Christ, Crucified

I have so many thoughts I want to flesh out in writing–some feel like mountains to scale, some like pebbles to point out. But there’s a weight I’ve carried since Chris died, and I think Holy Week is as good a time as any–maybe the best time–to articulate more about this difficult burden: the experience of Chris’s physical suffering. His suffering unto death.

I wonder sometimes if it seems to people–to people who weren’t with him in his last weeks and days–that Chris’s suffering was characterized by peace, even faith, an acceptance of death, maybe a vision of what was to come. I can’t say that there was no vision, no measure of internal peace, no confidence in God’s presence. I don’t know what was happening in his spirit at the end. I can only say what was manifested to me.

When Chris found out he had cancer, his life, as I see it still, flamed out into something transcendent, like shining from shook foil. He was Chris, but he was Chris on a different plane. He embraced–not just hugged, but embraced–every person he came in contact with. He got out of the car in the morning carpool line to embrace the head of the kids’ school. I remember watching another friend awkwardly receive Chris’s embrace, giving him a few pats on the back like, OK man…love you too. Chris wanted people around all the time, to pray, to talk. He wanted cell phones put away. Every evening he set up an icon on the rug by the fireplace, lit a candle, burned incense, and kneeled to pray with whomever was around. He wanted relationship with people and relationship with God.

Then his belly started to swell. He became uncomfortable and tired. It was harder and harder to get around. He didn’t have energy for people. He began to retreat, from the front porch to the living room, to his office, to our bedroom. The flame was diminishing. He was becoming just a man again, a faithful man, a praying man, but just a man, in pain.

He remained an intentional, faithful, meditative man in the hospital. For a while. He really couldn’t read, so he would listen–to taize songs, to a friend reading the lectionary Scripture passages, to another friend chanting the Psalms. He didn’t pick up his phone except to listen to these things. He wanted to remain connected not to devices but to the people in the room. I would read him texts he’d get, which he did relish.

Then one day he turned on the TV. About anyone else this would be hardly worth noting. But those of us who were spending time with Chris then knew that a real shift had occurred. He watched hours of Storage Wars and Pawn Stars each day (wouldn’t have been my go-to’s, but I celebrate our differences). Chris’s strength was gone. His mental energy, his spiritual energy, certainly his physical energy. All he could do was remain.

Maybe this is a surprise to no one. Maybe no one would have expected anything more or less. But I see now that there was a kind of luminescence around the idea of death in my own mind, or, more specifically, the idea of Christian death. As if some of the glow from that initial flame would crown his head or be on his lips like hot coals. But there was no wisdom or wherewithal left in him.

Those last days, once Chris was in the ICU, were the steepest decent into the valley of the shadow. It hurts me so much to remember. I remember, then feel somehow a guilt that I let it be that bad for that long, those days. Guilt for not understanding or believing how desperate his body was to be released. Then I remember even harder and recall how the days played out, what we truly didn’t know, what I couldn’t have done differently with no hindsight. And I remember where Chris is now, and that he’s OK.

But my point is that he was in the valley of the shadow, and the journey ended in death. The journey ended in Chris descending, crying out for mercy, and falling, crumpled on the valley floor. There was no triumph. The flame died out. The flame was killed. Chris was defeated.

I’m not saying anything about what has been won for us in Christ’s resurrection. I’m not saying anything about the great opening into ultimate life, about the light on the other side of the divide–the light that can’t die. I don’t mean to be foolish in disregarding that reality for now. But I just need to look at what we can see here for a moment. We can only see the descent, the battle that takes place on this hard ground, and who wins that battle. It’s a fearful thing to behold. I can only imagine what a fearful thing it is to experience.

As Christians, our faith is in the Resurrection–our faith is in what we can’t see, and that faith buoys us through this life lived on such hard ground. We keep our eyes fixed–or try to keep them fixed–on eternity. But before Chris got sick, something had been missing in my understanding: Dying is a fearful, unceremonious, merciless thing. While I know the experience must vary between people, I feel compelled to state this clearly. And I wonder, Where is the meaning, where is the comfort for it found?

I had breakfast with one of our best friends last week. As I processed some of this with her, she said, “Sometimes I think maybe the answer, or the comfort, is simply this: Christ on the cross. No words about it, no commentary. Just Christ suffering and dying on the cross.”

And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, Jesus began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me….”

