THOUGHT I KNEW JAIRUS, THE RULER OF the synagogue who pled with Jesus to heal his dying daughter. I remember hearing his story as a child on Bible story tapes, studying it in Bible classes at college and seminary, and even listening to a friend’s summary of his Ph.D. dissertation about the literary dynamics of the story. As if that wasn’t enough, I’ve preached about Jairus from the pulpit, and as a college professor I’ve even lectured about him. I was sure I knew Jairus.
But as I sat in the airport in Turkey anxiously waiting on an emergency flight back to the United States to where my 16-year-old daughter lay unconscious after a tragic accident, I realized that it was only at this moment I could really begin to know Jairus.
My encounter with Jairus began with an early morning knock on my hotel room door. I was two days away from the finish of an international Bible Conference for Adventist theologians near Izmir, Turkey. It had been my first trip overseas, and I was eagerly looking forward to returning home to my family. A knock so early in the morning sparked an immediate sense of concern as I struggled out of bed to the door. As a parent, I was accustomed to such emotions before, but my worries always turned out to be false alarms. This time was different: my eldest daughter, Mindy, had been in a serious accident, and I was to call home immediately.
Not knowing what had happened and being 7,000 miles from home, I was overwhelmed by fear and helplessness. When I eventually reached my wife by phone, I learned that our daughter had been in an accident on a Sabbath afternoon trip to the river with the church youth group. Mindy and a friend had decided to float across what they had thought was a harmless part of the river, and were caught by an unexpectedly strong current that propelled them down a nearly mile-long stretch of intense rapids not visible from where they had been swimming. Her friend emerged with only a few scratches. My daughter was not so fortunate. She was found floating facedown in the river after being underwater for some 15 minutes. Although CPR revived a pulse, Mindy remained unconscious, struggling to breathe with first one, and then two, collapsed lungs. She was placed on life support at the hospital. Another girl, Meghan Doggett, had dived in to save the two girls, but she also got caught in the river’s deadly grip and ended up drowning as well.
As I heard the news, I tried unsuccessfully to hold back waves of tears that erupted from a depth of pain that I had never before experienced. Frustration was added to my grief as I tried to contact an airline agent to change my ticket. Unable to get more than an automated response, my friends at the Bible Conference drove me to the airport some 45 minutes away. Those 45 minutes seemed endless.
So many questions flooded my mind. Was my daughter going to make it, and if she did, would she ever be the same? Would I get home in time to tell her how much I loved her? As hard as those questions were, even more difficult questions began to plague me. Why Mindy? How could this senseless tragedy take the innocent life of someone who loved God? Where was Jesus when my daughter needed Him most? Had Jesus let Mindy down? Had He let me down as a father, when I could not be there for my daughter?
Once we reached the airport, my frustration climbed to new heights as I waited more than an hour before an agent who could change my ticket showed up. Next, I learned that the earliest flight wouldn’t leave for another five hours! Those next five hours turned out to be one of the most painful passages of my life.
Through bouts of tears and prayers, I opened my Bible, looking for a source of strength and comfort. As a pastor, I had a collection of “go-to texts” in the Psalms that I always turned to when others were suffering. But this night none of those verses ministered to me. As I began paging through the Bible, I eventually found myself in Mark 5, staring at the story of Jairus and his daughter. As I read the passage, the inspired words ministered to my heart more deeply than I had ever experienced before.
As the beginnings of most narratives are, the first few verses of this story were easy to read. But as I began verse 23, I couldn’t get through the entire verse without sobbing. Only after several attempts could I read Jairus’s desperate words to Jesus: “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live” (ESV).* Though nearly 2,000 years separated Jairus and me, I felt as if our hearts and lives had been united together. Not until this moment could I know the depth of fear and pain that consumed the ruler of the synagogue that day.
Like him, I had a little daughter at the point of death. I could sense the anxiety that filled his heart as I also wondered whether I would make it back in time to see my little girl alive. Like Jairus, I knew that Jesus was my daughter’s only hope.
Verse 24 of Mark 5 surprised me: “And he went with him.” I had never really noticed it before, yet this little snippet of a verse gave me the hope I was lacking. Mark doesn’t record what words, if any, Jesus said to Jairus. He didn’t need to, for Jesus’ actions said it all. As Jesus went with Jairus, I sensed that He would also go with me. Although I could not hear His voice or see His form, I wouldn’t have to make my journey back home alone.
Waiting and reading, reading and weeping, I was eager for the story to move forward—for Jesus to arrive at Jairus’s home. But human stories often have interruptions, and the story of Jesus’ journey with Jairus was interrupted by the long account of Jesus and the woman with the issue of blood. I felt the frustration Jairus must have felt as he waited. He knew his daughter’s life was ebbing: time was of the essence. I knew that same frustration, waiting for planes, watching people carry on life around me, unaware of my race against time. As my eyes skipped down to verse 35 of Mark’s account, I found myself wishing that I could rush the moments faster to be at my daughter’s side.
