Coming to Terms with Loss

Sermon on Isaiah 55:10-13 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. You can listen to this sermon here.

Artwork by Jon Muth

A few weeks ago, on the morning of her third birthday party, my eldest daughter asked me to push her in the swing under the back deck at my in-laws’ house. As she swung back and forth, she asked me to sing a song to her, so I chose one of her favorites: Peter, Paul, and Mary’s “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” Before too long, I began to weep. While this is not all that surprising to anyone who knows me well, it usually takes a little more to make me cry. For some reason, this moment was particularly powerful. It might have been the beautiful way she sang along. It might have been the fact that my little girl is growing up. But I suspect that my emotions actually came from a deeper place. When you get right down to it, “Puff, the Magic Dragon” is not just a whimsical children’s song, and it’s certainly not an allegory for drug use, as some have speculated. Ultimately, this song about a boy and his dragon is a profound meditation on loss. Now, I can already imagine some of your objections: “Come on David: not everything is a ‘profound meditation on something.’ Sometimes a song is just a song.” A close examination of the lyrics, however, reveals that there is something deeper happening in the land of Honalee. While the first verses describe Puff and Jackie Paper traveling on a boat with billowed sail and frolicking in the autumn mists, the final verses paint a darker picture: “A dragon lives forever, but not so little girls and boys. Painted wings and giants’ rings make way for other toys. One grey night it happened: Jackie Paper came no more, and Puff that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar…Without his lifelong friend, Puff could not be brave; so Puff that mighty dragon sadly slipped into his cave.” That’s the end of the song. Though the chorus repeats one more time, it’s in the past tense: “Puff, the Magic Dragon lived by the sea.” This whimsical children’s song reveals a stark truth about the human experience: eventually, we will lose everything we have in this life. In the end, there is nothing that will remain.

The easiest way to deal with this realization is simply to deny it. Case in point: when I was a kid, I had a children’s album recorded by Peter, Paul, and Mary (it was called Peter, Paul, and Mommy, which I thought was pretty clever at the time). When the folk trio performed “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” they tried to negate any of the song’s unhappy implications by shouting “present tense” during the final chorus. Those listening to this amended version of the song were meant to assume that Puff’s grief over Jackie Paper is momentary. I’ll admit, this approach has an appealing quality. After all, why would we dwell on loss if it’s just going to depress us? Of course, if we simply deny the reality of loss, a time will come when we will be utterly devastated by it: we’ll sustain a life-altering injury, get fired from our dream job, or deal with the death of someone we love. A priest I know once presided at the funeral of a man whose thirty year old grandson wailed, “What am I going to do now” as his grandfather was buried. Though we can’t know what was happening in this young man’s head, I suspect that he had simply denied the reality of loss for his entire life, only to be forced to confront it in the most dramatic way imaginable.

If we choose not to deny the reality of loss, we are faced with a stark choice, one that leads to two utterly distinct ways of experiencing the world. On one hand, recognizing that we will lose everything we have in this life can lead us to ignore the possibility of transcendence, to focus exclusively on the present moment. After all, if nothing will remain, why should we be preoccupied with what will come after us? Obviously, this way of thinking is inherently selfish, but it also has a seductive logic. If I subscribe to this worldview, my life has a clear purpose: to do whatever it takes to satisfy my desires. I don’t have to worry about discerning my vocation or trying to make something of myself; I don’t have to worry about speaking the truth or being honorable; I don’t even have to worry about being faithful to those who depend on me; everything can be subordinated to my immediate needs, because nothing is going to last anyway. It’s the same logic that led the Epicureans to say, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” But this approach, if taken to its logical extreme, leads inexorably to nihilism. If everything in life is only useful for satisfying our immediate desires, then nothing actually matters, nothing has value, nothing is worth anything. In this worldview, everything we do is ultimately for naught, a condition that forces us into despair.

