L. Gregory Jones is Assistant professor of theology at Loyola College in Baltimore. He is author of the book Transformed Judgment: Toward a Trinitarian Account of the Moral Life (University of Notre Dame Press).
This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 11, 1990 pp.359-360, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
The darkness of tragic deaths may tempt us toward agnosticism or atheism. But in the midst of such darkness, the Word embodied in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth enables us to give voice to the silences.
Receiving a phone call from my friend in Iowa that muggy Wednesday morning in August did not seem unusual at first; we maintained regular contact. But his response to my question "How are you doing?" stopped conversation rather than started it. "Kevin just called from Indianapolis. Brenda died last night in a hiking accident."
I was dumbfounded. The only response I could muster was a rather garbled "What?" Brian calmly explained everything he knew about the accident. The fact that Brenda was dead slowly began to dawn on me, but it still seemed more surreal than real. Brian and I talked a bit about our days in divinity school with Kevin and the wonderful time the three of us had in St. Louis just a couple of months earlier. We also reminisced about our memories of his wife, Brenda. But it became painful to continue talking. We agreed that later in the day we would discuss arrangements for attending the funeral.
My wife, Susan, and I knew we needed to call Kevin, but we had difficulty even picking up the phone. What could we say? We spent the better part of the morning trying to help each other cope with the news, and trying to figure out what we might say to Kevin. I remembered all the well-intended and heartfelt things that people had said to me at the time of my father’s unexpected death, words that sounded hollow at best and callous and counterproductive at worst. I tried to think of words that would express my pain and acknowledge Kevin’s even more intense pain.
There was a close bond between the Armstrongs and the Joneses: my wife and I had been eucharistic ministers in Kevin and Brenda’s wedding some five years earlier, and Kevin had been one in ours some four months later. Kevin had helped me cope with my father’s death. But somehow neither the bonds of our friendship nor my wife’s and my ministerial training helped us find appropriate words.
After morning had finally passed into afternoon, I picked up the phone. I thought I was composed and would find something to say when I heard Kevin’s voice. But when he answered, all I could stammer out was Kevin, I’m sorry." I remember more the silences of our conversation than the words, except for Kevin’s recounting a conversation with the paramedic. The paramedic had asked Kevin about his occupation, and upon hearing that Kevin is a minister, he said, "Well, I guess you know better than anyone that God has a purpose for everything." To which Kevin had responded, "Well, if God has a purpose for this, that purpose stinks."
Kevin asked if Brian and I would help celebrate the Eucharist at Brenda’s memorial service. I was honored that Kevin asked us to do this, but also trembled at the thought. I had planned to attend for Kevin’s sake, but I also had to cope with my own grief. Brenda’s death reminded me of the brokenness of the world and the fragility of our lives. In such a time, how could I help to lead the worship of a God who seemed so distant and silent in the midst of all this pain?
As I prepared for the trip, I decided to pack Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son to read on the plane. I had first read this little book a year earlier, and remembered being deeply moved by Wolterstorff’s reflections on the tragic death of his son Eric. I thought that rereading this book might give me some perspective, and perhaps even inspire some words to say to Kevin. Instead, my reading the book anew released some pent-up tears, unleashing emotions that caused other passengers to wonder what was wrong with the man in 6C. But the reading also gave me some perspective through those tears: "I shall look at the world through tears," wrote Wolterstorff. "Perhaps I shall see things that dry-eyed I could not see."
Kevin met my plane. We held each other, trying to bridge the distances caused by the particularity of grief, the solitude of suffering. At first we did not speak -- we did not need to. When we began to talk we spoke about arrangements for the service, how things were going at the house and how Kevin’s and Brenda’s families were doing. A little later a similar scene was repeated between Kevin and Brian. But in our various conversations with each other we rarely mentioned directly the pain that had drawn us together.
At the service, Kevin planned to speak briefly if he had the composure. When he began, his quivering voice made me wonder whether he was doing the right thing. But as he thanked people for coming, as he recounted his response to the paramedic, and as he reflected on what it means to praise God together even in the midst of a tragedy, he seemed to gather a strength that was not his own, that could have come only from the Spirit.
