I remember exactly where I was when I got both phone calls. The first one came just as I was getting up one Tuesday morning, and I answered the phone by our bed. It was my mother. “Mary, your dad died this morning.” The second one came when I was visiting my mother at her home in North Carolina. My brother George had just left for the airport, when the phone rang. The caller asked for me, instead of my mother, and then my sister-in-law got on the line and agonizingly told me that my brother Bob had died.
I remember the moisture instantly evaporating from my tongue, and adrenaline flooding my body so that my ears rang and my vision closed in. I was instantly transported to a wilderness of loss and shock.
O God, my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
Perhaps you have been in such a place too. A phone call in the middle of the night–or the middle of the day–both can be equally life-changing. A diagnosis spoken. A terrible truth revealed. A betrayal uncovered. An accident that in a moment changes everything. A wilderness of loss and shock that feels utterly alien.
At that very time there were some present who told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices [Luke tells us]. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?…Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them–do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?”
It seems that bad news has been a topic of conversation for millenia. Pilate’s killing of Jews worshiping in the Temple was merely a first century version of bombs going off in mosques or churches or synagogues today. Or of 9 people being gunned down at Bible study. The tower of Siloam–part of the old wall around Jerusalem–fell on people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, just as any tornado or cyclone can destroy houses and schools, apartment buildings and farms. “Were any of them worse offenders?” Was this a punishment from God? Was Superstorm Sandy a punishment of New York’s immoral way of life, or 9/11 God’s vengeance for gay marriage, abortionists, and feminists?
“No, I tell you,” Jesus said, “but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” The notion of tragedy as punishment for sin was common in Jesus’ day and is suggested elsewhere in the bible, and as strongly as we might dismiss it, we may still be tempted to say in the midst of crisis, “Why is this happening to me?” Or, conversely, we may hear those whose homes or families escaped destruction saying, “Somehow God chose to save us.” (But not our neighbors?)
Jesus doesn’t go there. “No, I tell you,” he said, “but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” Of course we will all perish–even Jesus did–but we do have choices about how we will live right now. Let the tragedy of others – which just as easily could have happened to you– let such events remind you to take a look at how you are living your life. If your life were to end like theirs tomorrow, how would you feel about the shape of your life? And if tragedy should come to you–should you find yourself in the wilderness of loss and grief–what choices can you make right now that will help you through that dry and thirsty land?
There was a woman in my church in Syracuse who had two young daughters and who was married to a state policeman. She was also a nurse, and was well-acquainted with the tragedies that can change a life in an instant. She was terrified that some such tragedy might befall either or both of her daughters. “I don’t know what I’d do if anything happened to either of them,” she told me. None of us can anticipate “what we would do” in such a situation, but we cannot simply live each day in fear and dread of such a thing. That sucks the very life out of us and closes us off from the real joy and gratitude that is to be experienced by having such loved ones in our lives.
While none of us can say for sure exactly how we will react when loss or failure or grief comes our way, which it will, we can make choices, we can take on practices, that can build up our strength and resilience for making it through such times. We may think of the “repentance” that Jesus talks about as simply being intentional about working on our relationship with God– taking stock of where we are in relationship to where our true path lies–“confessing,” if you will where we have wandered from that truth, where we have gotten distracted by that which will not provide us with Real Life. Making prayer and meditation a regular part of our lives keeps us open to the presence of God, which is always and everywhere with us. More than “belief,” more than “faith,” even, we can come to trust in God.
I know I have shared with you my own practice of framing my prayer in gratitude for God’s presence and healing already at work in places of need and despair, so that when word came to me several years ago that Bruce had had an asthma arrest and had to be resuscitated and intubated, I was able to move from praying, “O please, o please, don’t let anything happen to him” to “Thank you, God, for Your presence with Bruce and his doctors and all those attending to him.” It immediately shifted my ability to respond more clearly and skillfully.