On the other hand is the vision of life offered by the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah was no stranger to loss. He wrote to a people in exile, a people who had been removed from their homeland and isolated from everything they held dear. If anyone had reason to despair, it would have been Isaiah and his people. Yet, time and again, Isaiah refuses to give in to despair and offers his people comfort. We see the reason for the prophet’s confidence in this morning’s reading, when Isaiah gives his people this word from the Lord: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth…so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Even in the face of devastating loss, Isaiah trusted that God would keep God’s promises, that God’s word would not return to him empty. This is an astonishing statement, because it so precisely opposes a nihilistic worldview: since God’s word will not return to him empty, everything matters. God neither creates nor redeems in vain. There is nothing and no one that can legitimately be dismissed; our lives have value, even though we know that they will come to an end someday.

Nothing embodies this more clearly than the resurrection. In the resurrection, Jesus Christ, God’s Word made flesh, was vindicated even after he suffered the loss of everything. In the resurrection, Jesus Christ embodied Isaiah’s prophecy. When we are faced with the reality of of loss, we have two distinct options: we can either give into despair and live as though nothing in our life matters, or we can share in Christ’s victory over death and trust that, in the end, God’s word will not return to him empty.

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The Tyranny of Being “Fine”

Newcomers to this country are often surprised by how frequently Americans ask each other, “How are you?” In most other countries, such inquiries would be considered an invasion of privacy, or at the very least irrelevant to the imagesconversation. Of course, newcomers are even more surprised to learn that this query is largely perfunctory. Indeed, there is only one “correct” response to this question. No matter what is happening in our lives, there is a collective cultural expectation that we will respond, “Fine” when someone asks us how we are. We are instructed and encouraged in this behavior from an early age. Even my 21 month old somehow knows to say “Good” when I ask her how she slept. While it may seem that there is nothing wrong with this, there is something troubling about this tendency. Our collective assumption that the only thing to say is “fine” when someone asks us how we are eventually convinces us that the only way to be is “fine.” When we force ourselves to be “fine,” we lose something elemental about the human experience.

What we lose is the opportunity to grieve. Sometimes being “fine” is not an option; sometimes, when we are faced with loss and uncertainty, grief is the only appropriate response. Yet, when we assume that “fine” is our baseline, grief becomes abnormal, something we need to dispense with as efficiently as possible. We end up thinking of grief as a process, something we can “do the right way.” We cannot, however, approach grief as a problem to be solved; it is something we must experience as a fundamental aspect of who we are. Indeed, grief is a centrally important part of our lives because loss is central to our lives. Part of mystery of being human is that we have the capacity to love even what we know we will lose. Grief permits us to recognize this paradox, because it allows us to trust that even what we have lost belongs to God. The ability to grieve is part crucial component of the Christian life. The Book of Common Prayer, for instance, notes that rite for the Burial of the Dead “finds all meaning in the resurrection,” which is God’s pledge that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. At the same time, the prayer book notes that human grief is not unchristian: that the deep sorrow we experience when we lose someone is animated by the love we have for one another in Christ.

There are times when we are not “fine.” There are times that we experience that deep pain of loss that is a fundamental part of the human experience. It is in these times that we need to summon the grace to grieve, to admit that we are not fine, and to trust that even what we have lost belongs to God.

Faux pas

I embarrassed myself the other day.

On Thursday, I had the honor and privilege of officiating at a parishioner’s funeral at the local veterans’ cemetery.  After the Committal ended, I stepped aside to allow representatives of the Navy to render the appropriate military honors.  It was a calm and beautiful day in West Texas, and the gathered congregation remained preternaturally quiet as they bore witness to the solemn ceremony.  Then, just as the sailors began the ceremonial folding of the American flag, my cell phone started to ring.

imagesUnder normal circumstances, I would have been able to turn it off by simply finding the appropriate button through my vestments (actually, under normal circumstances, I would have remembered to turn off my phone), but for whatever reason, I was unable to do so on this occasion.  The ring seemed to get louder and louder as I fruitlessly reached into my robes and groped for the offending device.  Finally, after inadvertently answering the phone, I breathed a sigh of relief as I pressed “end.”  Needless to say, since it was that sort of day, the person tried to call back immediately.  I was mortified and felt intensely regretful for the error.

