12 March 2008

more thoughts on "mercy"

the poem i posted the other day, "mercy," has kept spinning around in my head, stirring up conversations with several folks, and so i want to keep talking about it here, despite my claim that i wouldn't. and this isn't going to be coherent, perhaps, because it's brought up a lot of enormous questions -- but i'll do my best.

someone brought to my attention that the poem could be read very differently than i read it: that the last line, "And the Lord sent rain," could be construed as a sarcastic response to the situation of the poem, as a dismissal of or a slam on religion or faith -- that the Lord's "response" is horribly inadequate, much too late, far too minimal for the grief of the man in the poem. and i can see that now; i can see the poem through a different lens, and it's caused me to think and rethink what that tiny poem might mean (though a poem should not mean but be, etc.) and what the tone and meaning of the last line might be.

and so, i want to tell a story first, and then rethink the poem (and my response) through that story.

when i was seven years old, i was playing alone in my bedroom. we got a phone call; shortly after my mom hung up the phone, she came into my room. she had gotten the news that a boy my age, a boy in my class, had just died. his name was andy. he had bright blonde hair, as i remember, and he was funny -- the kind of kid teachers call "sweet." his older brother had been driving a forklift; andy asked him if he could have a ride. he fell off the forklift. i don't remember many of the details now, beyond those basics, but i remember thinking, almost immediately, "will i die soon, too?" i don't remember if i asked out loud, or just thought it. i thought, too, about his brother, how i didn't know if i could stand that kind of guilt living with me for the rest of my life. and the rest of his family, i thought about them; i liked his mom, and i liked his mom's name.

later, i remember -- at least, i think i remember (always the difficulty with memory) -- we went to see andy's family. i don't remember if it was the funeral, or the wake, or just a gathering of folks from our church. i remember wandering around between people's knees. i remember the light was dimmed. and i remember someone saying, very quietly, that andy's death had made his father angry at God -- that he was shaking his fist at the sky. and i remember thinking that seemed wrong, because i didn't know you could be mad at God, i didn't think it was possible. and then i thought, i think i would be, too. and the questions started: why would God take away a seven-year-old? why would he want to wreck a family that way? what would happen to my family? why didn't it happen to my family? what kind of justice is this; what kind of justice is there in the world at all?

these aren't new thoughts, of course; why bad things happen to good people, why bad things happen at all, is maybe one of the most-asked, most-unsolvable questions of being human. there are books and books written on the "problem of suffering," and there are thousands of sermons about it, i'm sure, but i don't know that anyone finds an answer, ever. even the answer that "evil is in the world" doesn't really work here -- andy wasn't an evil kid, his family wasn't. and i don't like the "test of your faith" theory, either -- Job, for example, never gets an answer to why his entire life has been stripped away; he wasn't an evil man at all; and he never gets a response from God about why he'd been tested, if that's what it was.

it seems to me that the poem asks this same question in its various forms -- where was the Lord when the house was burning? where was the Lord when the drought went on for so long? why does the rain come only after it isn't needed? why were two children taken away? what kind of justice is that? is there justice at all in the world? is God looking on at all? and so, reading that last line as a kind of question, a "shaking the fist at the sky," seems not like a slam, but rather a human response to tragedy -- a foundation has been shaken, a lot has been lost, and there's no explanation that's adequate for why someone would have to lose so much.

i also find it to be one response to those who would say that the fire is punishment for the man -- the same kind of idea that was circulated after katrina: that God was "cleansing" the city with the hurricane. which is an idea that makes me want to swear and pull out my hair and scream with its kind of horrible religiosity, false piety, and misconstructed notion of faith or the divine or God's role in the world. i don't think God sends tragedy as punishment, and i don't think God sends rain or money or success or whatever as reward (see also: my sincere loathing for books that make the claim that if you pray hard enough and faithfully enough, god will send you financial reward). andy's family didn't "deserve" to lose their son. people in new orleans didn't deserve to lose their families, their homes, their city. people closer to me, in nappannee, who were just recently devastated by a tornado, are some of the most faithful (in religious terms) folks i've met -- and i think anyone would be hard-put to find an answer to why so many of them lost their homes and still haven't managed to get any funding to rebuild. the last line of the poem does, then, i suppose, call into question that kind of thinking -- that the Lord is somehow doling out punishment and reward. and i also (to say it again, as i'm trying to get this complicated answer under control) think it's the sincerest human response to tragedy i've heard -- we're looking and looking and searching and searching for reasons, and we don't get answers. we get rain. really, God? rain? that's all you've got?

however, i do think it's more complex than that, too; i find the last line of the poem to be both question and answer, both doubt and relief. it's not just a slap in the face to religion -- though losing two children seems to warrant plenty of doubt -- because there is still some faith, some answer, some kindness in the midst of the horror. maybe i find comfort in the last line of that poem because, at least, there is a presence of God, a possibility of a God who is listening, who is sympathizing. if i look at the poem not as a literal reconstruction of events (which i do often because of its directness and its clarity) but instead as layered and also artfully done, then rain (as a symbol, as a metaphor) becomes a representation of renewal, of the possibility of new growth and revival, of a "quenching" of the thirst for answers, for reasons, and as a balancing out of the tragedy and suffering in the first lines. that may be too easy, too much of a "god cries with you" or "pastoral sympathy" answer -- i don't know. but a drought and a fire can certainly be seen as representative of suffering, doubt, pain, "going without," and loss -- and so rain becomes reprieve, healing, answer, return, and "going with." there is a sense in that line, for me, that God has not abandoned this person, though all signs previous may be read as pointing to the contrary. at the end of Job, while Job gets no answers, he does get the presence of God, the reassurance that God is still there, and that may be all we ever get to know.

i take the line, then, as a very complex response in very simple words -- because i don't think there is an easy answer for anyone who has lost anyone. giving up on faith wholly is a possibility, of course, but perhaps we are not abandoned, even at the worst moments -- "my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" but sticking to faith without question, without doubt -- and saying simply or dismissively that "God has 'his' reasons" -- is deeply unsatisfying, lacking in compassion or honesty or both, and not acknowledging the complexity of the world we live in. why andy died is not clear to anyone, to this day. why i've lost other people in my life -- even if they were seventy or eighty years old -- is not clear to me. i don't know that we ever know "why," and i think we know that any reasons we come up with are inadequate. and so it's all we can do to hang on; it's all we can do to say "i don't understand, and while i'll keep trying to understand, i'll also keep trying to believe."

and maybe, while the loss always burns, the Lord is still sending rain.

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