July 10, 2016
Two verses from our Psalm have been on my mind this week. First, verse 7: “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince” (Ps 82:7). And second, verse 8: “Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you!” (Ps 82:8)
If you drive north of Durham, north on highway 501, Roxboro Road—if you drive for a good long while you’ll pass by a field, nothing much to look at, you’d probably never notice it: just several acres sandwiched on either side by farmland, a patch of earth overgrown with grasses and littered with beer cans.
The last time I talked with David about his work, several months ago now, he was telling me about this plot of land, how his organization acquired it last year, because coneflowers were growing there—not the ones I have growing in my front yard, but a different variety, the smooth coneflowers, an endangered species. David was telling me about picking up trash as he walked through the flowers, thinking through how they were going to maintain the habitat, to make sure the coneflowers had what they needed to survive.
As we sat there, in his living room, drenched in the afternoon light, sipping tea from mugs David made—Job’s Tears, that’s what he said the tea was called—as I listened to the story about the smooth coneflowers and the beer cans, I thought about God, as a pastor tends to do.
I wondered if this is what God is like—this way of working to sustain life, to help the lovely things in this world to grow, to flourish. God is like this, I thought, as David described what made these wild coneflowers so special. God is like this—this searching for beauty, always on the look out for loveliness, this walking through fields, noticing what’s growing among the litter. God, the one who is always on a search, looking for beauty in the world—scarce, precious, endangered beauty.
You are as beautiful as the gods, the Psalmist says, precious children of the Most High, yet mortal.
Beauty, precious and endangered. That’s what I thought to myself this week, as I remembered all the ways we gathered around David over the past few months, building him a pottery shed, singing in his living room—all the ways we have declared with our hands and mouths “the beauty of the earth,” “the love which from our birth over and around us lies.” Singing for beauty, the work of love.
Beauty, precious and endangered. That’s what I thought this week, this horrible week. Horror after horror. 300 people killed in a Baghdad neighborhood. 40 more people at a holy shrine just north of the city, pilgrims who were celebrating the end of Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr. So much death. So much loss. The prophet Mohammad once said, “Verily God is beautiful and loves beauty.” So this week I thought of God, searching through the rubble of the mosque, mourning the loss of so many beautiful lives, God walking from body to body, the heartbreak of each step.
Beauty, endangered and precious.
Alton Sterling in Louisiana, Philando Castile in Minnesota—two more unarmed black men the police add to their body count this week. On Friday, downtown Durham, at a vigil for these two men, I heard a poem that has been read at protest after protest, vigil after vigil, becoming a sacred text for the Black Lives Matter movement around here. Langston Hughes, “Dream Deferred.”
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
“Or does it explode?” Like in the barrel of Micah Xavier Johnson’s rifle, an explosion of bitter violence in Dallas, the explosion of a dream deferred. And now more life destroyed, more beauty robbed from this world: Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, Brent Thompson, and Patricio Zamarripa. “Yo quisiera morir, mejor yo que el,” Patricio’s mother said today in an interview. “I would have rather died, better me than him.”
After this week of death after death, I find myself praying the words of the Psalmist: “Rise up, O God, judge the earth.” Rise up, O God, and take away the guns, take away the bombs, take away the cancer. Rise up, O God, and redeem this earth, cleanse our bodies, save us from ourselves.
“You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.”
There’s a wordlessness to death. Death pushes us to the end of words, depriving us of words from loved ones. A speechlessness. The end of communication, of communion, the end of giving and receiving beauty, the horror of empty silence.
If there’s anything to say—any words for us, now, as we go on, after death—they might be the last words I heard from David.
I was in his bedroom, at his bedside, sitting there for I don’t know how long. I prayed with him, then stayed for a while, listening to his breath. I don’t know if he heard my chair creak as I got up to leave, but as I tipped-toed out of his room, I heard him say, over and over again, even though it sounded so difficult for him to speak, so exhausting to say words—I heard him say, like a mantra, “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.”
I waited outside his room for a minute, to hear if he would stop, but he kept on saying those words—speaking into the silence, into God. “Thank you.”
Maybe that’s all we have, now, as we remember David, gratitude for his life; as we remember the dead, gratitude for the goodness of this earth that we shared, a brief moment together, even if we were always strangers.
And maybe that’s all we have, at the end, as words become silence, as breath slows into eternal rest. One last thank you, for a life full of beauty, a life so precious because so endangered, life forever held in the love of God.