To their eternal credit, the family of the deceased did not mention my failure to turn off my cell phone, nor did they comment on the fact that I had groped myself during the course of the funeral services.  In fact, no one mentioned it until I prompted another parishioner who was in attendance.  “I’m so embarrassed that my cell phone went off,” I told him, hopeful that he would be sympathetic.  He turned to me and somewhat incredulously asked, “Why are you embarrassed?  Because you’re human?”

There was profound wisdom and profound grace in this question.  Not only did this parishioner remind me that my call as a priest is not to be perfect, he also called to mind the reality that our humanity is not compromised even when we face the suffering of this world.  A cell phone ringing at a graveside can be a reminder that even in the face of death, we continue to be human beings.  An annoying distraction can become an acknowledgement that life continues even as we mourn those we have lost.  That cell phone ringing became a version of the proclamation we make at every funeral service in the Episcopal Church: “Even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”

I pray that God will give us grace to see the faux pas in our lives not as mere distractions, but as reminders of the Resurrection life promised to each one of us through Jesus Christ.

Lamentation

Sermon on Matthew 2:13-23 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX.

563612_10100115394570697_1993153675_nA few weeks ago, an ecumenical colleague and I were driving to a seminar in Austin.  Our trip took us through Zephyr (Texans are so good at naming places) and there we drove by a church with a sign that read, “The X belongs in Texas.  Christ belongs in Christmas.”  Clearly, the folks in Zephyr had opened up yet another front in the purported “War on Christmas.”  Neither my friend nor I had the time or inclination to explain that the “X” in “Xmas” is the Greek letter “chi,” which is actually an ancient abbreviation for the name of Christ.  The X, in other words, belongs both in Texas and Christmas.  Part of the reason I wasn’t inclined to explain this is that I really think that all of the talk about the “War on Christmas” in those first weeks of December is mostly an excuse to get people to click on website links or watch sensational stories on the news or come up with somewhat clever church signs.

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“Do we get to win this time?”

The reality is, however, that all of the skirmishes in the supposed “War on Christmas” take place before Christmas even starts.  And once the season of Christmas has actually arrived, people forget about it!  Across the country on December 26th, decorations are packed away, Christmas trees are literally thrown to the curb, and people stop saying Merry Christmas, even though there are twelve more days to celebrate the birth of our Lord. Surely this is where the real battle is being fought.  Needless to say, I have, for the last two weeks, been a willing and possibly the only participant in this particular version of the “War on Christmas.” I have been the John Rambo of reminding people that it is still Christmas: I have encouraged people to keep their decorations up, I have corrected people when they refer to Christmas in the past tense, and I insist on saying “Merry Christmas” well into January.  And so beloved, I take this moment on January 5th to remind you that it is still Christmas, that we are still observing the birth of our Lord, that we are still celebrating the Incarnation.

As a result of our celebration, we are in the somewhat unusual position of observing the second Sunday of Christmas, which does not happen all too often.  In fact, the way our lectionary is constructed means that we in the Episcopal Church rarely have to deal with this challenging reading we heard from Matthew’s gospel.  And this story of the Holy Family’s escape to Egypt and the slaughter of the innocents is nothing if not challenging.  Matthew begins by telling us about an angel appearing to Joseph in yet another dream, warning him to take the child and his mother to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous intentions.  Joseph wakes up immediately and escorts Jesus and Mary to Egypt by night, escaping from Herod and his minions in the nick of time and fulfilling a prophecy from Hosea to boot.  It seems that everything is wrapped up neatly in a bow; everybody ends up safe and sound exactly where they are supposed to be and Jesus is well on his way to fulfilling prophetic and Messianic expectations.  In the very next passage, however, Matthew tells us that Herod, infuriated by the duplicity of the wise men, sends soldiers to Bethlehem to murder every single child under the age of two.  It’s a shocking jolt to the system.  We were lulled into a sense of security, a knowledge that the heroes of the story were safe, and then we hear about a horrific massacre of innocent children.  Matthew tells us that even this tragedy fulfills the prophetic words of Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”  After recounting this horrific event, Matthew moves on.  He tells us that the Holy Family stays in Egypt until Herod dies, eventually moving to Nazareth, so that Jesus can fulfill yet another prophecy.

