Yesterday we were finally able to have a service for, as I’ve been calling her, our Essential Person—Kay—the grandmother type who was so central to all our day to day happiness for the first fifteen years of our being here. I was worried we wouldn’t be able to meet together, especially with Christmas looming up, but God worked it out. And thank goodness, because the liturgy for the burial of the dead, as usual, was such a relief. All the things that needed be said were there on the page, and though I didn’t manage to choke any of them out, everyone else was able to say them, and I was able to listen.
As I’ve said over and over, one of the worst parts of covid is crying into a mask—something I’ve done almost every Sunday since the first week of June when we began to meet together again in person.
Matt has been kind of baffled by how unglued I’ve been. “She’s in heaven,” he keeps saying (after every death). And he’s right. Kay, in particular, was exhausted by a long life lived with diabetes and then dementia at the end. She was so tiny, there in her chair, wasting away. It is a deep and abiding comfort to know that she is in Abraham’s Side, being consoled for all her own griefs and troubles.
I think it’s the general pile up of grief that has, as Matt says, “unglued” me. All of it is too big for me to pull apart and examine, to figure out why I’m weeping and weeping. At some point, I’ll be able to put on a mask without soaking it with snot and be like all those good Christians who, as parts of the readings for this morning suggest, “rejoice in the Lord.” “Don’t mourn like one who has no hope,” I feel like Matt is wanting to say, but he is too diplomatic. The Christian isn’t supposed to despair.
It may just be a difference of personality. If you read the Isaiah text and are charmed by all the lovely things God is going to do—the new Jerusalem filled with joy and gladness and people who live seemingly forever and all the animals getting on with each other instead of biting and killing—well, then you will make it through the long litany of the Christian life in a basically sanguine state of mind, not too troubled, probably, and basically comforted by daily prayer and all that kind of thing. But if you read the text and notice that the reason God is going to have to break in and do something is that so many houses have been built, vineyards planted, babies born, labor endured and all for naught, all to be snatched away and ruined, well, then you are like me.
The trouble for me is that all these things—the new city, the time of rejoicing—are very far in the future, so far that I can’t really see them on the horizon. The “I will” in
I will rejoice in Jerusalem
and be glad in my people;
no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping
and the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not fill out his days,
for the young man shall die a hundred years old,
and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed.
feels like some lovely fairy story. Just like this does:
Those who sow in tears
shall reap with shouts of joy!
He who goes out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
bringing his sheaves with him.
I am always “going out weeping,” especially at the end of church, bearing something, but not sheaves or anything warm and fresh and full of hope. Death, I think, is the greatest exile, the worst kind of wrenching away. And because we are all bound together as Christ’s body, as we are pulled away from each other, one by one by one, it is impossible not to feel constantly frayed, stretched and finally broken.
When I was in boarding school, in long ages past, we had to go to church twice, once in the morning for the usual long sermon and singing and prayers, and once in the evening, just for singing. The school had a great culture of singing, with lots of songs peculiar to that institution, many of them straight out of the Bible. Like the other line in Isaiah, shoved in between the people not working in that vain, fruitless way that we all do, and the animals getting on with each other. It’s this line:
Before they call I will answer;
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
except that the writer of the song changed “they” to “you”: before you call, I will answer, while you are still speaking I will hear. The tune was very catchy so that the words were forever embedded in the back of my mind, though not the reference. Boarding school, like death, was a serious kind of exile—a going away with the hope of going home again, but not being able to see when or how, a plowing the fields of school work with monumental grief day after day. But then suddenly it’s over and you climb on a bus or into a plane or even your parent’s car and the bad dream is basically over.
In the case of death, of course, God is our home. He came straight here before we had even called for him. While we were speaking all kinds of things–some of them good and liturgical, some of them plaintive, some of them despairing and hopeless–he exiled himself from heaven for a while, so that we could finally be with him no matter where we were or what else was going on.
So anyway, my hour is up, I’ve gotta go find a mask that hasn’t been cried into yet, because it’s Sunday again.