I can’t say for certain that Jesus was afraid of his death. But I think he was. At the least he was in agony at the prospect of his suffering. He fell on his face, tormented, pleading. He didn’t want it, presumably because he knew how awful it would be. He knew it would be, quite literally, unbearable, unendurable. Death would kill him.

Some things don’t need fleshing out. Or their fleshing out has already happened; they just need to be seen.

Christ on the cross. Christ on the cross.

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  29. Anonymous

    Thank you, Sarah, for baring your soul to us. We feel such affection for you and would love to hold your hand. Now I don’t know, but I don’t see any evidence or scripture that Jesus was ever afraid or experienced fear in His life. I’ve heard it said that Jesus, being fully God, was sorrowful and troubled in the face of taking onto Himself the tremendous burden of the sins of the whole, entire world, although He, being fully human, also chose to fully experience the human condition of dying.
    With love and praying

  30. Bonnie Bastian

    Yes, thank you so for sharing, Sarah. God has given you a gift for putting the indescribable into words. Keep writing!

  31. Powers Laurie Rogers

    As I read your heart-wrenching authentic post, I have the Word open on my lap and looked up to see the words “dead to sin, alive in Christ”.
    Your eloquent words brought this simple but poignant 6 words to life in a whole new depth.
    Again thank you for sharing the depths of your heart and soul with us.

  32. Amy Allen

    HI Sarah, Thank you for this! I recently heard about your story from Jonathan Nichols. As a fellow widow, I mourn with you at the lost off your dear husband.
    My husband’s journey was different then your dear Chris. and yet, I resonate with your post. A luminescence emanated from my Andrew for a beautiful, short time. And I, myself, had an elevated view of Christian death… that the death itself should be more transcendent. There is still so much I still wrestle with concerning my husband’s death. Also, in spite of that verse I’d always heard, I knew that death had NOT lost it’s sting. My Andrew’s death STUNG. And then I realized much is left out when 1 Corinthians 15:54-55 is quoted. It says:
    Then the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, THEN SHALL COME TO PASS the saying that is written:
    “Death is swallowed up in victory.”
    O death, where is your victory?
    O death, where is your sting?”

    “Then shall come to pass”! I await THAT day of resurrection. And until then I receive the comfort of Christ on the Cross.

    I write this with gratefulness to the Lord for the ministry of writing He has given you.
    Grace and Peace to you sister,

  33. Renada

    Thank you, Sarah, for expressing that death doesn’t need to look heroic to be Christian. Please keep writing.

  34. Rowena

    Beautifully expressed. I know what you mean about that light within bursting into luminescence. When my husband was fighting cancer several years ago and the prospects did not look good he had that same peace and luminescence about him. Blessedly he survived but as the years have come and gone he’s not been able to hold onto that in quite the same way. I wonder why. Would that we all could find that place where our priorities are in the right order. What a world it would be if we could all shine like that!

  35. Anonymous

    Thank you for making the effort to communicate these things. We need to be reminded and sobered by these realities to live thoughtful, meaningful lives as we walk each other Home.

  36. Betsy Rogers

    God bless you Sara for being able to express this journey into this valley of suffering. This is so hard to understand. When this happens to our loved ones, but the resurrection is our hope.
    Praying for you and your sweet children always.

  37. Duski

    Oh my friend. What a ministry your words are to my soul this morning. I feel so human, so seen, so in fellowship with you and other humans and Christ in my fears of death and suffering. I hope and pray processing these thoughts and sharing them with us was even more of a ministry and a balm to your heart. I love you so much.

  38. Bekah Weir

    I was at my (previously very healthy) mom’s side as she experienced a quick descent into illness and death two years ago when she was diagnosed with advanced cancer and died less than a month later. So much of this resonates. Praying that the hope of Christ’s resurrection fills your family with joy and great anticipation this Easter ❤️.

  39. Sandra Coir Bilbrey

    Because of the risen Lord, victory is Chris’s. Victory is yours and mine, too. Without all would be lost indeed. My favorite tradition is playing or singing oh so quietly lest the world and creature groan, outside and bare feet regardless of weather take in Sandi Patti’s “Was it a Morning Like This?” Find comfort, truth and hope. Blessings to you and the kids.

  40. Cindy Kross

    Christ on the Cross! Thank you for the reminder especially for this week of remembrance!
    Keeping you in my prayers!


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