imagesThe challenge of this passage is not simply the horrifying fact that children were massacred, but rather the fact that Matthew can be so glib about it.  It doesn’t seem to faze him all that much; he simply presents an account of the slaughter of the innocents, and then moves on with the narrative.  In some ways, this may be related to Matthew’s almost obsessive preoccupation with presenting Jesus as the “prophet like Moses” predicted in Deuteronomy.  After all, according to the account in Exodus, Moses also escaped from a similar slaughter of Hebrew children by an oppressive tyrant.  Moses also saved his people by coming up out of Egypt.  It could be that Matthew is simply unfolding those events that give us a sense of Jesus’ true identity.  It could be that the slaughter of the innocents is just another event that proves Jesus is the prophet like Moses, the one who will save God’s people from their sin.

While there may be some truth to this, the Church has never fully accepted this explanation.  We have never been so callous as to think of the slaughter of the innocents as the cost of doing business; it has always been an event that we have mourned as a community.  It is no accident that we remember those Holy Innocents in a feast day on December 28th.  It is no accident that one of the most important and enduring moments in the 16th-century Pageant of the Shearmen and the Tailors was when the women of Bethlehem sang the mournful carol we sang just prior to the reading of the gospel today.  In fact, that carol is the one element of that pageant that survived, the one part of that experience that we wanted to make sure we remembered.  Finally, I think that even Matthew expects us to mourn.  Matthew is incredibly selective about the quotation he uses from Jeremiah to describe the slaughter of the innocents: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”  In the very next sentence of the passage from which Matthew draws that quotation, Jeremiah says, “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears…there is hope for your future, says the Lord: your children shall come back to their own country.”  Yet Matthew ends the prophecy with “she refuses to be consoled, because they are no more.”  In other words, Matthew chooses to end the quotation not with the promise of restoration that we hear in Jeremiah, but with the reality of a mother’s pain; not with hope for the future, but with the reality of loss; not with the prophet like Moses, but with an acknowledgment that the loss of a child is more than one can bear.

When I was born, I spent some time in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.  Looking back, it was a little absurd: I was full-term, eight pounds three ounces, and relatively healthy.  I was at least twice the size of all of the other babies in the nursery, but apparently there were some issues with my heart.  These were resolved relatively quickly and I was discharged from the hospital after a few days.

A few months later, my father was canvassing for our local Town Committee, which was Hartford’s answer to Tammany Hall.  He had to knock on doors in our neighborhood, and because he understood the fundamental law that babies are good politics, he carried me along with him in a Baby Bjorn (or whatever they were called back then).  Things were going well until he arrived at a house where a woman around his age answered the door.  After my father gave his spiel, the woman said to him, “You don’t remember me, do you?”  Terrified that he had violated the cardinal rule of local politics and forgotten someone’s name, my father stammered, “I’m sorry, I can’t recall meeting you.”  The woman responded, “Both of our babies were in the NICU at the same time.  Your baby made it, and mine didn’t,” and she closed the door.

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”  There’s nothing my father could have said to this woman to console her.  There’s nothing he could have said to help her make meaning of her child’s death, nor is there anything we could or should say to help a parent make meaning of her child’s death.  In the same way, there’s nothing Matthew could say to make meaning of the death of those innocent children, except to acknowledge the pain and loss.

