Stumbling into grief & falling into hope
David Weiss, April 17, 2012
An unfolding series of reflections in Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest. (You’ve been warned.) I don’t do this for a living; I do it to stay alive. Please, subscribe!
Funny how things happen. Tonight an innocent phrase sent me reeling headlong … into yesterday. I pulled out a pair of old writings, made fresh by new tears and a hint of hope. I share them both below.
In May 2001, my brother was still losing his battle with alcoholism. My parents were at wits end in anguish. Determined not to “enable” his behavior, but heartbroken by his own self-destructive choices. At one point I offered my mom reassurance on the phone; she called later that day and left a message asking if I could put my words to her into writing. This was my attempt to do just that, on May 9, 2001.
I got your phone message. Here is one attempt to put these thoughts into writing:
When he is on the cross, Jesus at one point says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It seems a curious thing to say. Does he mean that at this point in time he—the Son of God—is actually forsaken by the Father? Does he at this point falter in his own faith and actually think God has forsaken him (even though God is there all along)?
Most likely, he is quoting the first line of Psalm 22. And he means to recite the entire Psalm, though it would have been physically impossible to do this from the cross (you couldn’t speak in more than a gasping voice). If we heard him say “My father who is in heaven …” or “The Lord is my shepherd …” we’d assume he had the whole Lord’s Prayer or all of Psalm 23 in mind. But because we’re less familiar with Psalm 22, we don’t hear his words as a Psalm quote that implied the whole Psalm; we hear it as a cry of abject anguish and despair. (If you read all of Psalm 22 you’ll see it begins with anguish and despair and concludes with hope and confidence.)
In any case, even if he’s thinking the whole Psalm, we Christians have often lost the audacity of our Jewish cousins to name feelings like forsakeness so bluntly.
But, liberation theologians, those who write theology out of their experience of living among the poor (often in Latin America), have reclaimed this audacity. They say, yes, there are moments when our experiences of poverty and injustice leave us feeling genuinely forsaken. And how do we talk about God in those moments? If we think of God only in terms of an omnipotent deity who could fix anything instantly, then all those who are oppressed need to wonder why God doesn’t fix their situation. But what if one central aspect of God’s power is not the ability to fix everything, but the ability to be with us through everything?
These theologians often say that forsakeness itself WAS God’s way of being with Jesus on the cross. That although God did not (and maybe could not) act to change that situation, God could be fully present to Jesus in the midst of it.
Thinking about Don then.
Part of the price of being creatures with free will is that God allows us the freedom to mess up. God seems to have promised to God’s own self (and to all of us) not to interfere in our lives in ways that disrupt free will. Sometimes that means disastrous things (the Holocaust, Hiroshima, lynchings, rapes, etc.) occur. But God seems to prize freedom too much to limit it in order to make the world a safer place. Perhaps a world with complete safety but little/no freedom would be very “black & white” versus “full color.” On the other hand, sometimes that same freedom leads to great beauty (Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, the tumbling of the Berlin wall, Anita’s recent ordination turnout).
Don has freedom. He has made a whole series of choices that have led him to the place he is today. After a while that series of bad choices develops its own momentum, both physically and psychologically; we call it “addiction.” Additionally, we all have also made choices that have helped Don get to this place. We have seen warning signs and downplayed them. We have “respected” his right to patterns of isolation that are now killing him. None of us are really “innocent.” That’s part of the mystery of evil in the world. It’s like gum on your shoes. We all step in it at some point, and once we do it clings to us. And so we all suffer right now, too. Even though Don, of course, suffers most of all.
And God doesn’t promise to fix it, no matter how much we pray. But God does promise to be with us, no matter how low or dark “rock bottom” becomes. As Don feels more and more forsaken, God promises to be ever closer to him in that feeling. As you weep your tears of anguish, God is weeping them with you.
And, if you think of the “still small voice” that Elijah hears, it is in this stillness, this being present to us and with us that the power of God is most revealed. If there is healing for Don—and God does not promise that, but if there is healing for him, God’s promise of ongoing presence means that at any moment, whether in your grief or his grief, in your despair or his, God is there ready to spark healing. However, the terrible mystery of free will means that Don also needs to accept, want, and claim this healing. And it seems to me that healing occurs precisely when we (and right now, the first part of “we” needs to be Don) claim this healing together.
