The Unbroken Circle
Hebrews 11:5-8, 13; 12:1-2; 2nd Timothy 1:5-6
“The Strange Life of Timothy Green” is a rather poignant reflection on a couple that discovers they cannot have children. After the tests are completed and the doctor gives them the bad news, they return home in silence, each moving about the house in numb isolation.
They are in the early stages of drowning their sorrows with wine, when the husband asks his wife if they could imagine what their child would be like for just one night. He immediately says, ‘our child would have a great sense of humor’ and he writes that down on a pad of paper. His wife says, ‘our child would be a musician’ and the husband writes that down on another piece of paper.
Then they start getting carried away with their hopes and dreams, the way that couples do, and one of them says, “our child will score the winning shot”. The other one says, “our child will help save the environment.” On and on this goes until they are worn out.
The husband takes this stack of hopes and dreams that they have collected and puts them in a used cigar box. It is a big wad of papers. They stuff the box shut and walk out back to the garden where they both love to work. It is a big, luscious garden. The husband starts digging a hole in the middle of the night. Both of them are pretty weepy and they take this box full of their hopes and dreams, wetted by the tears of love that they both have for the family they long to start, and they bury it in the garden, cover it over with dirt. They stand there together, somewhat dazed, and hug each other in the night before they go to bed.
In the middle of the night, while the whole region is in the middle of a drought, a miraculous rain falls right on their property, drenching their garden in rain, soaking the garden in rain, until it is a mud slick. Out of the ground, comes this child Timothy. The parents, as you might imagine, are bowled over with that kind of surprise that we read about in the Bible. They not only can’t believe that a miracle has happened, they just can’t believe that such good fortune has happened to them. They have that slack jawed amazement that they have been so blessed as they slowly try to figure out what this means and how they should respond.
What is so moving is that this is the evolution that all parents go through. Perhaps we don’t actually write down our hopes and dreams, perhaps we don’t actually speak our hopes and dreams to each other, but at some point you both become bowled over with grace and surprise that something so good is happening to you, something so much bigger than just the two of you, something so filled with hope that you feel like a miracle is unfolding before your very eyes. You invest your hopes and dreams in the next generation.
And someone has already done that for you. I bet you have one of those pictures of your mother looking at you or your parents and grandparents looking at you as a baby, and they have that expression of deep joy. Before you were even old enough to sense it, the chances are good that a group of people were beaming their hopes and dreams upon you, being gracious to you that you might live.
And during your life there have been those people that have inspired you, that have filled your dreams with new hopes and promise.
I couldn’t help but think about that reading the sad post on Facebook by Antoine Leiris whose wife was killed last week in Paris. Antoine, who is left to raise his 17 month old child by himself, wrote an open post to the ISIS killers, “I will not give you the gift of hate” that you so desire. It is very unfortunate that this kind of maturity is becoming the hard lesson of our era but I couldn’t help but think about the deeper gift that he will model for his child, responding to the dashed dreams that violent tragedy visited upon him.
The last time I was in Jerusalem (in 2007) I sat in a room with 30 other people listening to an Israeli man and a young Palestinian woman tell their stories of tragedy and loss.
Aaron is a few years older than me. He had a son in the Israeli Defense force when they invaded Lebanon to stop rockets coming from Hezbollah. He is fit man, a typical ‘Sabra’ as they call them in Israel- Jews who are native to the region, who are tough on the outside and soft on the inside like a ‘cactus’. He looked like one of Norman Mailer’s cousins and no doubt won most of the bar fights he got into as a young man.
At late middle age, the lines in his face were worn by grief and he almost slumped his shoulders with the weight of the spiritual load he carried.
Aaron is married to liberal activist. She had actually been part of a group of Israeli mother’s that had protested the decision of the Israeli Defense Force to invade Lebanon.
Their son had been a model student, athletic, musical, gifted in Math. He was doing his ordinary service in the Israeli Defense Forces and was in the reserves when his unit was called up for the invasion.
He was a dutiful son and wrote his mother every week of active deployment. She wrote him about 3 letters back for every one he wrote, including clippings from the paper covering her groups protest. They had these clever little medals made that symbolized peace that they gave to supporters. She sent him one and asked him to wear it several times.
As you know, you can’t actually wear protest symbols in uniform. You can’t wear anything extra in uniform and these protest symbols weren’t real popular among the officers in the IDF, but her son put it on anyway. He endured some serious needling from his Commanding Officer but his CO let him wear it anyway, recognizing that this kid was just a good son.
The last day of his deployment, volunteers were conscripted from his unit to engage in an ordinary patrol. The kid is chosen at random. He could have asked not to serve and he would have been allowed not to serve but soldiers in the IDF don’t do that and neither did he.
They are on deployment. A sniper fires towards the group, probably off target but it hits the kid and he dies on the spot.
