O God, why dost thou cast us off forever? Why does thy anger smoke against the sheep of thy pasture? . . . Thy foes have roared in the midst of thy holy place . . . they hacked the wooden trellis with axes. They set the sanctuary on fire; to the ground they desecrated the dwelling place of thy name . . . We do not see our signs; there is no longer any prophet, and there is none among us who knows how long . . . Yet God my King is from old, working salvation in the midst of the earth . . . thine is the day, thine also is the night. –Psalm 74:1-16
I love stories. Seems I learn best that way. Perhaps it’s because great storytellers capture images and moments in time that teach us the whole lesson at once. Frederick Buechner is one of those voices. In the middle of a sermon called “Dereliction”, he pauses to tell this story:
There is a restaurant in a city somewhere, a sort of quick-lunch place with no tablecloths on the table, just the ketchup and mustard jars on the bare wood. It seems to be raining outside. An elderly man with a raincoat and umbrella has turned at the door. Another man glances up as he sits there smoking a cigar over the remains of his coffee. Two teenagers sit at the table, one of them with a cigarette in his mouth. They are all looking at the same thing, which is an old woman and a small boy who are sharing a table with the teenagers. They are saying grace. The people watching them watch with dazed fascination. The small boy’s ears stick out from his head like the handles of a jug. The old woman’s eyes are closed, her hair untidy under a hat that has seen better days. The people are watching something that you feel they may have been part of once but are part of no longer. Through the plate-glass window and the rain, the city looks dim, monotonous, industrial. The old woman and the boy are saying grace there, and for a moment the silence in the place is fathomless. The watchers are watching something that they’ve all but forgotten and will probably forget again as soon as the moment passes . . . The old woman and the boy in their old-fashioned clothes, praying their old-fashioned prayer, are leftovers from a day that has long since ceased to be. It is not fashionable to praise Norman Rockwell over-much, that old master of nostalgia and American corn, but we have to praise him at least for this most haunting and maybe our most enduring of his Saturday Evening Post covers which touches on something that I think touches us all. It was some thirty years ago that he painted it, but the likeness remains fresh and true to this day, and of course it is a likeness of us and of a world not unlike the one the Seventy-fourth Psalm describes. —from Chapter 12 “Dereliction,” A Room Called Remember
Buechner wrote this serman in 1981. I wonder, at first, about his title, “Dereliction,” then see that it encapsulates the poet’s lament: “O God, why dost thou cast us off forever?” An intentional abandonment. But might he also have chosen it for its connotations? For the pictures it conjures up? “We have seen enough of the day to know that it is night.” The lookers-on in Rockwell’s painting seem wholesome compared with the darkness of our world today.
Another storyteller comes to mind . . .
Then I crossed the empty street And caught the Sunday smell of someone fryin' chicken And it took me back to somethin' That I'd lost somehow, somewhere along the way On the Sunday morning sidewalk Wishing, Lord, that I was stoned 'Cause there's something in a Sunday Makes a body feel alone There ain't nothin' short of dyin' Half as lonesome as the sound On the sleepin' city sidewalks Sunday mornin' comin' down In the park I saw a daddy With a laughin' little girl who he was swingin' And I stopped beside a Sunday school Listened to the song they were singin' Then I headed back for home And somewhere far away a lonesome bell was ringin' And it echoed through the canyons Like the disappearing dreams of yesterday . . . Kris Kristofferson—“Sunday Morning Comin’ Down,” 1970
We have a lot to say about what is wrong with our world. A lot of right answers and instructions. But I wonder if we are a warm light in the darkness . . . those two heads bowed in a city cafe, the smell of fried chicken on the sidewalk, a Sunday School song out the window, a bell echoing . . . a story that makes someone long for something they once knew or have never known.
I won’t attempt to summarize Buechner’s sermon here, but I leave you with just a bit of his conclusion and his implicit challenge.
There is nothing the world can’t destroy if it puts its mind to it, including the world itself. The Temple of Solomon was destroyed as much by the Jews within as by the Babylonians without. And the church as the body of Christ is destroyed not just from without by a world that sees it as a dead-end street but by people like you and me who destroy it from within by our deadness and staleness, our failure to be brave, to be human, to take chances; by the sterility and irreverence and superficiality, and faddishness of so much of our church business and by our tragic-comic failure to move around in the world as though being a Christian makes not just a nominal difference but all the difference in the world . . .
January 2021—It was just before dinner last night when he walked in our door. I heard the door open and my husband’s voice saying, “Well look who . . .” I don’t hear anything else and come from the kitchen to see this tall man bending down in a hug, arms wrapped around Rex holding him tight and tighter, not letting go. Neither of them lets go as the cold air floods the entryway and we all stand watching. Same face, though lined and brown from years on the fishing boats in his ocean, tears in his eyes. It has been twenty years since we’ve seen this man who used to be a teenager at our table. He pulls back, still holding my husband’s shoulders and looks long at his face, smiling that big old smile and blinking, then pulling him in again. Rex is 78, I’m 72. Twenty years is a long time at our age. He takes it all in, but all I see in his face is joy.
Then he sees me and enfolds me in the same wide hug, rocking back and forth for the longest time. Finally, he tries to speak. I’m expecting his familiar, “Your hair looks lovely tonight, Mrs. Jackson” with that smile. To which I would reply, “Thank you, Eddie,” referencing Eddie Haskell of Leave It to Beaver. A charmer. It was our love language. “I know you are a scoundrel and a flatterer, but I love you anyway.” But all he can say is “Ohhhh…” He’s come to surprise his friend on his 46th Birthday. He’s spent the day making dinner that he now runs to the car to carry in. Carne Asada, Pollo Asado, pico, guacamole. There are ten of us. So much food. So much love. He surprised our son late last night at his door. We knew he was coming.
This morning I read Psalm 18, stopped by these verses. “You have also given me the shield of Your salvation; your right hand has held me up, your gentleness has made me great. You enlarged my path under me, so my feet did not slip.” I think of him again as I read these verses . . . and my boy, his good friend, the differences in these two men twenty years later. My heart nearly breaks.
Another image comes back to me . . . our circle in the kitchen last night before the meal, holding hands, blessing the food and the hands that prepared it, thanking God for bringing this adopted son home. Then we are lining up at the stove with our plates, but he has disappeared. I find him trying to gather himself, wiping his eyes in the shadow of the entryway. He doesn’t know I see him.
Yet God my King is from old, working salvation in the midst of the earth . . . thine is the day, thine also is the night. –Psalm 74:16
Thine also is the night.