness of this or any other situation distract us into picturing God as a cold, distant deity from on high who watches with detachment as the events of this world unfold; rather, we must picture Christ crucified, hanging from the cross after being beaten and spat upon. An innocent man, tortured to death: that is God. Don’t ever forget that he knows what it is to suffer.
So when I said to you, son, that the birdie is going to be with Jesus, I didn’t mean to say that I know for sure that this bird is going to a physical location to spend time with a man named Jesus. I use our Lord’s name here as a shorthand for “he who is the embodiment of perfect, selfless love, who has suffered more than any of us, because of us” and I talk about the birdie “going to be with” him as a way to note that our winged friend has somehow returned to this loving Creator. If we are tempted to feel angst about the bird’s fate, to worry about the fact that God has not chosen to reveal to us the exact details of how and if the bird will be with him in eternity, we must always remember this:
There is no unfairness in eternity.
We don’t need to worry that this bird, who was incapable of sin, would experience an eternal fate that would cause him any sadness or distress, since that would be unfair; and it is impossible for God to be unfair — not because of a limit to his power, but because it’s contrary to his essence. God cannot be unfair for the same reason a circle cannot be a square. So we know that God knows this little creature’s pain, and that since the bird was not capable of choosing to reject God, then we have nothing to worry about in terms of his eternal fate.
As for the rest of us, we have a choice. If we want to “be with Jesus” when we die, to have eternal communion with perfect Love and Peace and Goodness, all we have to do is choose not to reject God, to walk the path of Love. It’s not easy, but it is simple. As you get older, you may be tempted to see the rules that God has given us through his Word and his Church as oppressive; at some point you may feel like they are confining you because they prevent you from making yourself comfortable in this world. What you will find as you grow in your faith, however, is that God’s rules are a roadmap for the path of love, a prescription for agape. The path that God has laid out for us is not the easiest, the most comfortable, or the most “fun” on a surface level. And yet, by following Christ and his way of perfect love, we can become beacons of hope and light for others, there will be more love in the world for us having been here, and our deepest longings will one day be fulfilled when we enter into complete, endless communion with the Source of all that is good.
Though it may be hard to remember upon witnessing something as distressing as the suffering of this baby bird, to be a Christian is to believe that all our yearnings for things like peace and justice and fairness and recompense for suffering have a Source, and that we belong to him; it is to understand that the bad news is that our world is fallen, but the good news is that it’s finite. To be a Christian is not to believe that there are always happy endings, but that there will be one, final happy ending. As this little bird is about to take its last breath, we know that we too will one take our last breaths, probably after experiencing suffering of our own. Yet we have great hope in knowing that Love itself, outside of time and incapable of unfairness, is the one in charge. And for all who didn’t choose to reject him — this bird, and hopefully you and I — it is to him that we return.
And that’s what I meant when I said, “It’s OK, the birdie is going to be with Jesus.” Hopefully I got it right.