How do we find good news in this story about the murder of innocent children?  How do we find good news in this story about a mother’s inconsolable grief?  We cannot presume to make false meaning of these stories, we cannot hide behind clichés like “everything happens for a reason” or “God needed another angel.”  These are well-intended but ultimately unhelpful responses to tragedy.  The good news, the gospel that we affirm today, the reality of the Incarnation we continue to celebrate is that even though our world is ruled by tyrants and broken by sin and death, God came to dwell among us.  The gospel we affirm today is that through Jesus Christ, God has experienced the pain of a grieving mother and the suffering of a frightened child.  The gospel we affirm today is that on a cross outside of Jerusalem, God came face to face with Herod and Caesar and all the evil powers of this world and through Jesus Christ, God has said “no” to the power of evil.

imgresAnd because God has said “no” to the power of evil, we have been enabled to say “no” to the evil powers of this world.  When we see people who are being ignored, we are called to say “no” and reach out in love and compassion.  When we see people who are wracked by hunger and thirst, we are called to say “no” and give them something to eat.  When we see people oppressed because of who they are, we are called to say “no” and affirm their fundamental dignity and worth.  When we see people without hope, we are called to say “no” and give them reason to hope.  It is in this way, in the words of our Collect this morning, that we “share the divine life of him who shared our humanity.”  It is in this way that we celebrate the Incarnation, not only during these twelve days, but every day of our lives.  And as we celebrate the Incarnation, I pray that the one who came to dwell among us will empower us to stand in the face of tragedy and misery and say “no” to the evil powers of this world.

Routine

During the Second World War, an English priest was given the unpleasant task of telling a widow that her son had been killed in action.  She had already lost her husband during the Battle of Britain; the priest knew that this newest piece of information would be completely devastating.  He knocked on the widow’s door and held his breath as he waited for her to answer.  As she answered the door, she saw the priest’s clerical collar and knew that the news would not be good.  Tenuously, the priest said, “Madam, it grieves me to inform you that your son has been killed.”  The widow’s response was surprising: “Won’t you come in for a cup of tea?”  As the pair sat at the woman’s kitchen table, munching on biscuits and sipping Earl Grey, the priest observed quizzically, “Madam, you seem to be coping with this loss remarkably well.  I certainly would not have felt able to invite someone over for tea if I had received the news you just received.”  The widow mused, “I always have a cup of tea at this time.  I’m told that when one faces devastating loss, one should strive to keep one’s routine.  It’s the only way I can move forward.”

icon_epitaphios_thrinos_lamentToday is Holy Saturday, the day that we remember the uncertainty that followed Jesus’ death.  It is the day that we remember the grief of those closest to Jesus: the sorrow of his mother, the dejection of his friends, and the uncertainty of his disciples.  In the liturgy for the day, we say the words of Psalm 130: “My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning.”  Holy Saturday is a day of mourning and waiting.  Yet it is also a day of routine.  It’s striking that in the accounts of Jesus’ burial, a primary concern of those who mourned Jesus was to ensure they observed the Jewish burial customs, that they did the same thing that their ancestors had done for hundreds of years.  Even more striking is how careful they are to observe the Sabbath, to take the day of rest appointed by Jewish law, to do the same thing they have done week in and week out for their entire lives.  In the face of their grief, in the face of their uncertainty, in the face of the fact that their world had crashed down around them, those who mourned Jesus fell back on their routine, because that was the only way they could move forward.

There is a wisdom to routines.  In the face of uncertainty and pain, routines can be an enormous comfort.  Even as our world crashes down around us, we can cling to our routines and they can sustain us as we carefully move forward.  But even as we return to our routines, we must always be willing to be surprised, to be jolted from complacency by a truth that transcends even the grief and uncertainty of this day.  In the meantime, we are called to return to our routine, to gather in hope, and to wait for the Lord.