For many of us it continues to be a hard year. COVID-19 has marked us, and some will carry open wounds, while others the sores will be forever internal. Add to this the ongoing struggle for justice, where every life matters, especially those lives which for too long have borne pain and insult from those in “power”. We find ourselves torn in how we feel and act. There is sadness and sorrow all around, yet at the same time there is also joy and gladness in abundance. Can these two feelings coexist? Can we smile and feel glad when there is so much that is wrong, and when there is so much pain inflicted upon others, if not upon ourselves?
We often pepper preachers with the question “why all the suffering in the world if there is an all loving Creator God?” We question how the Old Testament character Job could keep on believing when so much of his life had turned to sorrow. We will wrestle with this central human consciousness as long as we live. What are we to do with all this suffering, and how are we to live?
Jack Gilbert, was born in Pittsburgh in the 1920s and worked in the steel mills before he went on to become a poet. He lived a large part of his life in Europe, often in obscurity. He died in 2012 at the age of 87. In the following poem he wrestles, as we do, with sorrow and joy. His poem takes us to an uncomfortable place, the tension between good and evil, joy and sadness. Take a moment and brace yourself for his words and his challenge. He offers a defense for “joy”! What does he say that jumps right out at you? Do you agree with him?
A Brief for the Defense by Jack Gilbert
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
How do you display this stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of the world? Gilbert writes “we must risk delight” – Do you? Can you?
In offering prayer this day
I am reminded of the writer of old,
in the book of Ecclesiastes,
A time to weep,
and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn,
and a time to dance,
a time to keep silence
and a time to speak.
help me to receive this one gift of life
and love it, and risk delight
amidst all the pain and sorrow which
is present around me.
Keep me human,
and in my humanity
grant me to know holiness,
as I seek to care
for neighbor and stranger. Amen.