< May 10, 2020 >

Commentary on John 14:1-14

 

[This commentary is co-authored with Dr. Erin Raffety.1]

“Do not let your hearts be troubled.”

These farewell words from Jesus to his disciples do not feel relevant to me as I sit in my New Jersey apartment during COVID-19. Perhaps for some, the promise of a place that Jesus has prepared for them brings peace or hope, but I resonate more with the reaction of Thomas: “We don’t know where you’re going; how can we know the way?” (verse 5)

I cannot pretend to understand where God is in the midst of a global crisis. We preachers often share words of affirmation and assurance from a place of strength. We stand behind sturdy pulpits and lecterns, in our Sunday best—well-fed, (sometimes) well-rested, and we project a sense of control as we offer a semblance of comfort, of security. In some ways, I’m thankful that the current circumstances won’t allow me to take that approach to this text at this moment in history. My heart is troubled, but I find consolation in the context of these words in the Fourth Gospel, which Jesus spoke as he prepared for his own death with full knowledge that his disciples would soon be overcome with grief.

There’s a hint that Jesus’ words weren’t meant to offer physical security. As Jaime Clark-Soles reminds us, the promised “dwelling places” (monai) are linked grammatically to the Johannine concept of “abiding” (meno). The dwelling places are the noun form of the verb that Jesus uses just a chapter later, when he tells the disciples, “Abide in me.”2 The charge to abide and dwell with God strikes me as an invitation to hear and share a comforting word—not from a place of security or power, but from a place of vulnerability. More than a charge to “get it together” and put on a brave face, there’s a permission that is given, to admit that we cannot control the things that trouble us, to seek comfort without a false sense of security.

At home in grief and love

As I prepared this commentary, I had a conversation with a good friend and seminarian, Alisa Unell, whose life experience includes chronic illness. She reminded me, so graciously, that those who identify as able-bodied may not have developed the inner resources to deal with the constant stress and health-related fear that inundates us all during this crisis. I realized as we talked that those whose lives are affected by illness or disability even outside of COVID-19 have a wealth of resources to share.

With this in mind, I have included a message from Dr. Erin Raffety, a good friend who recently shared some of the resources she’s developed, particularly in her experiences as a pastor and a parent to a child with multiple disabilities and a terminal illness.3

I've never been able to save my daughter, Lucia. It's a truth I've had to come to grips with. When you live at the edge of your limits as a mother and a person, you get kind of comfortable there, you make a home and a peace among those unanswerable whys. You realize to ask them is futile, faithless, distracting, daunting. The control that you don't have was never an idol to be worshiped, but rather a tyrannical robber of joy.

There is truth and wisdom in many of these positions. We can't save ourselves. We can't prevent this virus. If we could, we would have done it by now. Instead, our lives are shot through with daily reminders of our vulnerability. Our naivete is gone.

A few months ago, over Lucia’s birthday, I flew unexpectedly to Wisconsin for a funeral of a dear family friend. Funerals are not really for the dying. They’re for the living to do the work of grieving so they can gather the resources to go on living. That weekend, we were blessed to be together and reflect upon the life of a beautiful, faithful woman. “Your mother was so good at loving people,” I said to my friend.

And is there really anything else? I began to wonder.

Grief and love are the twin conditions in which we’ve had to make our home in these coronavirus days. To acknowledge the former, in light of isolation, suspended gatherings, especially funerals interrupted, doesn’t always seem to help. In other words, it doesn’t seem to help to know what you're going through is grief these days, when it just seems like it's all grief on top of grief.

Grief all the way down.

Indeed, I worry increasingly that our vigilance around social distancing, self-protection, and isolation in the face of fear so easily turns from care to coercion. Human beings have always clung to a logic around life and death that privileges health and ability, because it makes most of us feel better than facing the unknowns of death that will never be controlled.

But even that logic won’t really save us. And it definitely won’t save us from pain or from grief. The paradoxical antidote, though, is to be like my mother’s friend, Sharman—in the face of life’s cruelty, to be ridiculously committed to loving people. The grief is that love never rescues anyone from death, of course, but it covers them, it nurtures them, it consumes them in a way that always and does matter completely.

My husband and I don’t always talk about how it feels to live with the specter of death at our door. It freaks people out to talk about death, let alone the impending death of a child. But we find it important and comforting to be honest and open about the unknowns.

I don’t want to live with a false security that my child will always be there. Instead, with the full knowledge of life’s impermanency, we can choose to love even more fiercely, generously, lavishly.

For many people, and importantly, the living and loving to be done in these days includes showing up as scientists, doctors, nurses, and emergency responders to those who are suffering and dying. But for the rest of us, there will be the equally hard and important work of loving fiercely, praying, honoring, and naming the dead, and not shying away from grief and fear but embracing them and their pain, in patience and hope that love will survive.

Our naivete may be gone, grief and death may be more and more evident these days, but perhaps there is salvation to be found. While we can’t save ourselves, may we be reminded that the God who saves has been unleashed in the world as love incarnate.

Love will conquer death. Love will find a way.

Concluding questions

  • How can you lean into vulnerability as you preach this text?
  • Where will you create space for yourself and those in your community to grieve the things we cannot control?
  • When fear and pain rear their heads, will you embrace them?
  • Will you find a place to dwell in grief and love?

This is true hope, even when our hearts are troubled.


Notes:

  1. Erin Raffety is the author of numerous articles, including, “Lonely Joy: How Families with Nonverbal Children with Disabilities Communicate, Collaborate, and Resist in a World that Values Words,” Journal of Pastoral Theology 29 (2019): 101-115. She is currently writing a book on congregational ministry and leadership with people with disabilities. Erin is a lecturer in youth, church, and culture in the area of education formation in the Department of Practical Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. She earned her M.Div. from Princeton Seminary and her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from Princeton University. Her interests include culture, family, youth, disability studies, and ethnography, and her courses at Princeton Seminary focus on practical and ethnographic approaches to ministry with congregations and marginal populations.

  2. Jaime Clark-Soles. Reading John for Dear Life: A Spiritual Walk with the Fourth Gospel. (Louisville: KY: Westminster John Knox, 2016), 92.

  3. Quoting from a May 2020 social media post by Erin Raffety.