“The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” Romans 8: 26
One bright, cold Sunday morning in New York City, Elaine Pagels interrupted her daily run by stopping in the vestibule of an Episcopal Church to get warm. Two days earlier, her two-and-a-half-year old son had been diagnosed with an invariably fatal lung disease. She writes: “Since I had not been in church for a long time, I was startled by my response to the worship in progress – the soaring harmonies of the choir singing with the congregation, and the priest, a woman in bright gold and white vestments, proclaiming the prayers in a clear, resonant voice. As I stood watching, a thought came to me: Here is a family that knows how to face death…
“The day after we heard [my son] Mark’s diagnosis – and that he had a few months to live, maybe a few years – a team of doctors urged us to authorize a lung biopsy, a painful and invasive procedure. How could this help? It couldn’t, they explained; but the procedure would let them see how far the disease had progressed. Mark was already exhausted by the previous day’s ordeal. Holding him, I felt that if more masked strangers poked needles into him in an operating room, he might lose heart – literally – and die. We refused the biopsy, gathered Mark’s blanket, clothes, and Peter Rabbit, and carried him home.
“Standing in the back of the church, I recognized, uncomfortably, that I needed to be there. Here was a place to weep without imposing tears upon a child; and here was a heterogeneous community that had gathered to sing, to celebrate, to acknowledge common needs, and to deal with what we cannot conceive or control.” (Beyond Belief, p. 3-4) “Life is difficult,” M. Scott Peck famously said at the opening of his best selling book, The Road Less Traveled. “This is a great truth,” he said, “but one that most people just don’t want to believe. Instead they want to believe that life should be easy.”
You and I know that’s not the way it is. There is not a life in this room that has not been touched by some pain, some deep disappointment, some sad loss. Even in this well-blessed corner of the world, suffering and sorrow and anguish come close. And it is at these times, times when we feel most vulnerable, we understand the meaning behind the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans: “…the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” For there are times when words simply are inadequate.
“What should I say, Dad?” A friend of my daughter was leaving the next day to fly down to a hospital in St. Louis to be with her father who was dying in an ICU room. My daughter wanted some words so she could call her friend and offer support. “What should I say?” she asked. It’s a question we all ask ourselves, and sometimes ask the minister who we assume must have a list of good things to say for such tender circumstances. But sometimes it is better to not say too much. Sometimes there are not words big enough or appropriate enough. Sometimes just being with a person, being present, is the most helpful thing we can do. And so I told my daughter, “Don’t try to say much. Tell her I’m praying for you and I’ll be holding you and your father in my thoughts.” Then I suggested, “Tell your friend it might help to read the 23rd Psalm aloud to her father at his bedside. Those lovely words about God’s love might help remind her and her father they are not alone in this valley.”
Of course, we want to say something in the face of tragedy in order to help ease the suffering. We feel a need to make some comment to show our empathy, to say something that will help to explain that which defies explanation. In trying to do so, however, we can make matters worse.
More than twenty years ago now, a young man named Alex Coffin died in an auto accident in Boston. His father was William Sloan Coffin, the well known pastor of Riverside Church in New York City. Thirteen days after he lost his son, Coffin climbed into the pulpit of that church and preached a sermon that began: “As almost all of you know, a week ago last Monday night, driving in a terrible storm, my son Alexander…who enjoyed beating his father at every game and in every race, beat his father to the grave…
“When a person dies,” Coffin preached, “there are many things that can be said, and there is at least One thing that should never be said. The night after Alex died I was sitting in the living room of my sister’s house outside Boston when the front door opened and in came a nice-looking lady with some casserole dishes. When she saw me she shook her head, then she headed for the kitchen saying sadly over her shoulder, ‘I just don’t understand the will of God…’ “The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is ‘It is the will of God.’ Never do we know enough to say that.”
Thomas Troeger – a man of many thoughtful words – says that there are times when our language is about as useful “as trying to carry water in a fishnet.” At such moments he says using Paul’s memorable words, “we are connected to God through the ‘sighs’ of the Spirit.” Troeger goes on to say that there is more than we might think in the “expressive sound of breath being exhaled” – more to our sighs. “That barely audible sigh is the sound of the Spirit praying in us and through us – reminding us that at the heart of our faith breathes a reality greater than any mortal tongue can adequately name.” (New Proclamation, Series A, 1999, p. 163)
In our Pastoral Prayers each Sunday, space is made to offer silent prayers to God that we have consciously and unconsciously brought with us as we came into church. Our heart’s voice speaks as we form a name; bring a troubling circumstance to mind, asking for God’s intercession and blessing. It is more an elemental expression, less a rational string of words. And all around, there are inexplicable sighs in the quiet.
And God, who knows our hearts, sighs as well.
