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Grief and the Lovely Things That Last
The Word in the Wild Proper 12, Year A
The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (NRSV)
East of the Little Rock there is a bend in the Arkansas river where marshes question the border of land and water, and birds take advantage of the ecotone of its resulting compromise. It is a nexus of sorts, one of the eastern most points where Western Kingbirds nest and a stopover for birds traveling from the arctic tundra to the coasts of South America. I go there in search of wonder and I never know what I will find. Once a Snowy Owl was found in this area, several winters ago. On several occasions I’ve seen coyotes lopping across the field, and at least once, two skunks running across a field of yellow bitterweed flowers. And this time of year, there are evenings when several hundred Purple Martins can be seen taking to the air to catch the wealth of dusk drunk insects.
For all the wonder of this place, or perhaps because of it, I always leave my visits to it with a mix of joy and grief. The bend in the river that makes it a gathering place for wild things also makes it a site for industry and river borne cargo. It is a port and industrial park, filled with factories making everything from peanut butter to the tubes for oil pipelines. And since the economic developers have been doing their jobs relatively well, the factories that exist are being joined by new factories with all the attendant ribbon cuttings and visits from the senators who appropriated the funds to use public money for private gain. Some of those funds, of late, have been going to fill in the very wetland that is so filled with wild wonder. Demolition companies are invited to bring the broken concrete and rubble of buildings, and load by load, they are bulldozed flat into a site for some future factory or warehouse. Slowly, over weeks and months, I’ve watched the waters covered over, and birds pushed farther and farther to the edge.
To be a birdwatcher, to love the living vibrant world, means that joy and wonder are always accompanied by grief. It is the grief of knowledge, the understanding that something you love is being lost and is suffering the senseless death made by greed. We’ve lost 30% of the North American birds that populated the fields and forests in 1970. And that sharp downward slope of the graph has been driven, most of all, by a loss of habitat—marshes and grass lands and forests eaten away for new houses and warehouses, industrial fields and factories.
“Creation groans” (Romans 8:22). That line from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome names, better than any other, the reality I feel when I see the given world lost—forests cut, marshes filled, grasslands paved over. Words are inadequate and yet it is here, in the failure of words, that the Holy Spirit moves in us. The spirit sighs and groans with us, Paul tells us, turning the grief driven horror at a world undone into a prayer to God, an intercession for action as the “Spirit helps us in our weakness.” (8:26)
In the sharing of our sighs with the Spirit who groans with us, and God who hears us, we are not left alone in our grief but are joined into God’s life, the very community of the Trinity. It is in the life of the Trinity that the work of love can begin to undo the damage of a world bent toward grief and exploitation, a place where, as Wendell Berry put it in one of his most bitter poems, “no lovely thing can last.” We are promised that though “no lovely thing can last” in the world as it is; such a world will not last and that it is love and all lovely things that will continue.
It is into that vision of the future that Paul gives us the promise that “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (8:28, NRSV). The danger of these words, however, is that they can so often be used as a trite panacea that offers no real hope to those experiencing grief and loss. Like those who reject the trite “thoughts and prayers” of politicians after the latest school shooting, we would do well to refuse to accept an easy rendering of this verse. Instead, we should follow Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh in their wonderful commentary, Romans Disarmed, where they translate this verse in a radically different way: “We know that in all things God works for good with those who love God and are called to his purpose.” In this reading, they show that Paul is not saying, “Cheer up, God’s got it all under control, even if it doesn’t look that way.” Instead, Paul is saying that the God who entered our pain through the Incarnation, the God who did not abandon us in our suffering but joined us in it, is now working among us to bring about good. Our call is to join in the working of that good. As Keesmaat and Walsh write: “We get busy with the purposes to which we have been called. Those who love God are those who embrace their calling to tend creation, who have a vision of life in the face of death, and who claim redemption even against the evidence.”
It is here that the passage takes a turn. Our grief that runs so deep that we cannot even give words to it, works in the light of God’s purposes to move us toward action as God’s beloved. In his recent commentary on Romans, Michael Gorman offers a saying, often misattributed to St. Augustine, that “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage: Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” With Christ beside us, joined with us in our suffering and yet already victorious through resurrection, we are able to turn from the bitter anger of our grief at the way things are and move with courage in preparing the ground for the goodness and renewal God will complete in the end. It is with that courage that Paul, in the face of great personal and corporate suffering, can say with boldness: “If God is for us, who is against us!”
The reality of grief, and our inability to know how to pray in the face of such damage to ourselves and the world, will continue. But through the life of the Trinity, the Spirit praying in us, God working with us toward God’s purposes, and Christ joined alongside us in the abiding love that we will never lose, we are able to begin doing the work of bold protest and tender restoration.
As another season of migration begins, and once more my mind is fixed between the joy of birds and grief at their plight, I am given hope by Paul’s ancient words. Though we wait for Hope with patience, we know that even now, the first fruits of a renewed creation are coming. These lovely things will last, and all the ugly terror of human greed and selfishness will one day fade, so that creation will no longer groan but join in the common song of praise to the God who is all in all.