Forming character through the insights of literature, contemporary culture and Scripture.
by Eldon Heinrichs
Fall is a beautiful time of year. The great irony is that its beauty is predicated on a hard reality: the summer world we know is dying - it will inevitably succumb to the icy hand of winter. Our passages for this week explore the disorientation, confusion and fear of entering the autumnal world of diminishment. Where is hope to be found in loss, failure, abandonment, and even death, after the halcyon days of summer are gone?
Image from Visual Homilies illustrating how the embers of Love are kept alive with lament.
As I look at these passages of loss and grief, I have to confess I don’t have the life experience to speak into the kind of suffering they had. I haven’t lost anyone close to me, like a child or spouse or parent. I haven’t been displaced by war, been deathly ill or have spent a single day in hunger. I can watch horrors on the late night news from the comfort of my couch and it all disappears with a click. From places of privilege, talk of suffering often brings out the worst kind of narcissism and shallowness - traffic was bad, my internet was slow, my back hurts, I didn’t sleep well, and on it goes - those self-referential indulgences of people entitled to a world of comfort. But there is a clue in the lectionary calendar: today is World Communion Sunday, so the horizon of this kind of suffering goes beyond bunions, snuffles and aching muscles. In 2 Timothy, we will read that Paul asks Timothy to “Join with me in the suffering of the Gospel, relying on the power of God.” Is it possible to be lifted out of this world of contingency, even while becoming more deeply engaged in it? We will touch on three lectionary passages and their responses to suffering, and then spend time with Paul’s pastoral letter to Timothy.
But first a story.
It was the Tuesday after a long weekend, always a heavy mail day for a postal carrier. I had taken off the Friday before the long weekend to go to a family gathering in BC, and management had failed to staff my walk completely, so I actually had four days of mail to deal with. I wasn’t happy about it, and even though I got away much later than usual, I somehow found time to lambast the staffing supervisor before throwing everything into my truck. (Cue the shallow self-referential entitlement of privilege!)
By the time I had finished my morning deliveries and started my afternoon residential portion, I was already pretty agitated and feeling rushed. Then, as I pulled onto Tylehurst (that short street across from Polo Park that runs beside the St. James Cemetery to the river), I remembered that I had a heavy box that I had for one of the apartments. It’s addressed to John R, sent by registered mail.
Great, I groan, now I need to get a signature and worse, his apartment is up five flights of stairs to the top floor at the end of a long hallway. Plus, did I mention it was heavy? At least thirty pounds. I decide to leave it in the truck and buzz the apartment: if the customer wants it, he could come down and fetch it himself. I would save my back and save time by sorting letters while he made his way downstairs. And if he's not home, even better, I could leave it in the truck and leave him a card to pick it up at the Postal Outlet.
I buzz Mr. R and sure enough, he’s home, and before I can tell him about the parcel, he informs me in his British accent that he would come right down. I figure he must have been tracking it online and probably saw my truck out his apartment window. Perfect, I think, best case scenario. I went back to the truck to fetch the parcel and the letter mail.
While sorting the apartment’s mail in the foyer, I hear a slow shuffling coming down the stairs. He is quite the sight. He is at least 70; disheveled “Bernie Sanders” type white hair; he’s thin and moving slowly. Surprisingly, he is wearing a suit jacket and dress pants which he seems to have hastily pulled over his baby blue pajamas. He has bare feet. He apologizes for his appearance - he didn't have time to change out of his sleeping clothes. “Why the suit and dress pants?” I think to myself. I’ve watched enough BBC TV to know that Brits can be eccentric, so I chalk it up to that. I ask him to sign for the package and as a courtesy, pull his letter mail from his mail box.
I sighed to myself at the obvious situation: my aged customer will not be able to carry a 30 pound box up five flights of stairs and down a long hall, so I offer to carry it up the stairs for him. He says he’s glad for the help, so I hand him his letter mail and flip the parcel up onto my shoulder. We continue up the stairs, he one step ahead, me reluctantly matching his glacial pace.
