It took a couple of minutes to cross the busy street on its way out of Jacmel on the final day of our weekend visit. Motos sped past in quick succession, not quite leaving enough room for us to scurry between them. The tell-tale signs of a Haitian Sunday morning were all around us. Little girls, all frills and bows, hung on to their mom’s hand and skipped a little to keep up as they walked down the street. The mothers walked with purpose, even with heels and fashionable but modest dresses, always covering the shoulder. Older men were out an about, too, shoes freshly shined, tie just so, and Bible in hand. The wafting sound of Creole hymns floated in the air, which was warm, even a little before 9am.
We finally saw an opportunity to cut across the road, jogging a little to make it in time. Turning off the main road, we walked down a dirt path, lined with banana trees and an occasional pieced-together barbed wire fence. It was only a moment before the main road seemed far behind us. Lush green foliage surrounded us, and, peering from behind a tree, we saw the bright blue trim of a building. We had arrived at church.
A step or two led up to the door where an usher smiled and welcomed us in to the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Though we were a few minutes early, some singing had already begun and the church was filling up. Start time is approximate here—sometimes before and sometimes after the appointed hour. It was not hard to find where we should sit, as the ushers had roped off the back rows, and were directing everyone to start filling in from the front. I took my seat and looked around. The building was a long concrete rectangle topped with a tin roof and divided by a prominent middle aisle leading to the podium at the front. The pews were benches or wooden chairs, depending on where a person sat, which were pushed close together to maximize seating. People filled in every bit of free seating space, not afraid to sit shoulder to shoulder. A breeze came in through the open spaces between the steel bars, where you might normally expect windows. Even the prettiest stained glass would have stiff competition from the bright blue of the bars against the dramatic greens and siluettes of the tropical trees against the sky.
A pastor stood up to welcome the congregation and begin the time of prayer and worship. The order of worship was vaguely liturgical, so I could keep Robbie posted in abbreviated whispers about where we were in the service—confession of sins, Gospel reading John 11, Apostles’ Creed, etc. We sang a few songs, which sounded familiar but which I didn’t know by heart. Everyone is responsible for bringing their own hymnal if they want one, called Chan D’Esperans, “Songs of Hope.” I had just bought one a couple of weeks ago, but hadn’t thought to bring it along on our weekend trip. So, I just smiled and let the music wash over me, making do with humming along and jumping in with some of the choruses. A women’s choir sang in well-rehearsed a cappella harmonies, imploring the congregation, with lyrics and matching hand motions, to be unified in Christ and to proclaim the Gospel.
When it came time for the sermon, the pastor stepped up to his place in front of the church. He read from John 11, the raising of Lazarus from the dead, and started right in to the message, “God has the last word.” He preached about how, even when we experience suffering—when our house burns down, or a loved one dies, or an earthquake destroys a city—we think that the story has ended. The world seems to have come to a crashing halt. All we see is hopeless and final darkness. But, in fact, he continued, the story does not end there. It is God who brings restoration to broken things. It is God who speaks death back to life. It is God that has the last word.
This is a familiar passage and familiar themes, about which I’ve heard many sermons including one by Andy Stanley just a few weeks ago. But, this time, there seemed to be some kind of difference in the message. A different tone, or maybe a different resonance. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at first. It was not a new and unknown scripture. It was not a novel teaching. There wasn’t a fresh emotion laid on the subject. But there was something more. Afterwards, when I thought more about it, my mind went back to a philosophy class I took my freshman year of college. I thought of Aristotle’s Rhetoric, his discourse about the art of persuasion. In this treatise, he describes something called ethos—a means of persuasion based on credibility, referring both to the authority of the speaker, and also the character of the audience.
That morning, in that little church, ethos brought the message and the passage alive in a whole new way. It was different because this message, basically a response to the problem of pain, was not based on some distant philosophy. It was not borrowed from a lofty theology textbook or “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” This message was welded together in the dark underground caves of suffering. It was made of chunks hewn from death, and grief, and waking up sobbing in the middle of the night. And yet, it was a message of one who came through this darkness with (could it be?) words of hope—a missive that death is not the end of the story.
This was the message that the pastor spoke to the church that had come together that morning. A church that also knew suffering. A church that had watched as brothers and mothers died when there was no money for a doctor. A church that had seen their children stay at home idle when parents couldn’t scrape together school tuition. A church that had pulled bodies out of rubble too late. This was a church that didn’t need lofty philosophy, but real comfort and hope spoken into dark places. As I sat in the congregation and observed the speaking and the hearing that was taking place, I had the sense that I was witnessing something profound and sacred. Deep calling to deep, with the words that after brokenness there can be restoration, after grief there can be joy, and after death there can be life. In the end, God has the last word.