by Daniel Harrell
The Lenten season thus far has provided a disproportionate share of funerals for Colonial Church. We’ve mourned the death of a charter member, a passionate and creative businessman, and a young child. Even in the most merciful scenarios, death remains an unwelcomed intruder. Presiding over my grandfather’s recent funeral—his was a timely but nevertheless sudden passing—I reminded those gathered how easy it is to believe that we are in control of our lives. We believe it so strongly at times that when something bad happens, we describe our reaction to it as losing control. That’s what you’ll say, “I’ve lost control.” That’s what you think, but it’s not true. You didn’t lose control. What you lost was the illusion that you ever had control in the first place.
I was saddened to read of another death this past week, a member from my previous church named Bill. A devout Christian, Bill held an endowed professorship at Harvard Law School. He’d endured chronic pain over the past ten years following an innocuous fixing of a flat tire. Two operations, dozens of injections, physical therapy, psychotherapy, and thousands of pills later, his back and right leg hurt every waking moment. Bill described how “Living with chronic pain is like having an alarm clock taped to your ear with the volume turned up—and you can’t turn it down.” Then came the cancer. Doctors found a large tumor in his colon; and then tumors in both lungs.
At the time he wrote, “Cancer will very probably kill me within the next two years. I’m 50 years old. … And yet the question we are most prone to ask when hardship strikes—the question we want to ask—why me?—makes no sense. That question presupposes that pain, disease, and death are distributed according to moral merit. They aren’t. We live in a world in which innocent children starve while moral monsters prosper. We may see justice in the next life, but we see little of it in this one.” Not words you want to hear from a law professor.
Some of the little justice we do see shows up here in 1 Samuel 4 on this dreary second Sunday in Lent. I’m devoting these Lenten weeks to a disturbing narrative that runs from here through 1 Samuel 6. The dark undercurrent through this passage is the sin of two priests: Hophni and Phinehas, the sons of Eli. Called to mediate for the Lord on earth, they abused their calling—financially embezzling sanctuary offerings and sexually abusing sanctuary servants. Bad enough when anybody steals and exploits; worse they did it as priests of God. Eli sternly rebuked his sons, but they would not listen. Therefore the Lord pronounced judgment: both of them would die on the same day.
As for the congregation of Israel, their sin was a willingness to take God for granted; to treat him as one whose power they could control. Their reasoning had to do with their possession of the Ark of the Covenant, the visible symbol of God’s tangible and abiding presence. Not to be confused with Noah’s Ark, the Ark of the Covenant was as a gold-covered box, carried by poles containing the Ten Commandments inside, the law for living a righteous life. Atop the box sat the mercy seat, the symbolic judgment throne of the Lord modeled after his throne in heaven. Throughout its earthly sojourn; wherever the Ark was present, God was present too.
The test came on the heels of a skirmish with the Philistines—the avowed enemy of Israel and paradigm of all things profane. The Philistines beat the Israelites, which wasn’t supposed to happen, causing the elders to ask “where was God?” It’s a question that ranks right up there with “why me?” Only here the answer was easier. Ergo the solution: bring out the Ark of the Covenant from Shiloh, the sanctuary of Israel during the time of the Judges. Force God onto the battlefield and guarantee victory. But can the Lord be manipulated? Can his hand be forced? Would parading the Ark in battle compensate for the failure to obey the ethical commandments contained inside? This last question was especially applicable given that the Ark was accompanied by Hophni and Phinehas, the two wicked priests. This could not be good. And it wasn’t. The battlefield losses with the Ark present dwarfed those suffered during God’s alleged absence. 30,000 soldiers were killed including Hophni and Phinehas. The brothers’ demise came as no surprise; they received their just desserts. But what of the 30,000 others? The Ark was there. But where was God?
There are those who suggest that Israel’s manipulation of the Ark compelled God to remove his glory. But such separation of Ark from aura would have proved a breach of promise. God was definitely there alright—just not in the way that Israel wanted. God suffered defeat alongside his people. But how was that possible? God never loses.
This passage invites us to consider categories of loss. The deaths of Hophni and Phinehas and the Israelite army both fall into categories of explicable loss; loss that makes sense, loss that can be accepted, loss where the fault is plain. Hophni and Phinehas reap what they sow; they receive the just desserts for their blatant disregard of God’s law and their refusal to repent. As for the Israelite army, their defeat can be attributed to Israel’s national arrogance, but it also came on account of the Philistines’ brutality. We live in a world where innocent children starve while moral monsters prosper—no matter the number of UN resolutions. In this seemingly arbitrary world we inhabit, the bad guys sometimes win.
Up to this point in 1 Samuel 4, the losses have all been explicable. Not until we finally get to our passage for today do we confront an entirely different category of loss; a category that supersedes guilt and blame and defies explanation. We read, “The ark of God,” has been captured.” How do you explain the defeat of God?
A Benjamite soldier escaped the battlefield slaughter and ran 20 miles uphill to Shiloh. He blew right past Eli seated by the road watching, we’re told, a surprising word choice given that Eli was blind. We wonder whether the juxtaposition alludes to Israel’s endemic spiritual blindness; seeing but never perceiving. Yet Eli does perceive that something was desperately amiss. The narrator reports that “his heart trembled for the Ark of God,” another surprising word choice given that the Ark was the source of Israel’s courage. It is because the Ark was so deemed that the Benjamite’s report incited such a riotous, citywide lament.
Last Sunday night we had the congregation write on note cards what it was they wanted God to do for them. These were ceremoniously placed on a black draped altar that at the end of the service was revealed to be a shredder. Our wants were then ceremoniously shredded to signify the reality that what at times God gives what nobody wants.
