In my other life, when I am not rectoring, I am a historian. I’ve always loved the past—when I walked to school, as a child, I walked on the grass, not the sidewalk, so that I could pretend I was a pioneer girl, walking through the meadows to a one-room schoolhouse. I’ve never really felt that the past was passed—I can feel it all around me, all the time. I love to dive into the sixteenth century and not come back for hours. Part of the attraction of the work of research and writing about these distant centuries, I confess, has been the thought that you can’t hurt anyone, doing it. No matter what you say or what you get wrong, you can’t hurt them, because, to put it bluntly, they’re all dead.
It turns out to be a bit more complicated than that. It’s not a pain-free endeavor. There are moments, in reading about what we have done to each other, to our fellow Christians and to those of other faiths, when you have to stop, when your heart is broken. For me that moment first came when I was studying the religious wars in France between Catholics and Protestants after the Reformation. There were massacres, and people who claimed to be following Jesus’ teaching murdered one another by the thousands. I read about one case in which a group of religious zealots killed the parents of a little girl, the same age as my own daughter, at the time I was reading, and they bathed her in her parents’ blood, to teach her a lesson, the lesson of how to hate in God’s name. There are people who have learned that lesson well, and who still teach it in our world today. It is the sacred work of the historian, never to let those evils be forgotten. We owe it to the victims of hatred and violence to stop for a while, to stay with them, and then to take up their story in its completeness, even when it’s as hard and harrowing as that little girl’s story, to be their witnesses.
I listened, this week, to an interview with one of the Jewish rabbis in Pittsburgh, whose responsibility it is to collect every part of those who were killed at worship last Saturday, down to the last drop of blood. It is part of their practice to lay to rest each person in their fullness, just as God made them, insofar as they can. That is the work of witnessing, to which we are also called, as people of faith. God has promised us that nothing will be lost, nothing wasted—every part of Creation will be gathered in, known and remembered, literally re-membering what the world has torn apart, until it is whole again. As a historian I get to do that work, putting together scraps of papers and images, words brought back from the silence and pictures from the darkness, until the story of a life, a community, is revealed, not completely, but more fully.
My vocation is therefore to be a pastor whose congregation includes the dead. People I’ve talked to about this have thought it’s weird, admittedly. Our world is so much about moving on, after a loss, aren’t we counseled to make that our goal, after a trauma? When is she going to move on? Is he ready to move on, yet? But the life of the church, God’s church, is not limited to those who happen to be alive right now. We have this enormous gift, of honouring those who have gone before us, and knowing them to be with us. They are always there, encouraging us with their examples, inspiring and comforting us with their stories, and calling out our grief, because they deserve it. All we have to do is pay attention, and they are around us all the time.
Paying attention is a good way to describe the job of the historian. It has also helped me in thinking about the work of being a pastor to living people, as well. When I first began to visit people in the hospital, as part of the training you do during the ordination process, I was intimidated by the prospect of going into a room with someone who had just lost a child, or been told that they were dying, or that their lives would never be the same. I came to realize that what I was being called to do in those rooms was not fix people or situations, which I couldn’t do, but to be a historian again, for that living and dying child of God in front of me. To listen to them, to let them know that their stories were not lost or forgotten, not unimportant, but heard, understood, and cherished. That’s my job, I would argue, the best job in the world, getting to be the steward of all this life that God has made, its witness, its chronicler, even of the small part that I get to see, of eternity.
The eternal life talk in our faith can be challenging. Our world teaches us to go forward, even our churches can insist that we focus on moving toward salvation, or building God’s kingdom on earth, depending on their theological orientation. But eternity is not really something we go forward to; it’s backwards, and sideways as well. It’s all time and none at all, and getting out of that rat race altogether. Sometimes Christians are disparaged as thinking about eternal life as “life after death,” in this linear way, as some kind of pie in the sky when you die fantasy, as if we weren’t brave enough to admit that people die. It’s hopelessly old-fashioned, nobody talks about death anymore, it’s morbid, and defeatist. Modern medicine doesn’t address the possibility until all options have been exhausted, and then it’s an after-thought, a profoundly uncomfortable, unaccounted-for thing, a final mistake, that nobody knows how not to make. We’ll make them feel bad, if we pay too much attention, so we have to pretend it’s not happening, or hasn’t happened. Focus on the living. Move on. Look away.
Paying attention is exactly what Jesus calls us to do. When he reaches the tomb of his friend—never mind the smell, the gruesomeness of the place, Lazarus is here! From the silence and darkness of the grave, call him back, hear him speak, make a place for him again at the center of his family, his community, the place of a beloved brother. His story isn’t over, even if they all thought it was.
Eternal life is not about avoiding death. It’s about paying just as much attention to the dead as to the living. Jesus is always reminding us to notice what the world ignores, to value what the world discards. Pay just as much attention to rich and to poor, to adults and to children, to those on the bottom and to those in power. What’s small is not insignificant. What’s last is not even late, but right on time. What’s gone is not gone at all, but here all along. What Jesus tells us is that in him, our death and our life are one, in the heart of God. God is the historian of us all, every life, every story. “See, I am making all things new.” “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”