The Tragic Sense of Life

2nd Lent, 2015

I have to speak this little truth.  Even when I weary of telling it, I pray one last time it will be over. Listen, if you can, to one who remembers the day in December when the soldiers came to the door when he was only a few weeks old. The screams pierced into the room where he was held. Mother was bereft and although the infant may not have a memory as he might have today, it was as sure and visceral as if he was in her beating heart. His father had been killed in the war. He didn’t know what the weeping was about, but he knew and shared in the tears and the terror.

That is the story of my first days. My mother told me that, “I was a bride, a mother and a widow in the space of one year.” They were married in 1942 and I was born on the same day one year later. My father was killed in a crash of his B-17 five days after I was born. The news of his death took weeks to reach the house.

I sense that I was born with a tragic sense of life? I do know that like Peter we are in denial. At least I am. I guess we clergy have an ability to function in times of great loss. Most of the time. We want life to be easy, to flow, to be fair. Scripture knows it will not be, never was, and we need to face into our fear and go up to our Jerusalem’s.

A tragic sense of life is missing in our culture. We have this notion of life moving in a straight line towards some realized goal. And for some maybe it’s true, but for most; no, for all; life is a spiral, a movement like a dance in and out that is a waltz or a dervish between joy and sorrow, progress and setback. Fear and love. Love and death.

We learned a lesson in that year that we hoped we would not learn: That there is joy and struggle, birth and grief, love and death in that one year and I think it became a template for this one life.

I didn’t know how powerfully unconscious that day was until I was in my mid 30’s. I was working as a volunteer chaplain. Penny Dwinell was a teenager who lived across the street from us that day in 1943 and we met for lunch in the hospital cafeteria. She told me that that day was bedlam in our house. As she pronounced the word “bedlam”. Tears came then wrenching sobs. I was completely out of control. Hospital staff looked over as if I was deranged. Penny continued to sit in her “non- anxious presence” as I sopped up the tears with paper napkins.

I tell the story because for me it is the most graphic way I can offer to you about how the tragic sense of life enters our lives. Unplanned, not even fully grieved at the time, indeed ignored by most around you, I entered the world with a grief that few could understand in the relief after the victory at the end of the war.

Bedlam. It was the tragic part of life. Somehow I was born into the midst of a great tragedy that the world around me was fierce to forget.

Jesus rebuke of Peter is a rebuke to us all who refuse the tragic part of life. The part of loss, of grief, of screams and silent tears. Out of that primal tragedy I grew two friends. One a Jew through whom I would almost instinctively recognize the horror of Auschwitz, the other a Japanese man who was in Nagasaki, living there with his father and siblings two weeks before we dropped the Atomic bomb.

Through their eyes I was witness to not only the little tragedies but the two major tragedies of my generation: The Holocaust, the acceptance of genocide as a solution to racial, ethnic and religious difference. And the acceptance of nuclear holocaust that could wipe out most life on the planet. The tragedy of the young airman who would not return, the unbidden sorrow that crept into the bedroom into the arms of those who held me, had become a deep curiosity and compassion and an abiding desire to forge into those places where others would not go.

The loss of the young flyer was not the final chapter. The rest of the story is the lives that survived and gave back, forged through the suffering and loss into kindness and compassion for the widow and the orphan. Tragedy is not the only and even the final answer to life.

All of us have to face into the tragedy, the big and little ones, neither denying nor letting their cruelty and power destroy. Jesus had to go up to Jerusalem, my boy of a father had to go to war. Martin Luther King had to go to Memphis and Selma, Some were involved in relationships that caused suffering from the cruelty and abuse, and others from the loss of a great love. We are forged by our tragedies to find a way through the forest of our fears and grief and loss. To distill from it the increased capacity for compassion, an ability to find forgiveness, an opening of the mind and the heart.

Or not. I know those who survived the death camps of Europe who have no faith and no forgiveness. Nor do I criticize them. What they experienced was harder by mountains than my little loss. I knew there was a reason to my father’s death, at least my young mind convinced me of it.   

No the old ninety year old was fierce in his rebuke of a loving god. He was fully immersed in his anger and the pointlessness of anti-Semitism. And he’s right isn’t he. I glean some wisdom from him. His experience is all there is, his own pure memory, his truth. God must love him very much. To give us a witness who refuses any easy consolation.

For the two of us. One who refuses consolation, and one who may too readily crave it, we are on our own path to Jerusalem. The disciple of Jesus to her own Roman Cross and crucifixion, the child of Abraham to the Temple Mount and the memory of the destruction of the Temple,  Also the follower of Mohammed journeys  to the Mosque, one for worship and one for adoration of the sheer beauty of faith in Allah . All three of us caught in the cruel consequences of Western colonialism.

By the way, one way to avoid one’s confrontation with the tragic is through anger. One gets caught in blame or hatred. I spent the early years of my life angry at the Germans. With a name like mine. Go figure. I wasn’t until a met a German young man who also lost his father in the war that I was able to let go of that anger. We are so much more alike than we are different.

Life is not a straight line, it is not reasonable, and it doesn’t conform to over-riding perfect principles and systems. “It is more characterized by confusion, dissonance, disorder and exception than by total and perfect order.” Says Richard Rohr, the Franciscan and popular theologian. He continues, “Life in the biblical tradition is both loss and renewal, death and resurrection, chaos and healing at the same time.” Life and the truth of life is in reconciling contradictions.

Jesus leads Peter to Jerusalem because he is in denial. He wants to have the glorious kingdom arrive full grown. Rather the glorious kingdom arrives in spurts and starts, through every man and woman who is willing to live into the contradictions and see the face of the sacred even the face of the Christ, where before there was hostility and brokenness.

I suspect most of us are in denial about the tragic sense of life. We like Peter want Jesus to skip in and skip out of town to avoid the cross, or not go at all.

Yet Jesus had to go to Jerusalem, so did so many of our young have to go to war 70 years ago and so did Martin Luther King have to go to Selma and Memphis, or Mandella to prison in South Africa.

We are not the terrified children we once were. If we are blessed we have a sense that there is much joy and love and goodness in life. Even in the hard times we are not alone. At root that is the message of scripture, we are not alone.There are sometimes in these moments a confidence that the veil that separates us thinly from the face of God is breeched and we are being held to God’s breast.

And it is here that we know that life is more a dance than a straight line, more movement in and out around and about over and under, spin and turn and twist. And fall and get back on your feet.

As Mother Dame Julian said. First we fall, then we recover from the fall, both are the grace of God.

So dear ones, you who have willingly come to this place where we mention the unmentionable things. Where we take these forty days to face the meaning of the cross for us, our families, our church and for the world. For you, may you have already grasped the reality of power of God’s peace and presence with and in and through you as you partner with God in the dance of your life. And if that time has not come for you, may you hold out your arms in openness to the possibility that you will soon become

One thought on “The Tragic Sense of Life

  1. I believe all lives have tragedies, some just don’t know it or they willfully blind themselves to the truth. And the tragedies run the scale from the child’s dead hamster to the horrors of the Holocaust. There are those so mind-numbingly bleak, read Hiroshima and Bergen-Belsen, to those tinged with humor, admittedly black, like the child who falls out of the tree because she saw a snake in it, and was afraid of falling (anew). Buddha said that one of the great truths was that humanity suffers. He made no distinction between the little and big suffering. The simple act of suffering is a fact of life.

    Your readers are more religious than I, and may take something more from this than I do. I think it is enough to inform that the tragedies occur and are part of our human condition. How we handle it and what we learn from it are both measures of whether one is successful or not. But having the suffering is confirmation that we are human, and that should be some relief.

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