In the tiny town where my dad had his last pastorate, my parents had Mrs. Thompson as their next-door neighbor. One civic contribution Mrs. Thompson made without fail was to circulate in the neighborhood whenever anyone died in the community.
She would knock on every door and ask a dollar contribution from each household. She would put the cash all together and present it to the family of the deceased. She would not have said so, but what she was doing was to help the community grieve the death and signal solidarity with the grieving family. She had this singular skill to abet the grieving process of the community.
Mrs. Thompson may not have known it, but in doing this work she was effectively serving in the wake of Jeremiah.
In his time of crisis, the prophet saw ahead of time that his beloved Jerusalem was on a path to death, destruction, and loss. He could, in his vivid imagination, anticipate the number of those who might perish being too numerous to even bury. Today some might describe such tremendous loss of life by the number of “body bags.” Yet we know they are not just “body bags;” they are the bodies of real people who have names, lives, and families:
They will bury in Topheth until there is no more room. The corpses of this people will be food for the birds of the air and for the animals of the earth; and no one will frighten them away (7:32-33).
To further extend his anticipation of the coming death of the city, Jeremiah issues a call to mobilize the women in society who were, like Mrs. Thompsons, skilled at grief work:
Thus says the Lord of hosts:
Consider, and call for the mourning women [along with Mrs. Thompson] to come;
send for the skilled women to come;
let them quickly raise a dirge over us,
so that our eyes may run down with tears,
and our eyelids flow with water.
For a sound of wailing is heard from Zion:
“How we are ruined!
We are utterly shamed,
because we have left the land,
because they have cast down our dwelling” (9:17-19).
The prophet can line out with specificity the grief that is to come! He recognized that public grief requires certain skills and sensibility.
And then he issues an instruction to the skilled women; he tells them why they must get to their grief work that is most urgent:
Hear, O women the word of the Lord,
and let your ears receive the word of his mouth;
teach your daughters a dirge,
and each to her neighbor a lament.
“Death has come up into your windows,
it has entered your palaces,
to cut off the children from the streets
and the young men from the squares.”
Speak! Thus says the Lord:
“Human corpses shall fall
like dung on the open field,
like sheaves behind the reaper,
and no one shall gather them” (9:20-22).
He gives these skilled women specific lines that they are to reiterate that voice the great ordeal of loss.
Of course this is, for the prophet, all theater ahead of historical reality. As he shares these words, there is as yet no need for the women and not yet a crisis of death. He wants his listeners to anticipate with him and so to change.
But his rhetoric is as though the die is already cast and the outcome is certain. Indeed by verse 21 in the lines the women are to speak, he articulates death as a personal agent that forces a way into houses, even into the royal palace with its elaborate security system. No one gets a pass on the consequences of choices made! As with us, no one gets a pass on the force of death!
Since some in our society seem to be in denial (in the rush to reopen without thoughtful planning and preparation in places where the virus is still on the upswing), it falls to the church and its good companions to do the grief work of compassion and empathy. Such work is to assure that the reality of death is fully acknowledged and that the dead among us are not easily written off and forgotten.
That grief work requires skilled folk; the grief should be long, loud, and public.
So here is a practical suggestion in order that each victim of the virus should be properly remembered and treasured as more than a passing statistic. Imagine that a big network of churches (a denomination? Presbyterians? Methodists? Lutherans?) assembles a roster of all the dead, parceling out their names and having all of their names read out in the midst of a congregation in short period of time. It might be in a regular liturgy. It might be in a special community service with appropriate dirge-like music and readings. We may pray that “light perpetual” should shine upon them.
In the meantime, however, we may well pause to ponder the loss, to identify with grieving families and communities and to consider how, in life and in death, we belong to each other and with each other, and for each other in profound ways. We may indeed imagine the dead praying and singing, “Remember me, when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Mrs. Thompson and her skilled companions will cause us to pause and remember, because any loss is a loss to us all.
When the church does the work of grieving over our many deaths, it will have done part of our grief work. I suggest, however, that it is only part of our grief work. Beyond a focus on our treasured dead, we have much grieving to do for a world that is lost to us beyond recognition. When we engage in deep honesty we know better about our great loss than the eager unplanned reopening suggests in certain places.
We know the old world of perceived “safe” American exceptionalism is over. We know the long-standing advantage of white heterosexual males is over. We know the glory days of the institutional church are long gone. We know there is no going back to what some might have thought were the “good old days.”
We are called now, I suggest, to face the great displacement of what has become an accustomed institutional life for some. We may from that discernment echo the words that Jeremiah hears on the hearts of his contemporaries, for his words ring true for us now:
How we are ruined!
We are utterly ashamed (9:19).
First there is the honoring of our dead who have not yet been acknowledged or honored. Second there is the deeper relinquishment of our old world. Some yearn for an old normal, to recover and “reopen” when the familiar old will be all new for us.
Such restoration as real newness, however, requires deep relinquishment for what has failed before we can receive any newness that will let us begin again. Our honest exile precedes our joyous homecoming. It is as Friday must come before Sunday. So our grief must precede any serious newness. When we do that hard work, the church will not be the happiest place in town. But it might be the most honest place in town because the truth of our loss will make us free for the gifts of newness that God will give us.
It is a happenstance of the editorial process that after Jeremiah’s dirge in 9:17-23 the next utterance of Jeremiah is an invitation to Israel to choose differently for its future (9:23-24). It is easy to conclude that, not unlike old Jerusalem, we have been “boasting” of the wrong things much too proud of our wisdom, wealth, and might:
the wisdom of technology,
the might of our unrivaled military,
the wealth of our consumer economy.
And now, avers the pot amid the virus, we may choose differently. We may notice that with altered priorities, there are other things about which to boast. We may choose that in which God delights, ready to boast of steadfast love, justice, and righteousness:
steadfast love as solidarity with the purposes of God,
justice as the sharing of resources, and
righteousness as investing in communal wellbeing.
This radical either/or is before us. We will do our choosing not in some big dramatic act, but in the daily grind of policy and practice. The matrix of grief fostered by the skillful women like Mrs. Thompson is an opportunity to think again, to see more clearly and to decide more boldly about the future that will not be a replay of the past.
If we yield to the temptation of denial — to deny the great swath of death among us and to deny the loss of our old world — we will choose against the newness of God. It begins in solidarity that clusters around the loss we all share that we dare not deny. The church is an arena for such honest, generative work of solidarity.
Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.
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