Eli, expecting the worst, inquired about the uproar. The Benjamite unfurled his increasingly dreadful news: “Israel routed, your sons dead, the ark of God captured.” Notably, it was the mention of the Ark’s capture that knocked Eli back off his chair and broke his neck. Expecting the worst is one thing. Experiencing it is often more than we can handle; especially when the worst is even worse than we thought. Eli knew his sons were goners, but no way would he have thought God to be gone too. The news reached Eli’s daughter-in-law, pregnant with her dead husband Phineahas’ child. Yet it was not the news of her husband’s demise but mention of the Ark’s capture that induced her into early and deadly labor. With her dying lips she named her newborn, orphaned son Ichabod, which meant “no glory.”
It’s still customary in some cultures for parents to name their children names like “no glory,” or “ugly” or “loser” as a way of discouraging evil spirits from taking them by malaria or some other disease. I met a Mozambican pastor whose name, Campama, literally meant “no good.” However the name of Ichabod was not given to ward off loss, but because of loss. She named the child Ichabod, saying, “‘The glory has departed from Israel!’ for the ark of God had been captured.” God was defeated. How do you explain it? You can’t. Such loss is inexplicable.
Many inquired about the age of my grandfather when he died—89. I know for some this was sort of like when we read the obituaries and checking the ages there. We all get to a point in our lives when we need to do the math. 89 is a good, long life. There’s genuine comfort in that. But what comfort is there for the non-smoking law professor who contracts lung cancer at 50, or for the playful child’s paralysis, or the athletic swimmer’s drowning, the layoff just days short of vesting, or the spouse’s affair out of nowhere? How do you explain the missionaries to Mozambique whose daughter dies of malaria? Or the relief workers whose plane crashes as they fly to assist others. Asking “why me?” may make no sense, but at least asking “why God” leaves you one in whom to possibly hope for an explanation; one from whom there may yet be possible comfort; a God toward whom you can at least shake your fist and shed your tears.
But what do you do when God has departed? When God is defeated? All you’re left with then is a funeral service where the minister can only shrug his shoulders and wish you luck. All you’re left with is a doctor who reads the x-rays and acknowledges how that’s just what genes and viruses do. All you’re left with is the fact that tectonic plates shift, that planes and cars malfunction, that businesses have to cut costs, and that people fall out of love. It’s a category of loss that makes no sense. It is unbearable loss that we must nevertheless bear because the Bible is unmistakably clear. God’s glory has departed. The Ark of God has been captured. God has been defeated. Crucified, dead and buried.
And yet that last phrase, the centerpiece of the Apostle’s Creed, does not leave us with the same despair. Inexplicably, it is on the cross of Jesus that we experience true grace. It is in God’s own unbearable loss that our unbearable losses become bearable. On the cross of Jesus, all categories of loss get confronted.
On the cross, God’s loss confronts that category of loss for which we alone are to blame. The cross does the work of atonement. St. Peter declared that “Christ died for sins, once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” Through Christ, God reconciled to himself all things, Paul added, “making peace by the blood of his cross.”
On the cross, God’s loss also confronts that category of loss we suffer due to the evil of others. Here the cross does the work of poetic justice. As will be the case with the Philistines, the avowed enemies of Jesus were certain they had won; only to experience in time the humiliation of their own delusion. By the cross, Paul wrote, God “disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in Christ.” “When Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins,” wrote the author of Hebrews, “he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting for that time when his enemies should be his footstool”—when the devil himself, Revelation declares, will be hurled into a lake of fire and tormented forever.
And finally, on the cross, God’s loss confronts categorical, catastrophic loss; that loss for which there is no blame to assign, no explanation to understand, no sense to make. God’s loss occurs in solidarity with our own. On the cross, Jesus joined our plight; “he bore our grief and carried our sorrow,” Isaiah said. Through the cross we have a God who shares our affliction, exudes compassion, a God who by His own suffering never leaves nor forsakes us in ours. Experiencing this first hand, Bill, the law professor, wrote how “Jesus’ life and death change the character of suffering, giving it dignity and weight and even, sometimes, a measure of beauty. Cancer and chronic pain remain ugly things, but the enterprise of living with them is not an ugly thing.”
Yet most significantly, even beyond empathy and solidarity, God’s loss redeems our losses. “We may be hard pressed from every side,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “but we are not crushed. We may be at a loss, but we are not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”
We can never recover from catastrophic loss—if by recover we mean return to the way things were before. Nor can we forget the losses we suffer. To try is both unrealistic and potentially harmful. Redemption is not about recovery or forgetting. To be redeemed is to be changed. Unlike anything else, redeemable loss has the capacity to enlarge us and to deepen us. And yet to experience this change, we must let it to happen. As the cross of Jesus teaches us, we must sit with our darkness rather than try to outrun it. We must yield to our loss in order for it to transform us. But rather than passing through it in order to emerge a whole person on the other side, to yield to loss is to absorb it into your soul—like the dirt that absorbs death and decay—and from that rich soil to then emerge as new person, a new creation. Somehow deeper. Somehow fuller. Somehow larger. Somehow like Christ, because of the cross.
Bill recognized this as “our God’s trademark. Down to go up, life from death, beauty from ugliness: the pattern is everywhere. That familiar pattern is also a great gift to those who suffer loss—the loss may remain, but good will come from it, and the good will be larger than the suffering it redeems. Our pain is not empty; we do not suffer in vain. When life strikes hard blows, what we do has value. Our God sees it” and remembers. And we remember too. Perhaps in the end this is what makes memory sacred. Frederick Buechner once observed that in dissolving the distinction between past, present and future, memory enables us at some level, in our loss, to inhabit the same eternity where the Lord himself dwells. It is in God’s own unbearable loss that our unbearable losses become bearable.