Thanks to a link from a friend, I sat down to these words after watching my NCAA Men’s Basketball Bracket go bust, thanks to the upsets of the day:
The world is a confusing place. Correlation looks like causation; the signal sounds like the noise; randomness is everywhere. This raises the obvious question: How does the human brain cope with such an epistemic mess? How do we deal with the helter-skelter of reality? One approach would be to ground all of our beliefs in modesty and uncertainty, to recognize that we know so little and understand even less.
Needless to say, that’s not what we do. Instead of grappling with the problem of induction, we believe in God.
In the midst of the randomness that saw my alma mater, the Baylor Bears, win their second game in as many days, after a sixty year drought, I wished for my friend David, who died three months ago by accident and who have been hollering loud enough for me to hear him from Austin. The randomness of Facebook keeps telling me to write on his wall, and I do. I was not the only one who made a comment this evening. Thinking of David took me to another passage from Nora Gallagher’s book, Practicing Resurrection, where she writes about her brother’s death and her grief. She also quotes a friend who is also acquainted with grief and trying to come to terms with the presence of the absence of his loved one.
Mark called me later and said, “While I was hiking up Tunnel Trail, I was thinking about what we talked about and I realized that I needed back then for the priest to enter into poetry because that is where Phil is. He could have said, ‘Well, Phil is at the zoo now.’ Something that would clearly express the fact that he is gone, no longer literal, not here, not visible, but not absent, not without influence, not dead. The problem with the priest’s response was that it was literal, and Phil is not literal anymore! That’s why poetry and art are so important, because that’s where he is.
“And to go on preaching my little sermonette here, that’s what ails Christianity, this literalness, this imprisonment with the facts of history. When it becomes this, with the insistence on historical authenticity and whether the water really became wine and Jesus literally being raised from the dead, then it loses its whole point, which is to show me where Phil is and to show us how to relate to the earth and be comfortable with mystery.” (67)
My day began with the third of four Saturday morning meetings o a group of us from church are studying the Book of Job. I was interested to find, when I began doing background reading for our study, that most of Job is considered a poem. The early couple of chapters, when God and Satan are deciding what can be done to the man, and the closing chapters, when God speaks, create a prose frame for the poetry of the cycle of advice from Job’s three friends, though their words are not particularly poetic. At one point in our reading today, Job responded,
I have heard many such things; miserable comforters are you all. Have windy words no limit? Or what provokes you that you keep on talking? (16:2, 3)
When it comes to the reality and randomness of life and grief and suffering, those of us around the table this morning were a well-informed group. If I were to make a list of the pain each one knows or has known and the losses they carry, it would not be hard to prove they understand Job’s suffering on an experiential level. Our discussion was not theoretical. As we talked about the conversation between Job and his friends, we realized they were trying to describe the moral order of the world, to find an explanation for why things work like they do. Somewhere, almost in our DNA it seems, we want to begin that explanation with the idea that good lives are rewarded with good things and evil lives have hell to pay, even though a quick read of the Bible or an evening with the Coen Brothers’ movie of your choice will let you know the universe doesn’t fit into that system. Still, like Job’s friends, we stick with it and end up deciding we must all be bad because we are all suffering, or our God is a violent God.
Neither explanation offers much in the way of poetry or promise. As we talked around the table, what emerged for me was a reminder that experience has more in common with poetry than explanation; and grace is poetry, as is suffering, in its own way. We don’t deserve either, yet they both show up without reason or explanation. And in that spirit, a couple of chapters later, Job says,
O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book! O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever! For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
In a random act of basketball, the Baylor Bears won tonight and made me miss my friend David even more. It makes no sense at all for him to not be here. There is not an adequate explanation, period. There is, however, poetry – in the sharing of Communion, in the telling of stories, in the laughter my heart hears when I picture him watching the game at a little pub somewhere in heaven — words full of meaning and mystery that explain nothing and call me to Love.
And so I offer W. S. Merwin’s “Listen” (which I have offered before) because the wind in his words carries the breeze of the Spirit.
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridge to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water looking out
in different directions
back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
in a culture up to its chin in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the back door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks that use us we are saying thank you
with the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable
unchanged we go on saying thank you thank you
with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us like the earth
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is.