Until Don is ready to claim it, the best we can do is be honest in our own emotions, to let ourselves feel the full depth of our anguish—and to know that God is riding that roller coaster with us, not as a powerful fix-it God, but as a humble God who accompanies us into the depths of our own darkness. And as a God able to spark flames of healing at any moments that we choose to welcome it.
One last thing. What if Don never claims this healing? What if he drinks himself into destitution and then death? Does God ever fix that?
I say, yes. Once Don has left the world of finite life, then God’s freedom doesn’t need to be limited to preserve ours. If Don dies without ever claiming healing, then after his death God will scoop him up in arms shaking with grief that will run even deeper than yours and Dad’s. But in that moment God’s grief, no longer limited by time and space, will restore Don to the fullness that God has always intended for him.
We can hope and pray that this happens yet in this life while we can see it and rejoice with him now. If it does not, then we can know that it will happen in the next life, and we will need to be patient and rejoice with him then.
I love you, Mom. Dad, too. More than words can say. You have carried Don as well and as far as you can right now. So for a while you may need to carry only grief. But know that in your grief you carry also the presence of God. And wherever God’s presence is carried, there is always hope.
* * *
I wrote this hymn for my brother, Don, setting his life within the message of John Ylvisaker’s hymn “Borning Cry” …
To follow my imagery you should know that Don was a cost accountant, a wonderful cook (who especially loved garlic), a devoted son, grandson, brother, and uncle. Bourbon, which he drank at home alone, nearly killed him until he chose sobriety during the summer of 2001. Unfortunately, having lost his job and his health insurance before becoming sober, he died unexpectedly of a chronic lung disease that went undiagnosed until it had nearly consumed both his lungs. He was hospitalized just days after seeing a doctor; his lungs failed within hours of entering the hospital, and he died after spending several days in a coma.
The doctors said later that although Don ate like a horse during his final months, he showed signs of malnutrition. His lungs were so compromised that he probably could not have eaten enough calories to fuel his own breathing. Ironically, as he lived into his sobriety at my parents’ home, he began cooking again and took particular joy in the last year of his life in cooking meals for a homebound relative. He fed others, even while he could not feed himself enough.
Throughout his sobriety Don seemed wounded. Having lost his job to drinking in 2000, even after regaining his sobriety—something he only managed after he moved in with my parents at age 43—he never had a job interview. He never “moved forward”; it was as though it took everything he had to simply stop drinking. And having managed that, he had nothing left. He was, however, faithful in attending weekly AA meetings for the last three years of his life. And when he died we were stunned to hear story after story after story after story of the lives he touched at AA, of the quiet welcome and steady words he offered to so many unseen by us. He “moved forward.” Into worlds unseen by us.
He died 2 days after his 46th birthday and 5 days after I wrote these words. At times the hymn is painfully honest, yet our hope rests in a God who knows the whole of our lives and loves us nonetheless. My hymn sings that for Don.
Borning Cry, for Don
I was there to hear your borning cry; / I’ll be there when you are old.
I rejoiced the day you were baptized / To see your life unfold
I was there when you were but a child, / With a faith to suit you well.
In a blaze of light you wandered off / To find where demons dwell.
I was there while numbers filled your days / And while cookbooks filled your heart.
In the fam’ly, friends that gave you love, / I always played a part
In the years when bourbon stole your hope, / And your days and nights were hell,
Though you thought you always drank alone, / Yet I was there as well.
If you start a journey back to health, / And you weary on the way,
Need a place to pause and catch your breath, / Beside you I will stay.
I’ll be there when there are no more words, / When your senses slow and cease.
With a hint of garlic in the air / I’ll bring you home to feast.
I was there to hear your borning cry, / I’ll be there when you are old.
I rejoiced the day you were baptized / To see your life unfold.
Text: © David Weiss (vv 2-3) 09.04.04; © John Ylvisaker (v 1)
Tune: John Ylvisaker, Waterlife (Borning Cry, With One Voice Hymnal 770)
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David R. Weiss is the author of To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He lives in St. Paul and speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. You can reach him at email@example.com and read more at http://www.tothetune.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”