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Lament as a Wintry Spirituality

This sermon was delivered by Graham Walker, associate dean for the master of divinity degree program and professor of theology at McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, Ga., on April 7, 2009.

Psalm 22

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest. Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted and you delivered them. To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame. But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people. All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads; “Commit your cause to God; let God deliver— let God rescue the one in whom God delights!” Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast. On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God. Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help. Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me; they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion. I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death. For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me. My hands and feet have shrivelled; I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me; they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots. But you, O LORD, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid! Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog! Save me from the mouth of the lion! From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me. I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you: You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him; stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel! For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him. From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him. The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD. May your hearts live for ever! All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. For dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations. To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it. Psalm 22 (NRSV)

Winter is a season of the heart as much as a season in the weather. John Crowe Ransom connects the two kinds of winters:

Two evils, monstrous either one apart, Possessed me, and were long and loath at going; A cry of Absence, Absence, in the heart, And in the wood the furious winter blowing.

Today, my friends, is an appropriately bitter cold day. I invite you on a journey of the soul. It will occur in the face of the threat of Absence. Psalm 22 will be our guide. Winter will serve as an image for the season of the heart we find ourselves in.

Winterless climates there may be, but winterless souls are hard to imagine. I have known equator-like landscapes (Singapore, Manila, Jakarta, Phnom Penh, and Saigon) time paces there like one long wet and dry summer–winter is unfelt. As for the heart, however, where can one escape the chill? Not even in the equatorial climate.

It was 1973, I was a teenager sitting in a sweltering hot room in the safety of Singapore’s 700 mile distance South of the Indochina conflicts. The British ceiling fan twirled methodically overhead. My mother and I listened to crackling radio report of missing masses of people in Laos and Cambodia. I asked my mother, “where are all the people going?” “How are they disappearing? Hundreds of thousands of people don’t just disappear!”

One third of the population of Cambodia was in the process of being buried in the Killing Fields under the command of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. As many as 2.5 million skulls were rotting in those fields as the result of execution, torture, starvation and forced labor. Children were separated from parents and taught torture methods with animals. These same children were then used as a “dictatorial instrument of the party” and were given leadership in torture and executions. Simply wearing glasses was enough sign of an education for you to become a skull in that field.

When death comes, when absence creates pain—then anyone can anticipate the season of cold.

Winter can blow into surprising regions of the heart. Such frigid assaults can overtake the spirit with the chronic cutting of an Arctic wind. Absence! Absence! cries the poet. The waste of space; the distance of the divine; the sacred is remote and God is silent! Who tends the spirit when the winter takes hold?

The Psalmist begins with a description of excruciating pain. It is made so as much by loneliness and social rejection as by any physical condition. Feelings of being less than human and rejected by others contribute as much to the magnitude of distress as does the physical pain itself.

Now we may intend to overcome absence by the warmth of a crowd so the seeker thinks. Like a flock of Royal penguins who huddle together to fend off Antarctica’s cold bitter winds, the lonely seeker thinks she can simply rotate in those cold souls who linger on the edges to the center of the group; and then those warm spirited at the center in kindness and empathy will rotate out to the periphery; thus all will bear their share of bitter winds and cutting absence—and the burden can be shared.

Would that human community were so accommodating—would that the representatives of the kingdom of God could consistently manifest the same longsuffering as penguins in the Antarctic winds.

Yet, just as a person can be engulfed and alone in a crowd, so can a congregation overlook or scorn a member. In some tribes, it is said, the shaman performs a rite in which the errant person is “boned.” The participants gather while the shaman points a magic human bone at the one whom the ancestors will now shun. Inevitably, the boned person writhes in pain, and is removed to a hut on the borders of the village. Weeks pass, the shunning complete, the person is dead. Did the bone itself do the killing?

The bone never touched him! The molecules of this bone are no different than any other. It was the act of waving the bone ritually that led to his death. This act signaled the removal of presence. The Absence did the killing. The boning rite occurs in the tropics, under the beating noonday sun, but the people, under the leadership of the shaman inflicted winter in the heart.

Yes, even the summery circles of Christian believers can “point the bone of winter” at their victims. Some of the accused they regard as too errant, too sinful to belong to a community of confessed sinners. Others are simply marginal. They have not been invited to the center of community, or they have searched in vain for the warm center–never able to find it. The Shaman, the magic leader or the company of leaders, sees to it that they are pushed back into the wintry night.

On more than one occasion I have sat down to talk with Elie Wiesel. I’ve learned you must have your question written out—for when he shakes your hand and you see the tattoo on his arm, A-7713, your thoughts will leave you. You will be flooded with emotions. The cry of Absence will saturate your soul.

On more than one occasion, I have been reminded that there were stunning examples of Christian resisters and rescuers under the canopy of the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews. However, for the most part, it was the baptized who ran the camps, the baptized who loaded the cattle cars, the baptized who held the guard dogs, the baptized who collected the clothes and assumed the homes and possessions of the Jews, and the baptized who pulled the triggers. Six million deaths later, the fissure, the chasm, the “tremendum,” remains raw: A wound that we dare not enclose with a band-aid of explanation.

Their deaths, like so many for whom we mourn today can’t fit the story of history. The traditional characters of history include the heroes of tradition and their mirrored enemies. These two opposing figures include the subtypes of tragic heroes and tragic figures. The tragic heroes are all those who “die for the cause”; they suffer for the ideal; they are willing to sacrifice their life for the future of others; they sanctify death. Their death is a noble death. On the other hand, the tragic figure personifies the portrait of “hubris,” pride. The tragic figure rebels against the limitations of his finitude by denying his solidarity with the rest of humanity thereby maintaining his own life at whatever cost it may exact from others. His self-denial and hubris inevitably destroy him because his lust for power separates him from all others. He becomes isolated and inevitably stands alone with his finitude, without community.

Unlike either of these traditional characters in history, so many victims and survivors are not allowed to speak in history because they fit none of the normative patterns. They do not reinforce the group ideal-i.e., the hero; they do not demonstrate personal sacrifice for the group ideal – i.e., the tragic hero; they do not demonstrate corporate evil – i.e., the enemy; and finally, they do not demonstrate personal arrogance and pride-i.e., the tragic figure. Their story is suppressed and repressed because they represent neither the “ideal nor its anti-type, and more often than not, historical records attempt to forget rather than remember victims and survivors. Thus they are lost in history. The lament of suffering retrieves the vanquished and destroyed from the boundaries of history. The lament of suffering one is a belief structure for a yet to be named future.

The reinvest¬ment of the word with meaning begins with the cry of Absence of the suffering: the dead, those already forgotten, have a meaning that is still unrealized. The potential meaning of history depends on the voice of these voiceless. Wiesel writes: When man, in his grief, falls silent, Goethe says, then God gives him the strength to sing of his sorrows. From that moment on, he may no longer choose not to sing, whether his song is heard or not. What matters is to struggle against silence with words, or through another form of silence. What matters is to gather a smile here and there, a word here and there, and thus justify the faith placed in you, a long time ago, by so many victims. Why I write? asks Elie Wiesel, To wrench those victims from oblivion. To help the dead vanquish death.

Summer has not arrived, but a thaw has begun.