I deliver a lot of parcels and this one has all the earmarks of something personal; hand written address, reused commercial packaging. Often they contain treats from home, packages of care and comfort, or personal items that they miss and send for. I am speculating about this to determine what kind of small talk we can make, and by the second flight of stairs I notice he is quietly sobbing.
“This is my wife,” he explains through muffled sobs as we reach the first landing. “Her remains.” I couldn't quite make out what he said. “Excuse me, what was that?” I ask. “These are my wife’s ashes,” he clarified as we continued the climb.
I didn't know what to say, and I was immediately aware of the undignified way I had flipped the package up onto my shoulder, turning the poor man’s wife “upside-down”, whatever up or down actually means for cremated human remains. All I knew was that I felt unclean and unworthy as I suddenly realized that I was the involuntary pallbearer in a two-man processional to bring his beloved partner home. Now I understood his strange attire. With a suit over his pajamas, he was greeting his wife with as much dignity as he could give her without inconveniencing me, the delivery man. Respect for her and courtesy for me, heart-breaking and heart-warming all rolled into one. I felt an immediate affection and kinship with this vulnerable stranger.
“Precious cargo,” I finally said as we reached the third flight of stairs. I didn't know what else to say. What does one say when you have the remains of someone’s loved one on your shoulder? “Yes, indeed,” he says after a long pause, and we travel on in silence. A thought struck me that seemed quite out of key to the moment - why was it so damn heavy? Human ashes weigh about five pounds, not thirty. Mr. R had gathered himself by the fourth flight, and as if he was reading my mind, he explained that the extra weight was a metal container, a precious family keepsake of some kind from his wife’s family.
We climbed the last stairs and down the hall. By this time I had lowered the parcel off my shoulder (turning it with the address facing up, as if this was somehow more dignifying, I didn’t really know) and asked him where he wanted me to put it, um, her. He was happy to have it put down just inside the door. I told him how sorry I was for his loss, I hoped that he would find peace.
I returned to my truck and just sat there for the longest time. All my rushing and agitated energy was gone. I prayed for Mr. R and his family. There was some kind of divine call hidden in the task, the absurdity of grace that an agitated mailman could be called out as impromptu pallbearer, but also witness, to this man’s suffering, all because of a small courtesy. I felt grateful for the life I had and the people I share it with. To this day I am reminded to pray for him every time he gets a letter.
As I sat there in my truck, I also though of the people I loved, and who love me, and how we will all be lost to each other someday. Never before in this incarnation, in this place and time, will we know each other in the same way. How precious and fragile it is. I looked at my hands, and imagined ash; no more projects to complete, or songs to pick on my guitar.
And then, as if I had seen it for the first time, I realized where I was parked. Tylehurst Street forms the western boundary of St. James Cemetery. I was literally parked on the road between life and death, the living on one side, a city of the dead on the other. Existentially I was in between worlds as well, closer to my death as I approach 60 than my birth, more potential than promise. What will be eternally lost when I am gone? I would love the confidence to say, as Paul wrote to Timothy, “For I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard (keep) until that day what I have entrusted to him.” (2 Tim. 1:12)
Our lectionary text from Lamentations 1 imagines the city of Jerusalem as a devastated partner who has lost everything and everyone she knew.
Jerusalem is imagined here as three different kinds of suffering women; a widow who is lonely, weeping, and bereft; a vassal who is humiliated and in bondage; an abused woman who is exposed, brutalized and vulnerable. There is none to comfort or grieve. The world as we knew it is gone, and the response is first resentment, then anxiety, but ultimately despair. “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?” cries Lam. 1:12.
Our text from Lamentations is a funeral dirge for Jerusalem, five poems of sadness and despair which express grief over the ancient city of Jerusalem destroyed by the Babylonians. As Walter Brueggemann writes, ”The Jews cried over that destruction, because the holy city was the focus of all their hopes and dreams, the sign of God’s presence and fidelity to them, the gathering of all things precious and treasured.”
Our other lectionary text, Psalm 137, echoes this sadness: “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.” They wept for deep hurt and despair, for being abandoned. Salt was rubbed into the wounds as their oppressors mockingly asked the dispossessed to sing their songs of home. How is this even possible, they cry out. Their songs have hardened into bitter tears and thoughts of revenge.