Aaron gets a frantic call from his wife in Haifa that the IDF is coming to their apartment. He gets home and no amount of consolation will quell her anxiety and distress. The doorbell rings, Aaron opens the door to the IDF officers, and his wife falls to the floor in convulsions of grief before they ever open their mouths.
She wants to see her son. She insists on seeing her son. They take her to the morgue and hand her a box with the clothes that he was wearing and inside the box is his bloody uniform with the medal that she gave him spattered in his own blood. She is just devastated.
Aaron can’t describe what came next, but he didn’t have to. You know that his wife just got into bed, stricken by overwhelming grief. Days led to weeks led to months- like one long nightmare.
Eventually Aaron gets to a day where he realizes that he has to willfully change the channel or this grief will drown the two of them. He finds this group of parents, half of them Israeli, half of them Palestinian, that share their stories of loss with each other.
Sitting next to him, a young Palestinian woman named Aisheh tells us about her brother Mahmoud. Bright, outgoing, an athlete from Nablus. She describes in bitter detail what it is like living in an occupied zone which is pretty much what several cities on the West Bank feel like for the past decade.
Business goes on as usual during the day but by dusk, Palestinians gather their children inside and they stay inside all night. That is because almost every night a group of Israeli soldiers crash into the streets with warrants, looking for Palestinian boys that have been involved in some incident from throwing rocks to (these days) stabbings and subterfuge of the occupation.
She describes what it is like to live in this all of the time, the helicopters overhead, the bright lights, soldiers that wreck your whole house and just leave, boys being wakened in the middle of the night, dragged off for unspecified detention and interrogation that sometimes lasts months.
She describes just how much she learned to hate Israeli’s as a child, as a woman, as a Palestinian. And how much she loved her older brother. He looked out for her, walked her to school, took care of her.
One day he is at home after school. There is a scene in the streets. The IDF are hassling some kids, accusing them of doing something. Her brother goes outside to see what is going on. He is wearing a red shirt. An Israeli sniper fires a round. Aisheh wonders if that red shirt wasn’t just easy to spot and focus on in the crowd. Who knows? The bullet pierces his heart and eventually he dies.
Aisheh is devastated. She can’t eat. She becomes more and more embittered towards Israeli’s. Again, this goes on for weeks that turn into months.
One day, she opens the door of the house where she lives with her other 5 brothers and sisters and an Orthodox Israeli man is standing there. He says he would understand if she shut the door in his face but he tells her about a group of people that get together to share the stories of their loss with the enemy. He tells her that the world is filled with unresolved grief and that this group wants to use the spiritual energy that comes from bitterness and disappointment to develop understanding and a way forward towards reconciliation. He leaves his card.
A few months goes by and they contact her again and she decides to come. At this point, Aaron was sitting there with his arms crossed, tough old Norman Mailer type, and he touches her on the arm and says “You were brave”.
He looks at her with such tenderness, such compassion, like she might be his niece. She smiles at him briefly and continues. It is a simple exchange, but a profound moment. It is what reconciliation looks like as a work in progress. They have been through this before. But there is something about each of them naming their pain, each of them receiving one another’s pain. Our world is indeed filled with unresolved grief. And you know that the only way we will get beyond the impasse of conflict, retribution and revenge is if we are human and humane enough to hear and receive each other’s grief and sorrow.
I’ve been to Israel three times, each a spiritual pilgrimage in search of something. You walk on two thousand year old cobblestones into candle lit churches with hundreds of other pilgrims gripping rosary beads, praying fervently in every tongue spoken on earth, past the merchant selling wooden crucifixes and postcards of Mary. You are not sure what you are really looking for but somehow you expect that you are going to find it. And on this trip, I got what I have been needing the most, a humane look at the mature face of reconciliation. We are not going to become instant ‘best bud’s’ with our enemies. We are not going to erase our differences. But we can transcend our normal estrangement through our mutual ability to share loss and receive comfort. We can be healed.
I felt like God had arranged my meeting with Aaron and Aieshah. They showed me where I was headed in the second half of my life, through loss towards reconciliation, beyond cynicism and bitterness towards a higher way, the spiritual path that Jesus taught us about. Sometimes I wished I’d had more direction like that from my own family but I didn’t get it. But I’m grateful that God has given me these examples that point me in the direction towards the genuine way to fulfillment, taking our frustrations, our losses and making of them a new spiritual fabric, made of a strength that you didn’t know that you had.
Who is it that has lifted your sights so that you could see where you are headed next? Who has inspired your better self and summoned the better character in you to emerge? These are the real heroes in our world. It is for these that we are most genuinely grateful. This Advent season, we are going to hang stars in our sanctuary to remember the lights that guide us and to beckon what we are capable of being.
I hope you can name them with your people over this Thanksgiving weekend. More than that, I hope you can summon your better self as you gather with your people and that you can set a more mature tone for the next generation to follow. I hope you can be aware of passing the blessing forward. You honor your guiding lights that way. Peace be with you as you go. Amen.