One of the things that resilient people do is to turn to their “choir”–those connections and people who are “singing their song,” even–perhaps especially– in the midst of crisis. Three wise connections are first, the “experts”–call 9-1-1, if necessary, or your doctor, or pastor, depending upon what the crisis is. Secondly, we can turn to others who have been through similar crises but are further along the road–a grief support group, perhaps, or those recovering from similar medical conditions, that sort of thing; and thirdly, we can turn to our choir, those whom we trust implicitly, whom we know love us and genuinely want to be of support. I know our New England sense of independence often makes it hard for us to ask others for help, but our asking may actually be a gift to them, allowing them to put their love for us into action. And in this model of “choir,” of course, having a relationship with the “choir director”–God–will be invaluable.
In the wilderness of loss and grief, we can choose to notice the blessings amidst the burdens and struggles. One observer wrote, “Those who exhibited resilience after the Sept. 11 attacks were neither in denial nor selfish. They experienced great pain, suffering, and loss just like everyone else. What made their circumstance different was that they were able to let the negativity sit alongside positive emotions like gratitude, love, and joy.” [Jennifer Mattson, The Wellness List, Psychology Today, 1/31/16] They noticed the generosity of friends and strangers, they felt the love others expressed toward them, they were able to allow laughter to come alongside the tears. They didn’t allow themselves to get sucked endlessly into the negative. It reminds me of a cartoon where Winnie the Pooh and Piglet are walking along and Pooh says, “You know, the world could end tomorrow.” And Piglet says, “Yes, but what if it doesn’t?”
Steve Doughty, a Presbyterian minister and writer, says that “over the years I have been much nurtured by a band of persons I regard as ‘the holy resilient.’ When subjected to the fiercest pressures of change, the holy resilient do not just endure or bound back. They become more: more compassionate, deeper, simpler in their desires, and more focused in how they use their time.” [Weavings, vol. Xxviii, no. 2, p. 5] He has observed in these “holy resilient ones” a two-fold rhythm: the rhythm of releasing and taking hold; knowing when and what to let go of, knowing, discerning what to hold on to.
So Doughty suggests 6 questions we might ask ourselves when faced with the profound changes and challenges that may come our way. No, make that, will come our way. These are the questions–
1. What must I/we let go of? That might be anything from old ways of life, to abilities we once had, to life itself.
2. In the midst of this change that is taking place, what abides? Who and what remains?
3. What of Christ am I/are we invited to put on? Is it patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, love, any of those gifts of the Spirit? Another way to think of this might be, What of Christ is already within me that I can call upon? What are my God-given strengths that I might put to use here?
4. What fresh glimpses of God’s grace do I/we see amid all that is going on? For what can I/we be grateful for? What unexpected gift was given to us today?
5. What models of faithful change can I/we look to? This is like that 2nd group of connections we talked about–who has been through this–and seems to have come out “more”?
And finally, 6. How might what I am/we are learning help others? You see this in people like the mothers and fathers of the Newtown, CT children who have devoted their energies toward getting gun control legislation passed, or the woman who started Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, or Sally Donovan, whose son Peter was killed on 9/11 who started schools for girls in Afghanistan.
Sometimes the very refuse of our lives becomes the fertilizer in which we grow and bear remarkable fruit. That, I think, is what Jesus was getting at in the parable about the fig tree which hadn’t produced any fruit and which the owner was ready to cut down. The gardener, though, responded, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” It is the “other hand” of Jesus’ “unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” We are given just so much time to get our lives “in order,” so to speak, to accept God’s invitation to live in relationship. At some point, our time will be up. But know that God is infinitely patient, knows that when you-know-what happens it can actually provide us with opportunities to grow and even thrive, to come out “more” as Doughty said about the “holy resilient.” Patience, perseverance, giving time for the crisis to pass, knowing when to say, “This too shall pass,” are all qualities of resilience.
Even God allowed time to pass–3 days, we are told–after Jesus’ horrible, terrifying death on the cross. But oh, then, so much more than we could ever have expected came to pass. And the seed of resurrection is still planted in the midst of every death.
“O God, you are my God, I see you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water…Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name. My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
So may we find water in the dry desert of loss. So may we be sustained in that weary land. So
may we even come to sing songs of joy.
Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark