A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.
Friday morning, I got up early. I had a doctor’s appointment later, then a short appointment at the church and then the rest of the day I took off, as it was my normal day off. I’m an early riser, and a lot of time I take time early in the morning and late at night to indulge myself in music, one of the places, along with my family, of deep joy for me.
Greg Womble and I sat weeks ago and recorded a little improvised song with drum and banjo, a somber, modal-blues piece. Friday I decided to finish it early in the morning, so I listened, feeling the mood and ideas that suggested themselves. I heard bass and light guitar lines in it, so I recorded them, then sat back to listen. The result was full, dark, somber, sad—perfect Christmas song. What on earth should I name it, since there are no words?
A Bible text bubbled up that fit the mood. I took the title, and sent a little email to Greg with the finished product. And here is what I wrote:
“Greg: I edited the song you and i did and added bass and light guitar. The mood suggested a title for the piece: “Weeping in Ramah” CLICK TO LISTEN from Matthew 3:18, after the slaughter of the innocents What do you think?
“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”
Then out into the day, doctor, a meeting at the church, then home. Only then did I hear the terrible news about Newtown, Connecticut, a town not all so different from ours. I had a weird feeling—I looked back at the email I sent, read online what time the events of Friday morning transpired. The moment when the verse came to mind was the same moment the deranged young man began his short day of darkness.
I was struck by the weirdness of that juxtaposition. Me, sitting in comfort and safety and boring routine, even Christmas shopping, and at that very moment, something unearthly, unimaginable.
The line of Isaac Watts, the great hymn writer, who penned “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross” came to mind. In the third verse, he says this, of Jesus’ own suffering, his body broken and suffering by the hatefulness, betrayal and crazed sinfulness of humankind:
See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
That was it, better than my own instinct: “Sorrow and love flow mingled down.” This is it, the place where we are drawn now, drawn without a program or manipulation. Our hearts so purely, so utterly broken across the entire planet that suburban parents in a New York suburb are perfectly and seamlessly joined with refugee children in Turkey
And childless parents in Gaza and Iraq and in thousands of Compassionate Friends groups
And parents who never tell anyone about their ancient losses
And those who flood the grief centers in our city.
All are perfectly one in sorrow.
I told my wife, “How on earth can I preach on joy Sunday?” She wisely encouraged me that this was the great question of all—can joy abide in such a moment?
There is a temptation in this sorrow, to abandon the quest for joy forever,
To have pinned joy so oddly to tranquility around us,
And then when it is snatched away, To angrily denounce the universe
And declare that something is so wrong
and so absent in ourselves or this terrible world that we will renounce hope forever,
close our eyes, pull back, into shells of indifference or circled emotional wagons
Poised to push away love forever because it is so painful
And so fraught with terrible possibility for loss and hurt
But we cannot do that. We listened to Robbie Parker on television yesterday
And his magnificent determination to hold onto hope and love and life
Thankful, grateful for the outpouring of the many
against the inexplicable unknown darkness of the one whose sin
—if sin indeed is anything, it is utter separation,
Utterly separated from mother love, neighbor love, and any sense of God
whatever insanity possessed him drove such a moment
Far greater this young father, fighting the clouds, and unaware of those still to come
Choking tears, choking back the need to explain, declaring that somehow even here,
Even now, where one is spared and another taken, no rhyme, no reason,
Innocence and evil abided in a terrible room together,
Even now, there, this, to persevere in hope.
That is the best phrase for it. “Joy and love flow mingled down.”
Joy and love flow mingled down in the life of the cross.
They flowed mingled between Bethlehem’s manger
and the empty houses of Herod’s victims, empty cribs by the rage of tyrant
And empty hearts every Christmas where love and joy flow mingled down.
The amazing part is how little we realize this, this terrible irony,
To think that joy can come with orgies of gifts and wrapping paper,
Or sugar highs and fortified eggnog alone.
That joy is the same as life giving us what we want.
Theologian Paul Tilich once put it perfectly in his wonderful book The New Being,
The Bible abounds in admonitions to rejoice. Paul’s word to the Philippians, “again I will say, Rejoice,” represents an ever-present element in Biblical religion. For the men of the Old and New Testaments the lack of joy is a consequence of man’s separation from God, and the presence of joy is a consequence of the reunion with God. Joy is demanded, and it can be given. It is not a thing one simply has. It is not easy to attain. It is and always was a rare and precious thing. And it has always been a difficult problem among Christians. Christians are accused of destroying the joy of life, this natural endowment of every creature. The greatest of the modern foes of Christianity, Friedrich Nietzsche, himself the son of a Protestant minister, has expressed his judgment about Jesus in the words, “His disciples should look more redeemed.” We should subject ourselves to the piercing force of these words and should ask ourselves, “Is our lack of joy due to the fact that we are Christians, or to the fact that we are not sufficiently Christian Joy seems to be the opposite of pain. But we know that pain and joy can exist together. Not joy but pleasure is the opposite of pain. There are people who believe that man’s life is a continuous flight from pain and a persistent search for pleasure. I have never seen a human being of whom that is true. It is true only of beings who have lost their humanity, either through complete disintegration or through mental illness.
