Today I boxed up my turntable for the U.P.S. man to pick up. It’s making a wonky sound and we’re going to try to exchange it. I made what seemed like a thousand newspaper balls to keep it safe on the journey. I went to work and wrapped up gifts for babies in Vienna, Switzerland, and Djibouti. I came home and set the table and ate grilled chicken with a green salad. There were ten people lining the table and one sitting in a chair like a centerpiece and there was hardly a place to rest your glass of tea. It was a lovely day.
But now the sun has finally fallen and the laptop is open. I see the news, hear the media, am practically clobbered by opinions and it’s smothering. I strike a match, light a candle, set out to have a good think. And the best way to have a good think is to write a long blog post. It’s scientifically proven.
I don’t think I’m the only one who felt a very strong desire this week to bury one’s head in the sand. The news was devastating and the commentary divisive and confusing. And separating the news from the commentary was like sifting for gold with a slotted spoon. I thought I could trust one source and then another, at the end of last week I had come up empty-handed. I hurried through my traditional post-trauma phases of shock, anger, sadness, depression and hope for a brighter tomorrow. I read some blog posts, some news articles, and a little Ecclesiastes.
Like clockwork, I always wind up back at Ecclesiastes, which is ironic since I never quite know what I’m supposed to learn from that book. I guess that’s why I keep going back to it like a frustrating puzzle or a mysterious acquaintance. It’s very refusal to satisfy keeps my interest. Somehow I continually learn something new, but it’s usually a new question, as opposed to a new answer. Jeweliet asked me the other morning why I find Ecclesiastes hopeful and I told her that it’s really Ecclesiastes plus the gospel that gives me hope. It gives me hope to believe that all of these things that leave me feeling vaguely empty at the end of the day, are in fact emptiness, but that all things can have purpose through the gospel. And not only can I myself have a purpose, I can have joy.
Ecclesiastes says there is a time for everything; a time to cry and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance. But when are the laughing and dancing supposed to happen? After an allotted time of crying and mourning? We scarcely get the flags up before we have to pull them to half-mast again because somewhere, something horrific has happened. (As a matter of fact, President Obama has ordered the flags to be flown at half-mast more than any of our other presidents.) I know this isn’t new, but it’s new that we know. It’s new that we all read about everything that happens and even watch it live, a thousand miles away. The pain and sorrow are on a daily loop and we cannot look away. It’s a time to cry, a time to mourn. A time to cry, a time to mourn. A time to cry, a time to mourn and how dare you laugh and dance?
Maybe Ecclesiastes is confusing because even Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, didn’t have all the answers. How can there be a time to kill and a time to hate? How can there be purpose in the dying? There are so many people making such a racket about answers, and I know I am one of them some days. This person knows he was innocent and this person knows he was guilty. This person knows what Jesus would do but it’s quite opposite what another claims. This person cannot imagine how any intelligent person could see things any other way, or perhaps you just don’t have a heart? But they all know for a fact. They own the truth.
And I can sing that song myself. Don’t like public school? The answer is homeschooling. Don’t like slavery? The answer is fair-trade chocolate and I’ll tell you which isle to get it on and which brand is tastiest. I love to advise. But I don’t have all the answers and I don’t want to make it look like I do. Don’t come to me wondering when we can start laughing and dancing. I’m not at all sure.
Once when I was a little girl, I ran to my mother bawling because we have mirrors and some people don’t have food. (In my mind, mirrors were akin to precious gems as is evidenced in their shininess.) And today, I have a record player and a computer and a set of watercolors and two bookcases full of books, and some people still don’t have food. I threw a slice of tomato in the trashcan because I didn’t feel like eating it just then. I was raised in such a way to be horrified by “the prosperity gospel” so I slowly and hesitantly open the door of my mind to ask what Jesus meant when He said the poor would always be with us. And what about when he said that we should not fast and mourn while the bridegroom is with us, but a time for fasting and mourning would come? And how was it okay for all of that money to be spent on perfume for Jesus instead of feeding the poor? Judas and I really want to know.
