I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.
-John 16:33 (NIV)
I’m reminded of that quote by Frederick Buechner this week. On the beautiful side of the equation, this week my son graduates from high school. We’ll celebrate this accomplishment enthusiastically, because it represents the culmination of twelve years of hard work. We forget as we enter adulthood the struggle, frustration, stress, and sometimes exhaustion of our school years. “The best years of our lives,” we call them, though I don’t think any of us really think so if we give it more than a moment’s thought. Josh deserves to celebrate this milestone and look forward to what comes next. His mom and I, his grandparents, his family and friends — we’re prouder of him than we can even say. So we’ll go downtown Thursday night, to the beautiful Auditorium Theater in the heart of Chicago, and we’ll cheer as he walks across the stage and gets his diploma. We’ll celebrate with family and friends all weekend. Everything else going on in the world, more or less, will kind of get put on hold for a couple of days.
But, of course, we live in Buechner’s beautiful and terrible world. And on the terrible side of the equation is the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, inside (of all places) an Orlando nightclub. Less than a week after other parents lost their children, we’ll be cheering for ours.
The Orlando attacks, as terrible as they were, don’t make me afraid, really. Neither do the shootings that happen daily in my city, shootings that, if the victims were tallied up, would surpass Orlando as the worst mass shooting in just a couple of average weeks. But since they’re names just ticked off in newspaper columns, they kind of go over my head. The average shooting in Chicago doesn’t seem to even merit its own story anymore.
It’s easy for me to think of tragedies like what happened in Orlando, or what happen each night in my city, as far-removed from me. To be honest, I’m in one very significant way different from the victims in Orlando: I’m not gay. That happened to other people, just like most of the shootings in my city seem to happen to other people, people who are affiliated with gangs and for whom violence is a way of life.
So I’m like most folks, I guess. I’m celebrating the milestone in my family, while the more distant tragedies kind of go on in the background. How else can you live? How else can you get out of bed in the morning? Yes, we live in a beautiful and terrible world, and we choose which of those adjectives to fixate on, which of those realities we allow to determine the lives we live.
Buechner didn’t say what he said just to remark on the state of the world. He was speaking, when he said it, in God’s voice, as if the Creator was offering the world to the first man anew. “Here it is, your home. Sometimes it will be wonderful. Sometimes it will be horrific.” I like the quote because it doesn’t shy away from the ugliness and violence and pain in the world. It doesn’t invite us to pretend in the glow of the beautiful that the terrible cannot ever happen to us. It reminds us that both the beautiful and the terrible will touch us. We can’t pretend forever that the horrors of the world will somehow skip over us. And, if we’re fortunate enough to not be touched by some of them, we can’t pretend that the people to whom they’re happening don’t matter.
But it also reminds us not to live in fear. It tells us that when the world is terrible aren’t to be paralyzed by fear. And that we aren’t to ruin the beautiful moments by being afraid of the terrible ones that may be coming. We so easily make both mistakes. But do we or do we not, after all, believe in the One who tells us not to be afraid, that he has overcome the world? Can we say believe if the terrible so terrifies us that our lives bear witness only to the power of fear?
“Take heart,” says Jesus. In the face of the terrible, we’re to bear up courageously. That doesn’t mean stick-on smiles and fake laughter. Courage doesn’t rule out tears, or grief, or sadness. It doesn’t require blindness to the ways the world can be terrible. Courage isn’t pretending the fire doesn’t exist; it’s doing the job of saving others regardless. Courage isn’t doing your best to fake being well; it’s facing sickness with faith and hope and the peace of Christ.
“I have overcome the world,” he says. Not “I might overcome the world,” not even “I will.” The tense is past: “I have overcome the world.” The promises of Jesus, the promises of peace and safety, sharing in God’s life, aren’t just promises for one day after we die. They are to inform our lives hear and now. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” asked one of Jesus’ followers. God’s intent was set long ago, his plan put into motion, and the resurrection of Jesus is not just another promise, it’s the final triumphant exclamation point. If Jesus is alive, then he has overcome the most terrible things the world can do. It’s no longer something to hope for. Now it’s something to believe in and live by.
Josh’ first day of preschool was September 11, 2001. He ends his high school career a few days after the deadliest attack on US soil since then. The world hasn’t gotten a lot better since then. But we don’t pin our hopes for the future on the idea of the world getting better. We pin them on the promise of Jesus sealed with that empty tomb. We take heart, believing that he has indeed overcome the world.
If you’ve graduated this spring, or love someone who has, then that hope is for you.