The story is told of a rabbi who was brought into the presence of God in the high heavenly courts. When he arrived, he walked straight up to the throne and asked God to justify all the suffering he had seen on earth. “Lord, we prayed night and day, and yet your people have continued to suffer,” he told God. “I know you have heard our moans. You have seen our tears. And so I ask you, where have you been?” God replied, “I am surprised you did not recognize me. I was in your tears. I was in your moaning. I was right there beside you as you called out to heaven.”
One of my all-time favorite movies is Four Weddings and a Funeral. The most poignant moment in the film comes not at one of the weddings, but at the funeral. A man named Garth, who is filled with life, and song, and joy has a heart attack and dies while dancing. Prior to his funeral, the vicar invites Garth’s dearest friend, Matthew, to offer words of remembrance. When Matthew gets up to speak, he fumbles about searching for something meaningful to say. Then he pauses and looks out and says to those gathered for the service that he has “run out of words.” He closes with some lines from the great poet, W.H. Auden, to express what he cannot:
“He was my North, my South, my
East and West
My working week and my Sunday
My noon, my midnight, my talk,
I thought that love would last for
ever: I was wrong.”
When there are no adequate words, we have poetry to offer: the poetry of our lives bound together to one another; the poetry of scripture; the poetry of the church when it is at its worshipping and serving best.
Elaine Pagels found herself strangely moved as she stood at the back of the church that winter’s morning. She recalls, “The celebration in progress spoke of hope; perhaps that is what made the presence of death bearable. Before that time, I could only ward off what I had heard and felt the day before…I returned often to that church, not looking for faith but because, in the presence of worship and the people gathered there – and in a smaller group that met on weekdays in the church basement for mutual encouragement – my defenses fell away, exposing storms of grief and hope. In that church I gathered new energy, and resolved, over and over, to face whatever awaited us as constructively as possible for Mark, and for the rest of us.” (Note: Pagel’s son, Mark, died after four years of illness. Just a year later, her husband died in a mountain climbing accident.)
“When people would say to me, ‘your faith must be of great help to you,’” Pagels reflected, “I would wonder, what do they mean? What is faith?” (ibid, p. 5)
Each of us here today would answer that question, “What is faith?” in our own way. For many, the answer has probably shifted, revised, and evolved over the years. At least that has been my experience. Even as a minister, or maybe because I am a minister, my definition of faith is not all that fixed. It is affected by the circumstances around me and the hopes of my heart. One of the anchors of my faith, however, is found in scripture. And in trying times and times of loss, I hang tight to the words of the Apostle Paul that we heard at the close of today’s reading. “What are we to say about these things?” Paul asks. “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” He answers, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all of creation, will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that we know in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Words of such confidence, such poetry and such faith in God’s love.
“In all these things we are more than conquerors,” Paul boldly asserts. But Gerald Sittser, author of A Grace Disguised, is more tentative. In working through his grief following a tragic auto accident that claimed three generations of his family, he wrote with honest candor, “As vulnerable as I feel most of the time, I can hardly call myself a conqueror…My experience has only confirmed in my mind how hard it is to face loss and how long it takes to grow from it. But it also reminded me how meaningful and wonderful life can be, even and especially in suffering.” (p. 11)
All of us can recall times when we have taken hits and experienced more than enough pain, enough sorrow. Perhaps there have been times when you were ready to give up. Who hasn’t? But we didn’t give up. We were able to carry on. And what does that tell us? It tells us that weak as we are, a strength beyond our strength helped pull us through. Faint of heart as we may be, a love beyond us reached out to lift us.
The promise of our faith is not that we are protected from hard times. Our faith offers no guarantees that God will keep us from troubles. We are more than conquerors because God, who was there with Jesus in his suffering, is there for us. The promise simply is this: the presence of God…in hard times…in good times…in empty times.
The late Russian Orthodox Archbishop of London, Anthony Bloom, told a story about an old woman who came to him once and said she had been praying for 14 years and never gotten a sense of God’s presence. “Since you’ve just been ordained,” she said, “and probably know nothing, I thought you might possibly blunder out the right thing to tell me.
“That’s a very encouraging situation I thought,” Bloom mused to himself and then told her, “Get up in the morning and put your room to rights, and light the little lamp in front of your icon and then take out your knitting and for 15 minutes, knit before the face of God. Don’t say one word of prayer. Just knit and try to enjoy the peace of your room.” Well the woman didn’t think it was very pious advice but she went away and after a while she came back and told Bloom, “Well, I did what you told me. I got up and washed and put my room to right and then I sat in my armchair and I knit. I tried to knit before the face of God. And after a while, the peace of the room began to seep into my bones and the silence soothed me, and after a time I felt the presence of God.” (A School of Prayer, p. 24-25))
It seems fitting to follow that with this bit of poetry by Jennifer Rankin.
“In the parlor
It is quiet.
We sit and work together,
Velvet cloth against silk,
Yarn against needle.
Memories of love and loss keep us company.
We sit in silence,
The clock ticking,
Time dropping away.
Perhaps, just for today,
This will be our prayer.
“The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.