“While he [Jesus] was still speaking, there came from the ruler’s house some who said, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?’ But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear; only believe.’”
Those words soothed my heart as never before. Jesus made no request of Jairus, nor even a recommendation. His words were both a command and a promise. Like Jairus, I, too, was fraught with fear, wondering what the future would hold. Despair seemed close at hand, easy and accessible. But the words of Jesus renewed my strength. I repeated them to myself over and over as I boarded the plane to Munich: “Do not fear; only believe.” Little could I know just then how fully I would yet identify with Jairus.
After a lonely night in Amsterdam and a grueling flight back to Washington State, I finally made it to my little girl’s side—nearly 48 hours after I first heard the news. I cried over her, hugged her, and gave her the pink scarf that I had bought specially for her in Turkey. I was hoping against hope that she would hear my voice and open her eyes, but there was no response. She was already brain dead. I learned later that she had actually been declared legally dead at 12:45 p.m. earlier that afternoon—five hours before I arrived. Like Jairus’s little girl, my daughter had also died before I made it home.
The words of Jesus sounded in my ears: “Do not fear; only believe.” Only believe? How could I believe? All the questions that had plagued me on the dark trip to the airport in Turkey began to assault me again. As I grappled with these questions, several Bible passages emerged from the fog.
The first was the story of Job, the believer who lost everything—not only his possessions, but every one of his children. Yet Job could say, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). Job’s faith could say these words even as his mind demanded to know the reasons why. As readers of his story, we know why, but Job never did. The tragedies were not caused by God but Satan. Job never knew why he was targeted for loss, yet still he clung to his Redeemer.
My thoughts also raced through the story of the resurrection of Lazarus in John 11, particularly verse 35, where John writes with elegant simplicity that “Jesus wept.” Those two words reminded me that even though I couldn’t know why my daughter had died, I could know that this result was not God’s will. Death is common in this world, but it is not normal, and it is not right. It was never in God’s will or His plan that there should be such suffering and pain. And it is only in Him that we have hope of a brighter day. What happened to my little girl wasn’t supposed to happen. This was not God’s plan. Only through the death of His Son will the pain we suffer in this world ever be surmounted, overcome, turned into joy.
One question still haunted me. Where was Jesus when Mindy died? Where was He when she needed Him most?
Strange memories float up in awful moments, and as I struggled with the question, I remembered the story of a prison cell at Auschwitz. Some have rightly said that there was no greater tragedy in the twentieth century than the death camps that Hitler erected in an attempt to exterminate the Jews during World War II. Of all the concentration camps, none was worse than Auschwitz. One of the rooms discovered there after the liberation was filled with nothing but human hair, the only remains of people who had been gassed and burned to death. Where was God when that happened?
An answer is found on a wall in Auschwitz cell No. 1632 in cellblock 11. On the back wall of that small cell there is a cross scratched into the wall and a picture of Jesus’ face carved by a prisoner. Just below Jesus’ face, His broken heart is etched with these words carved beneath: “Jesus was here.”
Though I would do anything to have my precious daughter back, I know that when no one else was with her as she plummeted down that nearly one-mile stretch of rapids, Jesus was with her. Just as He was with me on my journey, He was with my daughter. Though I will never know this side of eternity in what way He was with her, I am confident that He was, for He is justly called Immanuel, God with us. And while no human was able to save her that day—not the girl who died trying to rescue her, nor the man who pulled her lifeless body from the river, nor the ambulance team, nor the doctors—Jesus had done for her what they could not do: He saved her through His life, His death, and His resurrection. And I have the sure hope that the water that overwhelmed her that day is not the end, for she had already conquered the power of death when she was buried with Christ in the waters of baptism four years earlier.
The last thing I heard from my daughter before her death was an e-mail she sent me. It was just a brief note, but it ended with the words: “Can’t wait to see you! Hopefully on Sunday.”
Though I never saw Mindy alive again, while she lay unconscious in that hospital bed I told her that I couldn’t wait to see her again soon. And when that day comes she will hear those same words that were spoken to Jairus’s daughter nearly 2,000 years ago—“Talitha cumi,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”
There is only one aspect of Jairus’s story that I cannot yet identify with—the joy he experienced when his daughter was restored to him. As hard and painful as my daughter’s death is, I promised her that I would continue that journey I began with Jesus in the Izmir airport. One day, very soon, I too will know Jairus’s joy as my little daughter is restored to me on resurrection morning.
*All texts in this article are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Carl P. Cosaert is an assistant professor of New Testament and Early Christianity in the School of Theology at Walla Walla College, College Place, Washington. This article is taken from the funeral homily he gave for his daughter on July 22, 2006.