Suffering can bring out our character, soften us, and evoke a more trusting dependency on God, but it can also bring out the worst angels of our nature. Lamentations and Psalm 137 give us two possible responses, and as we shall see, Paul offers us a third. Despite a brief reprieve in chapter 3 (“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul,‘therefore I will hope in him’”), Lamentations ends with the possibility that we may be utterly forsaken. There are many post-Holocaust Jews who would agree. Psalm 137 ends not with despair, but with revenge. “O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” (Ps 137:8-9) These are natural, even necessary human responses to grief that need to be voiced, but this is not how Paul responds to Timothy.
Timothy has been characterized as one who was gifted and called by God (Acts 16), but also as one who was easily intimidated and readily discouraged. Gnostic and syncretist teachers had overtaken Timothy’s community. He had been marginalized by voices that were more attractive, and more overtly powerful, than “suffering for the sake of the gospel.”
1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus, 2 To Timothy, my beloved child: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. 3 I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. 4 Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. 5 I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. 6 For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; 7 for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. 8 Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, 9 who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 11 For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher, 12 and for this reason I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him. 13 Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 14 Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us. (2 Tim 1:1-14)
Paul’s first move is to remind him of who he was in Christ - a beloved child; a longed-for brother carried in prayer; one who stands in a strong lineage of faith; an anointed one whose gifts were recognized and called out. When we are disoriented and discouraged, the chaos of the moment can seem more authoritative than the anchors of history, so Paul is re-storying him, or “re-ligamenting” him to his truer identity.
Often we are able to hope for others even as we despair for ourselves. When the gifts of the Spirit are alive in a person, they have the expansive and ordering power of love and self-discipline, not the diminishing power of fear and shame. “Do not be ashamed then, of the testimony about our Lord..but join me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of the Lord.” (vs. 8)
Paul says again and again that the central mystery of faith is suffering power. The pattern of this cruciform life, so powerfully expressed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus (and also modeled in Paul), is to be replicated in the life of the community of believers. God’s persuasive (rather than coercive) power, characterized by grace, mercy, and peace (v.2), is drawing us to participate in what God has always been doing, even when we are not on board. It is a holy calling, “not according to our works but according to God’s purposes and grace.” (v.9). The same grace that was revealed in the appearing of Christ is the very grace given for this moment! What’s more, it is from “before the ages began.” (v.9) God’s intentions are not derailed by the moment, even as we are. Death itself does not derail God’s purposes because we participate in the immortal life of a Resurrected One.
We are not given a spirit of fear that makes us shrink from our own pain and the suffering of the world around us, but a spirit that reorders our life around love. We are given a vision of a new way of being in the world. And we receive the Spirit, whose purposes were established before the human venture even began, revealed most powerfully in Jesus and who will “...guard until that day what I have entrusted to him.”
Just as in Philippians 2, Paul is asking Timothy to take on the pattern of suffering, self-emptying love that we saw in Jesus. We are not overwhelmed by the world around us, but enter into solidarity with the world by mourning as God mourns for a world that is yet incomplete (Romans 8). Our eyes begin to see as God sees, and we are transformed to a new way of seeing. Like Timothy, the hope is that we can recognize both God’s eternal purposes for the world as well as our individual giftedness in the world without shame or fear, but with the re-ordering power of love. The temporal becomes infused with “the light of immortality” (v10), which I think means that the possibilities of God’s future begin to light up the present darkness and quicken our latent gifts. Walter Brueggemann writes:
“Because we are close to Jesus, we notice and engage. Suffering in the Gospel is not masochistic or Lenten self-denial. Rather, it is acting, living, praying and sharing in the awareness that our life is as one with those who suffer. And when we notice as Jesus notices, we find ourselves transformed. ...it is not a bid for a specific act. It is rather an invitation to a different form of life, a different presence in the world, a mode of life that participates in the healing of the world.”
Just as awareness of suffering transformed me on my mail route, may we all encounter the re-ordering power of God’s love in the face of mourning. May suffering bring out our character, soften us, and evoke a more trusting dependency on God. And may we join Paul and Timothy in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of the Lord.