To the Church in Exile,
The peace of Christ be with you.
Years ago, when I was serving another congregation, I had invited a seventy-year-old woman to come and see me on the first anniversary of her daughter’s death. Tellingly, after she sat down, she exploded with gratitude for my invitation to talk about her loved one. She lamented, “Pastor, none of my friends will let me talk about my daughter.”
Notice that in our lectionary reading, Lamentations 1:1-2, 6-7, there is no hesitancy to talk of the starkness of life.
1How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal.
2She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies….
6From daughter Zion has departed all her majesty. Her princes have become like stags that find no pasture; they fled without strength before the pursuer.
7Jerusalem remembers, in the days of her affliction and wandering, all the precious things that were hers in days of old. When her people fell into the hand of the foe, and there was no one to help her, the foe looked on mocking over her downfall.
There’s something soothing about reading these words currently in Seattle. They eerily connect with my city, with almost any big city in America, in our world. “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become.” Ten years from now when I again come across these words, I imagine I’ll immediately recall the days when I read this on a Seattle street so bereft of people.
One of the things about the Bible that I value more and more these days is its willingness to name the darkness. The Bible doesn’t define evil or explain it away; rather, it names it and puts a boundary around it. In fact, I think it’s the naming of the pain – using words like “widow,” “weeping,” “tears on her cheek,” “enemies,” “foes,” “lonely” – that helps put a boundary, a limit to the horror. We don’t need to get carried away lest we get caught up in all kinds of prognostications; an accurate diagnosis is required, not necessarily a run-way forecast. (I’m reminded of how often I will pray with some of you the night before surgery, “Lord give them good rest tonight and keep their mind from borrowing trouble.”) Still, in this crisis I want to hear the truth, no matter how stark. Dark truth smarts, but it doesn’t kill. I wonder what honest word we in this country need to say this week. I wonder what word is ripe on your lips.
I remember a tragic memorial service at Bethany years ago when a member’s friend had died, leaving his wife and two elementary school aged kids. A neighbor was asked to speak. She sobbed the entire time she shared but kept declaring “Nothing has changed! Life is the same!” As I listened to her, I was restless with the knowledge that in my sermon manuscript I had planned to quote C.S. Lewis in his book A Grief Observed, where Lewis is unequivocally contradicting this woman’s exact words. Pastorally, I had a decision to make: I did not want to so blatantly declare “you are wrong in your thinking about this loss,” yet I wanted to offer a healing word. I stuck with Lewis. The next day I received an effusive email from this neighbor who thought what I shared were the most hopeful words she had heard in a long time.
What is going on here? I think it’s this: If we can name the darkness well enough, it loses its clutch on us. I once heard a recorded interview of Richard Wilbur, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and poet laureate of the United States in the 1980’s succeeding Robert Penn Warren. He was talking about how words serve us. One way is that words “prettify” things; they can make things more bearable by disguising them. And we need this sometimes. But he said the other way that words can serve us is by saying the truth, even if it’s a terrible truth, with a kind-of maximum clarity and felicity. The latter is what he votes for most of the time, especially in poetry for adults. “The gamble of poetry is this: that to confront the terrible can be terrifying but it also says that if you do it well enough, if your articulateness is adequate to the thing, then you’re emboldened thereby and you can live better with it whatever it is.”
The Book of Lamentations takes a turn in chapter three, verse twenty-three, when suddenly light appears:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end.
They are new every morning.
Great is your faithfulness.
Now that’s hope! But I submit that the powerful hope of chapter three would be less without the clarifying accuracy of chapters one and two. We can never really say, “He is risen!” unless we recite the creed, “crucified, dead, and buried.” Indeed.
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
all I have and call my own.
You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.
Prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyola
Peace in Christ,
Doug Kelly, Senior Pastor
Bethany Presbyterian Church
(206) 284-2222, x11