Monday, February 17, 2014

Solace in the Night

Isaiah 61:1-4
Psalm 42
Matthew 5:4

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”   In other translations, those who will be comforted are those who grieve or are sorrowful. 

As with all the Beatitudes, there is a communal meaning and a personal meaning.  Remember that Jesus is speaking to a people who live under the occupation of the Roman Empire.  Roman soldiers walk the streets, Roman taxes and temple taxes have increased poverty.  Family lands have been lost through corruption.  There is a constant undercurrent of revolt for which the penalty is crucifixion.  The crowd listening to Jesus on the mountainside hears the word mourn and they know in their bones the sorrow behind the cry at the beginning of the 137th Psalm, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.”  Those listening to Jesus were no longer exiled in Babylon; their homeland was captive.

I took a graduate class on grief, trauma, and loss in which about a third of the students were South Korean nationals studying in America.  The professor introduced the class to the Korean concept of han, a word for which there is no equivalent in English.  Korean has been invaded and held captive over 300 times in its history.  We have nothing in our history that compares.  Even the sorrow and fear that we experienced in the aftermath of 9/11 does not begin to help us understand the collective cultural experience of Koreans.  When the professor mentioned the word han, the Koreans moaned as one with deep anguish on their faces.  They see half of their country as captive now and their grief is both ancient and current.

In refugee camps in the Middle East and Africa, children cry because they want to go home, but they cannot go home.  Their home is gone.  Their family has been decimated by war and the grief is palpable in every shelter. 

How are they comforted?  Where does comfort come from? 

Consider praying the lament of Psalm 13 with those who mourn:
1 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I bear pain in my soul,
    and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
3 Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
4 and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”;
    my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.
5 But I trusted in your steadfast love;
    my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
6 I will sing to the Lord,
    because he has dealt bountifully with me.

How long, O Lord, how long?  The same words rise up whether the grief is communal or personal.  Most of us have known grief, some of us more than others.  Parker Palmer, and educator and author, describes a time of deep clinical depression in his life.  During what he called a “living death” he withdrew, finding even movement difficult.  Many friends and coworkers reached out to him with words of comfort and encouragement.  But one friend, a man who understood, began to come every afternoon.   With permission, he would gently remove Palmer’s shoes and socks and massage his feet, seldom saying anything.  Palmer credits that silent companionship as an anchor that allowed healing to begin.[1]  I believe comfort begins in mediating the compassionate presence of God.  There are no right words.  In fact, there are no words necessary. 

Ann Weems is a poet whose beautiful poems I share with you during the seasons of Advent and Lent.  Let me read part of the preface to her book Psalms of Lament, published in 1995. 

This book is not for everyone.  It is for those who weep and for those who weep with those who weep.  It is for those whose souls struggle with the dailiness of faithkeeping in the midst of life’s assaults and obscenities.  This book is for those who are living with scalding tears running down their cheeks.
         On August 14, 1982, the stars fell from my sky.  My son, my Todd, had been killed less than an hour after his twenty-first birthday.  August 14, 1982 . . . and still I weep.
         Many were there for me . . . family, friends, and people I didn’t even know who sent their loving-kindness by mail or phone or in person.  These tenderhearted ones were God-sent, and they have no idea how deeply they walked into my heart.
         One of these people was Walter Brueggemann.  He was enormously present to me and to my family.  Concerned and caring, he kept in touch long after the sympathy notes stopped coming.  One day he called and said I certainly didn’t have to answer his question if I didn’t want to, but he was working on Jeremiah and wanted to ask me, Will Rachel be comforted?  I remember answering with little hesitation: No.  No, Rachel will not be comforted.  Not here, not now, not in the sense of being ultimately comforted.  Of course, those people who are surrounding me with compassion are doing the work of angels, and I bid them come, but Rachel will be comforted only when God wipes the tears from her eyes.[2]

What follows are psalms that are raw and wrenching as she fires words of anger, blame, and desolation at God, wrestling with her emotions and her faith, and holding on to God with sheer desperation.  Weems closes this introduction to her psalms of lament with this poem:

“Blessed are those who weep, for they shall be comforted.”  Someday.  Someday God will wipe the tears from Rachel’s eyes.

In the godforsaken, obscene quicksand of life,
there is a deafening alleluia
rising from the souls
of those who weep,
and of those who weep with those who weep.
If you watch, you will see
the hand of God
putting the stars back in their skies
one by one.[3]

May we be those who weep with those who weep. 

[1] Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 63.
[2] Ann Weems, Psalms of Lament (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), xv.
[3] Ibid., xvii.

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