The ordinary human being is able to sacrifice pleasures and to take pain upon himself for a cause, for somebody or something he loves and deems worthy of pain and sacrifice. He can disregard both pain and pleasure because he is directed not towards his pleasure but towards the things he loves and with which he wants to unite. If we desire something because of the pleasure we may get out of it, we may get the pleasure but we shall not get joy. If we try to find someone through whom we may get pleasure, we may get pleasure but we shall not have joy. If we search for something in order to avoid pain, we may avoid pain, but we shall not avoid sorrow. If we try to use someone to protect us from pain, he may protect us from pain but he will not protect us from sorrow
Though written a generation ago, Tillich was right.
No, joy is not the absence of pain or suffering.
It is not life without irony or struggle.
Grace is not for the lazy--shiftless is not the same as helpless.
it can only be found just be on that place
where you have spent all you have,
given up your very best and found it not enough to purchase a pearl of great price
Where you have offered up all that you hold dear, and for a moment
Only suspended with fear that there is no more to be had.
And then, only then, comes grace.
Cynics protect themselves with flimsy reason alone,
Circling around themselves perfect cynical rejection of God’s “And it was good”
And declaring an arrogant little verdict of a shriveled soul that says,
“Only this and no more.”
That is no life at all, only the evasion of it.
In an article called, “Joy amid suffering,” Greg Taylor wrote that “
After writing The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky responded to reviewers who criticized him for writing a novel that deals with suffering but does not point to clear answers. Dostoevsky replied that his critics could not fathom the depth from which his faith had come. He had been an atheist. “It is not like a child that I believe in Christ and confess Him,” he said. “My hosanna has come forth through the crucible of doubt.”
The broken hearted alone, facing on into all of life, wind at the face,
can find it. Peace beyond all understanding, that cannot be torn from hands or hearts.
Grace on the other end and just past the place of no return.
Not with explanations or bromides or premature reassurances about
Some insecure Job’s friend’s system of the God they need to be.
No grace, no joy, no hope. Only certainty of their own creation
Explanation is not faith. Systems are no God.
Which is why sometimes only tears will do.
Only the cry of pain and anguish is sufficient.
Only arms wrapped around one another is sufficient
For some moments.
And sorrow and love flow mingled down.
It’s crazy, I know. Makes so little sense to sensemakers.
But it’s true, and by God Himself, just as mysterious
Father, Son, Holy Spirit,
I declare it to be true…you must keep on in certainty
When none seems present,
and only then can you be found by grace
Love, pray, give, hope
Rejoice in the Lord always, not as a glib chorus or shibboleth
Let it resonate from the deepest and darkest of places,
Out into life, that says to irrational acts, “NO!”
You will not be the final answer. That is God’s alone
With Paul writing from his prison cell, declares,
“Rejoice in the Lord Always, and again I say, rejoice!”
Five times in the little letter the word “joy” occurs
And he, who was whipped, imprisoned, beaten and left for dead
Multiple times, tried and eventually killed for Christ
Could speak so much of joy.
This is our way.
This Sunday of Advent we call joy
In a world with so much sorrow, love and sorrow
Flowing mingled down. Mary could welcome her babe
Knowing that his life was meant for all the world
And for heartbreaking travail but also joy unspeakable.
We will not have the joy of Jesus Christ, from whom love
Flowed mingled with sorrow down a rugged cross
Stolen by the irrationality of hate and brokenness and sin
Nor the flaccid hyperrationality of unbelief.
We believe in God and love and hope
Write a note of consolation to the grieving.
Go online and get the names of the churches and
Write notes to the pastors and congregations, to the
Board of education members, and selectmen
And community leaders, teachers and first responders.
Hold them up with your hope.
Write and offer
Your words, send your blessings, prayers and love
Remember that Jesus said, “Blessed are they who mourn,
For they WILL be comforted.”
Pray for them, not haltingly, but give your all
Send money to survivors
Volunteer to help the helpless, feed the hungry, encourage the despairing
Pour yourself into God’s world for God’s sake
Without worrying how it will all work out, confident of God’s
Rejoice in the Lord always, again, I say, REJOICE”
Get involved in funding and helping and solving mental illness
And public safety and better schools and loving our children
REJOICE, light candles
Even today. Even now. Even this.
Love and sorrow flow mingled down, for from that mingled mess
and only then came Easter and the defeat of death.
It will not be crushed or destroyed.
Light the candle of Joy today,
Not as whisztling in the graveyard
But act of defiance against all that assaults faith, hope and love
And continue to sing, and pray, and hope and live.