What does it mean to be protected? To be defended? Kept safe from trouble? Shielded from pain? Aren’t these the most important feelings in the world? This is a role that we’re desperate for God to fill. And the Scriptures are filled with metaphors of God doing just that: as our protector, defender, warrior, shepherd. I have personally drawn comfort from imagining God encamped around me, shielding me, being my rear guard. My mother’s favorite lullaby sang of “angels watching over [me]” as I drifted to sleep growing up. Though I believe these descriptions are true, they scrape against my encounters with pain. This is familiar to everyone. We lost someone too soon, too young, too fast, too violently. A factory collapses in Bangladesh, a friend our age dies of cancer, addiction severs two brothers. What’s going on? Is God not strong enough? Did he break his promise to protect? Did he change his mind? Is he…good?
We bear the scars of grief. Loss surprises us. Of the seventy-five tattoos in the Hear Me exhibit, Ginny’s, in particular, wrestles with the hope of protection in the face of stinging loss.
Greg drew Ginny’s angel tattoo. She chose the angel because it symbolized God’s comfort, his guardian’s care for us, and his seeing us as special. Greg died tragically in July 2012 shortly after designing it for Ginny. He had just fulfilled a dream to show his work in a Soho gallery in New York City when he was shot in the chest. His death, and the tattoo, reminds Ginny of her grief—over him, and over many things. Ginny has a scar under the angel’s heart; it wouldn’t stop bleeding when the tattoo needle touched it so she left it uncolored. Her tattoo is literally an angel with a bleeding heart. During our conversation, she asked, “Where was Greg’s angel?” Ginny’s question shows the ache we feel over the forced passivity which all sufferers know: we are not in control. Bad things happen to us that we cannot stop. In some ways, that question arches over our entire lives: Where are our angels?
This question haunts us all as we reel from loss. “Why?” we ask. “Where were all your promises to protect, God? If you are so good and so powerful, where were you?” I cannot help but think of Martha asking Jesus the same question when he arrived three days after her brother Lazarus had died. “If you had been here my brother would not have died,” she exclaimed (John 11:21). And remember, Jesus had delayed on purpose! Centuries later this account from John 11 still reveals how God sees our grief. In this story Jesus shows how God defends. How God wages war. How he shepherds. How God protects us in pain, not from it.
I have always been struck that Jesus wept before he performed the great miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead. The fact that he wept is couched between two other moments where he was “deeply moved,” and “greatly troubled.” Jesus knew what power he had and what joy lay ahead…and yet he wept. He didn’t diminish the tragedy or rush to the resurrection. He wept at death and all it represents—it is the final stinging reminder that we are a broken people in a broken world. This account shows a God acquainted with sorrows, familiar with grief. He entered into our sorrow instead of preventing it. But that’s not all. When Jesus resurrected Lazarus he performed the miracle that sentenced him to death. He had pushed the status quo too far and the leaders of the day were done with him. “From that day on they made plans to put him to death” (John 11:53). This account shows us a God who chooses to suffer a torturous death for Ginny, for Greg, for me, and for you for one great purpose: to undo all this grief, and to exchange his life for ours.
Ginny’s tattoo waits for God’s promise to be fulfilled. The ultimate protection from death, and all it brings with it, has been won by Jesus’ death and resurrection. How this works is mystery but that it works is testimony. Jesus himself said, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 17:33). This is how Jesus answers the “why?’ all we sufferers ask – by entering into suffering and overcoming it. It’s a hope that neither nihilism nor condescension can offer: pain not ignored or minimized, but overwhelmed. As Lazarus did, we experience the resurrection in part, and we are promised that there is yet more to come. We live, with Jesus, in the weeping. It is a grieving, however, that will give way to peace and joy of a depth that could never be experienced had the blood not been spilled or the pain endured. This is the song the angels sing: Take heart; Christ has overcome the world.
Kate Norris and her husband Sean are planting South Side Anglican Church in Pittsburgh. She is also a mother, artist, and seminarian.