Last week my family and my church experienced tragedy that we could barely conceive when we lost our youth pastor Michael Cruce, his wife Monica, and their two teen sons Joshua and Caleb. The pain was nothing short of breathtaking. I made the trek down to the banks of the Jordan where the living can’t cross, and now, two weeks later, I am still moved by what I witnessed there.
I witnessed a little girl in foster care that the Cruce family had taken into their home over a year ago and who they had loved so dearly and sweetly, not traveling with them. The foster care service had to place her with another family during the Cruce’s vacation time. The center unknowingly placed her with close friends of Michael and Monica, friends the little girl had known and loved. She is with them still.
Having been asked to serve as media spokesman, I witnessed miracles when individuals in the media, most of whom cover tragedy daily, were so touched that they cried as we spoke. There was the eye contact with a deputy who led the funeral procession in which he projected great compassion and sympathy. Dozens of adults, who had once rebelled against what Michael and Monica taught, came to the funeral and spoke eloquently of the positive impact the couple had on their lives. And then there were emails and texts, thousands and thousands of them, from around the world.
People die every day in this sometimes cruel world, so why did these four humble people, who never sought celebrity or limelight, touch so many on such a deep level in both life and death?
One might guess that it was because they were “nice” and that they did good deeds or they genuinely cared about people. All of that is true, but it seems an inadequate explanation. Perhaps a connection was made because they were innocent victims. But tens of thousands of innocents die daily in wars and conquests, yet this loss of life doesn’t seem to connect strangers across space and time.
The loss of this family did.
This leads to another question. How could the pain of this horrible tragedy be constantly interrupted by the beauty of love that this family gave or received?
Suppose for a moment that what Michael, Monica, and the boys believed were true. Suppose that the primary ethic that they dedicated every waking hour to wasn’t just their opinion, or their way of making sense of it all, or their selection from a cornucopia of hundreds of supposedly equivalent belief systems? Instead what if what they believed was really, really, real? What if, rather than having simply chosen a path, the Cruces had instead reached a point where they grasped the ultimate reality of the universe as it exists?
What if there really was a benevolent creator God instead of an angry deity, ready to rain down punishment that some belief systems speak of? This God doesn’t cause car wrecks that kill, or diseases that ravage, instead, he created a paradise for humans, his creatures, to thrive in. But something went horribly wrong and a contagion called sin entered the heart of created man. What if, as Natalie Grant brilliantly wrote in her lyrics, the sacred had been torn away from us because of sin yet we had all survived. Only now the Creator who is holy and the Paradise which is perfect and does not contain sin, is separated from us by a vast chasm. Chesterton likened our time here on earth to Robinson Crusoe. We are forced to make do as best we can with the good things that were left behind from the ship, from the paradise.
But God doesn’t just leave us here to fend for ourselves. In addition to the good things in life, the provisions, God gave us a more important provision that can breach the chasm and connect us with him. If we accept this provision, his son Jesus Christ, we can relate to him from here in the foreign land where we are shipwrecked.
If all that were true, wouldn’t it explain an inherent connection between us, the creatures? If we are all created by this same God and we all became stranded in this foreign land in the same manner, then that would explain eighteen thousand social media messages from around the world. That would explain how, as I stood on the bank of the Jordan, along with others who were seemingly strangers, we felt a deep connection. All of us were connected because we were stranded there, unable to cross, shipwrecked as it were. Therefore the compassion from a deputy, the kinship with a reporter as tears streamed down our faces, the massive relief that a little foster girl would be loved, are much more than mere empathy. Instead they are deep connections that we the created, share. This passing reminded us of our mortality but more than that it reminded us of a common past and a potential future. At the same time the beauty of these connections, and the balm they provided in the midst of great pain, were gifts that allowed us to have a peek back across that river, toward home and the love that we can know there.
C.S. Lewis wrote of these moments. I conclude with his words:
In speaking of this desire for our own faroff
country, which we find in ourselves
even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am
almost committing an indecency. I am
trying to rip open the inconsolable secret
in each one of you—the secret which hurts
so much that you take your revenge on it
by calling it names like Nostalgia …
The secret also which pierces with such sweetness that
when, in very intimate conversation, the
mention of it becomes imminent, we grow
awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves;
Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty
and behave as if that had settled the matter.
The moments of compassion in which we
thought the beauty was located will betray us if
we trust to them. The beauty was not in them it only
came through them. And what came through them was longing.
longing for the scent of a flower we have not yet found
for the echo of a tune we have not yet heard
longing for a country that we have not yet visited.