One rainy afternoon during my time as a hospital chaplain in Austin, Texas, I gathered with a man and his family to read the Prayers for the Dying. Crammed around the bed were parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, children and ex-wives, and myself.
I read the prayers. He breathed his last. I comforted the family, including the weeping ex-wives.
And I am fully aware how much of a relic this entire scene now seems.
During this time of COVID-19, people are dying alone, away from their families and from priests or pastors who might ease their passing. You could no more shoehorn a dozen people into a hospital room than you should cram them unmasked into any enclosed space these days. A pastor or chaplain might be forced to visit the room remotely, to FaceTime last rites, so to speak.
And in addition to these prayers for the dying, the staggering number of sick, every one of us has lost something, whether a job or a habit or a relationship or a passion. I was supposed to be in Paris serving at the American Cathedral this summer. When I began this essay, my calendar told me I was supposed to be on a train to Florence, Italy to preach. In the traditional American story, I’m supposed to have the freedom to travel anywhere my gifts or funds can take me.
And that story too has clearly broken into a million pieces.
“You’re going to have to let all that go,” my friend the Rev. Ken Malcolm told me at our weekly social-distance lunch meeting when I began to tell the story of what was supposed to be.
And he’s not wrong. We’re living in a new world, and however long it lasts, it’s the one our stories are going to have to accommodate.
I’m not going to Florence.
Many of us can’t attend church in person or take the Eucharist.
Some people are going to die alone.
Our lives are given meaning by the stories we hold dear, whether “American Success” or “God Won’t Give Us More than We Can Handle” or “Wherever Two or More Are Gathered Together God Will Hear Them.” But in moments of crisis, our stories often shatter against the hardships we witness and leave us naked, grasping for a new story of God, human experience, and suffering.
My daughter Sophie didn’t get to walk the stage this year for her fifth-grade graduation. Her sister got a new dress and flowers. She’s supposed to get what her sister got.
A family in my friend Aurelia’s congregation lost a 3-year-old. She wasn’t able to comfort them in person. A pastor is supposed to be able to sit with her people and be the presence of God for them.
But this is the story we are living in now.
We can react to the collapse of our old stories in lots of ways. One is to ignore the collapse. In the hospital, I remember a daughter who asked for heroic measures to save her father’s life again and again, because “The Colonel will never give up.” When he finally was allowed to die, I’ve never seen a more devastated person.
My grandmother used to ask me — when I was suffering from life-threatening depression — if there was some secret sin I needed to confess. That story is familiar: God punishes us for our misdeeds.
I also remember faithful people whose stories veered in the direction of disbelief. In John Singleton’s film Boyz N the Hood, Doughboy (Ice Cube), a character in a neighborhood undergoing an epidemic of gang violence and drugs, despair, and economic upheaval, declares that there is no God. If there were, why would people be dying every night? Why would kids and old people be taken every single day? How is that just?
A story in which God is either responsible — or missing — can help us account for suffering, but neither is a story that comforts.
However, there are stories that seem to hold up in the face of tragedy, that might be of use to those who grieve and those who try to comfort them. The story of the God who does not end our suffering but who accompanies us in it is powerful. I am drawn to the Welsh liturgy that speaks of Jesus as “our brother and companion on the way.” In the Gospel of John, Jesus announces that he will not leave us orphaned, that the Spirit of God will remain with us to teach and comfort and advocate for us. God does not abandon us, now or ever.
I also love the conclusion the great preacher John Claypool reached as he wrestled with the illness and death of his young daughter. “Life is a gift,” he ultimately preached, and we must react with gratitude for what we have been given, even though we will later lose it. Our story, in liturgical terms: “Even at the grave we make our song.”
Embracing one of these stories does not, as Claypool noted, make grief easy. But these are stories that make sense, that we can offer each other, and that we can tell ourselves when every other story has collapsed beneath the weight of our suffering.
In the midst of this hard time, in the midst of our stories collapsing, our loving presence matters more than ever. Let’s grieve together on FaceTime or Zoom or through a written letter if we can’t do it in person. And let’s make sure that when this hard time is over — for someday it will be — that we reach out with tangible expressions of that love we bear for each other.