When life goes up in flames

Photo by Stephen Radford on Unsplash

God, sometimes there are no words.

What can one say when a mother who has made her way safely through the explosive streets of Syria weeps for her seven children lost to flames in a “safe” country, in the sleepy quietness of their own beds? When her husband can’t even weep with her as he lies in a coma? What words could possibly express the depth of the anguish, or speak the least bit of comfort into a pain like that?

Across the world we stand in stunned silence, the grief in our own gut swallowing words we might once have had.

Words, which sometimes seem so powerful, aren’t enough for a pain like this.

They aren’t enough even for the smaller flames licking around the edges of our own lives, consuming us in a slower, more hidden way: the burns of radiation on one body, of grief in another; the unexpected explosion of words or tears fuelled by hidden pain that is forcing its way to the surface, crying, “See me! Hear me! Love me!”

Everything in me aches with the longing to comfort, to help, to compensate for the terror and make the wrong right. I feel again my smallness, my lack of power against the flames.

I can find only three words: Lord, have mercy.

They seem so small. 

But as I wait in the silence, the weight of it all heavy within me, I realize all over again: 

You, God, know that words, though strong enough to speak the world into being and to call Lazarus from the grave, are not enough for the greatest of our pains.

You know that pain of the heart can’t be touched with an appeal to the head. We need to be met in that place of our pain, heart to heart, gut to gut, the pain shared rather than reasoned into submission. 

And so You come to us not first as a teacher with lessons to impart, but as a father who has compassion on his children, a mother who can’t forget the child she has borne and quiets us with her love, a midwife who, rather than explaining the principles of labor, stays close, a calming presence, and helps us find courage to keep breathing through the pain.

You come as our father, running into the flames to rescue your children.

As our mother who will one day wipe away our tears forever. And who longs for us to turn from the corner where we ache alone and weep our pain on your shoulder and begin to receive your comfort now.

For this is what the LORD says:

“. . . As a mother comforts her child,

so I will comfort you. . .” (Isaiah 66:12-13)

The crazy mystery of our words

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I walked to the hospital in the bitter cold, those mornings on the other side of the world, layered in long underwear and wool sweaters and a down coat. Some of the children I passed wore bare feet in jelly shoes. The snow hadn’t yet begun to fall, and the ground lay brown and bare, frozen into hard bumps and ridges beneath the heavy grey sky. It was a few days before Christmas.
Someone had sent a tiny Christmas tree, and we’d woven red crosses and rigged some way to hang them on the painted mud wall of the dining room where we sat cross-legged on cushions and ate off a plastic tablecloth spread on the floor. Our Christmas decorations were the only ones in our little mountain village, the only ones in our whole region, probably. There were no white lights stringing the streets, no storefront trees with baubles and icicles.
I felt it most strongly those years when I woke up on Christmas morning and realized that the world around me was oblivious to the miracle that had just happened. God had come among us, and most of the world just kept going about their daily business, unaware.
There was a sort of sadness and emptiness about it, a wistfulness, the cold, short days of mid-winter begging for the hope of Light’s coming. But there was also a sense of wonder as I quietly watched the miracle unfold. This God who came, came hidden. He came, not seeking applause or affirmation but a backwoods stable in which to meet the woman and man who had quietly chosen to give their simple, difficult, yes to a crazy miracle of love. In the midst of the great silence, I am struck by their choice, by the power of their solitary voices.
And then as I begin again to read and listen, I hear more voices calling to me, speaking hope, singing invitation.
Angels inviting Mary and Joseph and the shepherds to play their part in the Grand Story.
Old Simeon speaking his life’s desire in the moment of its fulfillment.
John the Baptist calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
I headed toward Advent this year feeling the darkness in the world around me, aching for the Light to break through. I arrived at the first Sunday of Advent service hungry for hope. The lit wreathes helped, and the colorful banners, the organ and the row of children with their violins. But it was the voices, young and old and in between, speaking and singing, alone and together, that seemed to peel back the dark and reveal the light that will keep shining for all eternity.
Could this be one more layer of what it means to be made in the image of the Creator—that we are graced with the power to push back at least a corner of the darkness with our words, to help fill emptiness with love, to speak peace into inner chaos?
I return to the Story, and the mystery grows: the Word who created all things by his word did not only speak into us the power to change reality with our words, he then, for a while, silenced himself, letting us find our voices and feel the magnitude of this gift. The Word himself became speechless while those to whom he had given the power of speech spoke for him (“Prepare the way”) and to him (“It’s okay, little one, Mama’s here.”)
As I enter Advent, I am pondering the Word and the power of our words. I am praying my longing that the Word would grow within me and speak Himself through me, that my voice would sound with the echoes of his. I am asking for grace so that my silence is not cowardice, not hiding, but grace-filled space welcoming the hearts and words of others, and that my words, wherever they are planted, bear the fruit of hope and peace, freedom and life.

Oh, Living Word, grow in me! May I not silence the words You wish to speak through me, and may all the words I do speak be an overflow of Your life within.