He said that the day before he had thought: if only the good news of the gospel traveled as fast as the bad news of Brenda’s death, we would be much better off. But then it hit him -- that was precisely the point. The bonds of the gospel had enabled this news to travel. We gathered as a community of the gospel, a community that loved Brenda, but more important, as a community bound together by God. We were, he said, a broken community, broken by the tragedy of Brenda’s death. It was in that brokenness that we could see the broken bread of Christ’s body as well as the hope embodied in his resurrection.
This confronted me with the mystery of the Triune God, enacted particularly in the Eucharist, in all its majesty and awesomeness. As we stood at the table when it was time to begin the liturgy, the Spirit gave me the voice to begin, "The Lord be with you." As we moved through the eucharistic liturgy of death and resurrection, our voices pierced the silences. The conjunction of silence and voice occurred most prominently with the words, "Renew our communion with all your saints, especially Brenda and all those most dear to us." In communing with Christ and each other, so also were we communing with all the saints. The restoration of relationship in the Eucharist had given voice to the silence of tragedy.
Following the service, several people commented on how powerful the service had been. One person commented, "I have come to realize that the meaning of the resurrection, in all of its hope, comes only by giving voice to the brokenness." A couple of months later I would come across a remark by a rabbi: "There is nothing so whole as a broken heart." I had been looking for words, and the Eucharist provided the Word. The voice that could hear the silences of the people and thus interrupt those silences is the Word who suffered and endured the tragedy and brokenness of the cross.
The eucharistic celebration provided the context for a different kind of speech. The echo of the Word could be heard in conversations into the evening. A new language was audible among people who otherwise did not know each other, who had discovered a strange friendship in communion with Christ. People were delivered from the trivialities of small talk to reflect on the hope that in death we may find life. Kevin and I found the voices with which to articulate the sadnesses we had shared first in my father’s death, and now in Brenda’s; Kevin talked in greater detail about the accident, the isolation of grief, and fears of the future. As we talked, we kept returning to the mystery of the Eucharist and the Word spoken there. Kevin reminded me that the first sermon I had preached after my father’s death was titled "Is There Any Hope?" In the darkness of Brenda’s death, we wondered together anew. And yet, silently, in the light of the Eucharist, we received hope anew.
It has been almost a year since Brenda’s death, and yet the events of those days continue to bear meaning. In particular, they have driven home to me the importance and significance of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Nicholas Lash suggests in Easter in Ordinary that there is a pattern to the doctrine of God as it is confessed in the creed, a pattern that reminds us of the importance of the movements among the confessions of "Father, Son and Holy Spirit."
For example, the goodness and creativity in the world remind us of God’s empowering Spirit, which breathes life into all that is and which enables and sustains relationships. Such a perspective may tempt us toward pantheism. Even so, there are too many tragedies in the world, tragedies that sunder communities and break relationships, to sustain the pantheist view. These tragedies reduce us to silence, bringing home to us the difference between God and the world. The darkness of tragic deaths like Brenda’s may tempt us toward agnosticism or atheism. But in the midst of such darkness, the Word embodied in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth enables us to give voice to the silences. The power of that Spirit of creativity gives us a voice in the brokenness of the world, and thereby helps us participate in the reconstruction of relationships and communities. We need always to remember all three parts: the darkness and silences, the joy and creativity, and the Word that gives creative voice in the midst of darkness. In none of those can we stop and say, "This, and this alone, is what and who God is."
In reflection on the promise in Revelation that on the day of shalom "there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away," Wolterstorff writes: "I shall try to keep the wound from healing, in recognition of our living still in the old order of things. I shall try to keep it from healing, in solidarity with those who sit beside me on humanity’s mourning bench." It is too easy to pretend that Christ’s resurrection, the incipient sign of the "new order of things," cancels the pain of death. We do not follow Christ uncrucified; we follow Christ crucified and risen. If there is hope that in death we may find life, it is only by recognizing that "there is nothing so whole as a broken heart."