Once some friends and I tried to raise one of our friends from the dead.
I have a circle of friends I have know most of my life. We met via Church Camp. All of us were Pentecostals of the most fervent variety, cradle tongue-talkers and enthusiasts, prone to “words of knowledge” and ecstatic touches following anointing with oil. We had fallen to the ground, overwhelmed by the Spirit. We had shouted, laughed, and cried all our lives. We considered each other brothers and sisters. We were from Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, cities and towns. All we knew of God, we knew from each other. Twenty-plus years of familial bonding. Some of us were from choral families while others were the children of evangelists, pastors, and overseers (our denomination’s version of bishops). Blessing seemed to walk beside us. We dreamed of one day joining the overseers’ board and leading the church to its next levels. Ministry overseas. Blossoming congregations. A team of Joshuas. All these plans and hopes.
I was in my early twenties. I was off work and my brother and two friends of ours (also brothers) were hanging out in Mississippi when we got a call. Our friend JG, one of the youngest of us, was in a bad jetski accident in Arkansas at a lake, his brother told us, weeping and crying out in strings of glossolalia. Someone had struck him when he was surfacing in the water after falling off while tubing. My fellows and I were at a Chinese buffet restaurant. We sat and waited. We called others in Arkansas and got the same information. JG was going to be fine; he was the craziest and most impulsive of us. The most alive. We all have had people in our lives he were so vibrant we become certain in some part of our souls that they will never die. JG was a brutal prankster, clever and disarming. There was no middle path with him. He was the binding center that kept us together; he was our heart of adventure and youthful recklessness. He was youth itself, golden and immortal. He wrestled with doubts and wondered about his own future. He was the best drummer I’ve personally known. Once, while helping with a revival in Bicknell, Indiana, as we sat after night service, after many of us had powerful experiences of spiritual catharsis, he had felt little. I remember him standing, weeping softly, saying, “All of yall have prophecies and can preach and all that stuff. Nothing like that ever happens to me. Doesn’t God love me? Does God love me? Does God love me?” We held him and wept with him, doling out assurances and hypotheses. These comforted him somewhat. He had a purpose, we told him. He had a destiny.
We sat eating slowly, our movements absent of real thought, waiting for the next bit of news. He’s fine. He’s just a little bruised, a little hurt; he will be ok. My phone (an old flip-phone that made me think of Captain Kirk) rang. I answered, seeing it was JG’s older brother. “What’s up?”
“he’s dead he’s dead he’s dead he’s dead” Jerry screamed and the line clicked off.
My memory is fuzzy here. I looked at my brother; he nodded solemnly. He knew. Deep down, he already knew. I knew I couldn’t have a freakout here in the Chinese restaurant, so I stood and headed toward the doors. I remember stepping off the curb onto the asphalt. When I came to myself my brother was standing over me, telling me to calm down. I was screaming and slamming my head against his car door when he found me, and I came to myself and stood weeping. “We have to go to Arkansas now. We have to go.”
My brother nodded but said, “Eat something. Then we’ll go home and pack some stuff and head that way. You’ve got to keep it together.” (Others similarly lost their control; my friend JSJ was at work at the pharmacy we worked at when JG’s mother called her to tell her JG was dead. Coworkers said she fell to the floor and screamed and screamed and screamed.) The centre cannot hold; things fall apart.
In a few hours we were on the road from Alabama, my brother driving, my friend Ben and I riding with him. We called every friend in our group we could. We had a plan. We had faith. We had a destiny.
We were going to Arkansas to raise JG from the dead.
We reached Arkansas in a bout three hours or so. We assembled ourselves, our circle, and headed resolutely to the morgue. His mother and paternal grandmother sat in the parlor, somber and quiet, almost wept beyond weeping. Of course, we were permitted to go into the morgue. We had a mission.
There he was on the table, like “the evening spread out across the sky.” His neck had been broken by the impact. His neck and jaw were swollen. He was a little bloated. His eyes were shut. His mop of wild curls (almost a blond-brown afro) haloed his face. He was naked save for some boxers. The mortician/funeral director stood off to the side with a woman I assumed to be his wife. We moved forward.
Have you ever had moments in your life wherein your faith felt flawless, as real and set as a jewel? Wherein no doubt remained. Your actions so sure as if your very steps were ordered by the angels. There was no doubt. Absolute certainty. We would embrace him, recite the words, and he would rise. We were as sure of this as you might be of the sunrise. It was a given in our calculations.
We grasped him. We wept over him. Prayers. Glossolalia. My brother, always so uncomfortable with the dead at funerals, lay across him weeping (he told his girlfriend-now-wife over the phone, “My best friend is dead; what do I do now?”). His older brother laid on him, begging him to come back. We wept. We prayed every prayer we knew or could invent. We begged. We supplicated. He stayed on the slab. We rose one by one and eased out into the parlor. We knew: it just wasn’t time yet. Did not Lazarus lie dead four days before he rose? The patterns must repeat, yes? We went to JG and his older brother’s home (they lived with their parents still but JG had set up an apartment and planned to move out soon with his friend/adopted-brother CWR) and we mourned. So many of us. We had the funeral in the city civic center; it was packed out; some stood outside and listened to the funeral; thousands ( I exaggerate not at all) came through those long dark days.
He did not rise the next day. Or the third day. Or the fourth day. Or now. I visited his grave a few months back in Arkansas. I’m starting to forget what he sounded like. That’s the worst, I think: forgetting his voice. We lose him a little fragment at a time, sand caught in the water, vanishing slowly into the blind depths of memory.
When we walked out of the parlor, my pastor at the time (in many ways, my spiritual father) said, “Don’t give up on God. Sometimes He answers in ways we don’t understand or won’t see yet. Don’t lose faith.” I didn’t. I blamed others (none of our circle), saying they had lacked the needed faith to raise JG. In reality, I was hurt beyond healing, and merely lashed out in my anger and sorrow. I don’t believe that now. I have reasons I believe he rose not; panaceas of the mind. But honestly, I don’t know “why” he stayed in the ground, if it was a matter of the right faith (whatever that means).
He’s gone. I like to believe I will see him someday. I hope there is some true resurrection to come. If I don’t see him again (or the others we have lost) let me vanish into the dark and cease to be. A mere scratched line on the face of history and being. I don’t want him to be only a memory. I hope he is waiting out there, beyond the edge of things. I hope he is safe. I hope he is happy. I believe in the Resurrection and World Without End, Amen.
Oh God, my God. If there is nothing of that hope let my bones lie empty of a soul and let my being return to the cosmos, born anew and scattered like still-glowing embers wherein my heart once burned. But, let there be more. And let us share it, and meet like happy thieves, glad to be forgiven, in some Light.
)Around some time after this I read “A Prayer for Owen Meaney.” The last few words are mine, too; my prayer: “O God–please give him back! I shall keep asking you.”)