Last fall my family and I attended the funeral of a 15 year old from our neighborhood. The service was held in a large Lutheran church built of stone the same pale yellow of my daughter’s hair when she was a newborn. She held my hand as we entered the building, sensing how humbled I was, both by the building’s majesty and the event we were attending there. I felt smaller than a dust mote on a prayer book.
The church was packed with family members, classmates, neighbors and friends trying to make sense of the senseless: the death of a child. Our family of four squeezed into a pew built for two; my daughter sat on my lap. As the pastor read the story of Lazarus, raised from the dead to the joy of his mourning family, I ran my fingers through the dark blond hair that will one day be brown. All four of us wept.
I am neither Lutheran nor Christian. I identify as an atheist most of the time, or agnostic if I’m worried that my audience will confuse my lack of belief with an over-inflated ego. It’s true that prominent atheists in pop culture (Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens) declare themselves to be morally superior creatures, but so does anyone trying to sell books via Twitter flame war. Controversy sells. No one wants to admit to anxiety or uncertainty.
Several years ago I went camping with friends, and as we settled around the campfire to stare at the stars, my friend Gretchen said that the night sky in the country was a great source of comfort.
“I feel so tiny,” she said. “Like my problems can’t be problems anymore.” I told her I felt the opposite: that the vastness of space filled me with such psychic dread that I could hardly bear to look up. She just passed the s’mores.
When I heard the story of Lazarus being read in that beautiful church, with its sweeping vaults and candy-colored stained glass, I didn’t hear a literal promise of resurrection. Instead, I felt the ache in the heart of that boy’s mother, a woman not very different from me. We were acquainted through our sons, who attended the same schools since kindergarten. Her son, the dead boy, had invited my son to his birthday party in first grade – or was it kindergarten? Our memories were hazy. All we could remember was that she had been kind when Elliott struggled to keep up at the Roller Garden. As the pastor read the gospel and my daughter squirmed in my lap, I felt as tiny and helpless as a 6-year-old wobbling on rollerblades for the first time, looking for a friendly hand to hold him steady.
At times like these, the times of our greatest mystery and confusion, my children ask me “why?” Agnostics and atheists can’t rely on traditions or tales for solutions. Once again I was that neurotic stargazer, insignificant before the limitless universe, but this time, I had two small faces counting on me to figure it all out. Here’s what I told them:
Whether we choose the path of faith, skepticism, or a uniquely understood spiritual connection to all the atoms in the universe, we must treat each other gently, as if we were specks of dust – because we are. Our hearts are small, but they must be open. We must be as generous as a friend passing a plate of s’mores, a mother comforting a son not her own and a church community welcoming all in the shared ritual of grief.
When my daughter’s hair is dark and mine is gray, I hope she’ll tell me what this meant to her.
Shannon Drury is a self-described radical housewife. She lives in Minneapolis.