The Pharisees evidently fasted more often than Jesus’ disciples, indicating that more is not always better when it comes to lamentation, and surely we are not to police the emotions of others by demanding they feel sad with us and on our timetable. We cannot run around heaping earth on peoples’ heads and tear their clothes, and yet I feel obligated to be sad when anything awful has happened, and that is literally every day. I see other bloggers sharing how much they cried when they read of the two men who were recently shot and killed at traffic stops. I was jolted. My heart sank. I felt sad. I feel sad. But can I say am truly mourning? Did tears run down my face? No, because I have heard it before and I will hear it again and I didn’t know them and I do not have the emotional or physical capacity to mourn with every person who is mourning. And yet I find myself being ashamed of myself, so weak must I be. So shallow to move on so quickly, to give so little outward sign of suffering, to even be able to swallow a bite of food on this bitter day.
And then the posts will start to appear on my social media feeds reading, “never forget.” I hope we don’t forget the lives that have been lost. I hope that when we dance, it’s never on a grave. But the time of mourning has to pass. Grief must be seasonal or else it isn’t grief, it’s depression. I am not writing about the lives that were lost this month. I am not pushing anyone to “get over it.” If you are still crying, there is probably a reason it touched you so deeply. I am writing about this issue in general, the issue of year-round mourning. While parts of the country saw the loss of life proclaimed throughout the entire planet, someone else sat by a bedside and said “goodbye” to someone whose name we’ll never know. A friend of mine lost his grandmother, as a matter of fact. As riots break out in Dallas, my own city was hit with unrest when our Islamic Community Center was riddled with bullets. People of all walks of faith gathered around the building during their time of prayer on Friday and showed their support. I was moved by that, but most of the world will never know about it, the bad or the good that occurred.
Someone very dear to me is going to the cancer hospital for the first time on Friday. My stomach is knotted with anxiety over what we might learn. But your stomach is not knotted over this person. And I haven’t told you who it is or what the diagnosis was because you don’t know them and you don’t need to worry about it. There might be a time when I send out a mass call for prayer, and that’s okay too, but I am not looking to make my pain go viral. Again, I want to reiterate that I am not belittling the pain so many have experienced recently, it’s merely the awful thing that happens to be going on when I finally get my thoughts together, but if I wrote this next year we’d have another example of pain and injustice to use as a lens.
I don’t need you to experience it with me. I need to know there’s a reason for the pain. I need to know it’s going to be made right one day. I need to know God loves me, even when life hurts me, and I need to know that my close friends understand, but the whole the world cannot be my close friends. Maybe it’s just the introvert talking, but I cannot be close friends with every person on the planet. I can care about the whole planet. I can believe that each person has intrinsic value and something amazing to contribute, but I cannot be the shoulder everyone cries on…we are going to have to share that role. You are going to have to cry on the shoulders around you and I am going to have to cry on the shoulders around me and we’re going to have to get a some of our geographical boundaries back. The web is worldwide but my wingspan is not.
I don’t have all the answers. I don’t know how there can be a time to love and a time to hate. I don’t know how scripture can tell us to save our money, pay taxes and care for the poor when some people are so poor they are dying. I don’t know if The Spirit that is with us is the same as the bridegroom being with us. I don’t even own a commentary. And to be honest, I don’t know how much mirrors cost. How can Jesus say, “happy are those who mourn” and “when this (persecution) happens, be glad”?
How can we be in the world but not of the world and how can we, the only people who truly see sin and it’s ramifications for what they are, produce the fruit that is joy? I know this is just a Sunday School thing and not a matter of translation, but I was always taught that joy is something we get from God, not from circumstances. If that’s the case, then by definition, we must experience joy when things are not going well.
Joy in a time of mourning seems shameful.
Like rain on a wedding day. Like loving someone who hates you. Like gaining from giving. Like living through dying. Like going low to be lifted high.
In short, it’s starting to make sense that nothing makes sense. Those mirrors that cost so much (I’m guessing) play tricks on your eyes. Things appear to be backward.
Man, I cannot say this enough: my heart is full of questions and I don’t have all the answers. I don’t even have a prim way to cinch this post. But I have had a good think while I wrote this post. A little spring of hope is bubbling at the deep-end of my soul. There is such a thing as joy and, though I hardly know the recipe for mingling it with knowledge, pain, and mourning, I will venture to not be ashamed of it.
“For now, we can only see a dim and blurry picture of things, as when we stare into polished metal. I realize that everything I know is only part of the big picture. But one day, when Jesus arrives, we will see clearly, face-to-face. In that day, I will fully know just as I have been wholly known by God.” 1 Corinthians 13:12