From All Things New
It takes no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to have hope.
(Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Celebrating Life)
The sunrise this morning was filled with such promise.
I was standing at the window in the early hours, praying, watching the dawn slowly bathe the hills in a golden light. The forest was utterly still, almost timeless. Each leaf was washed with a warm yellow glow, like candlelight; it covered the whole mountainside. Something about the bright, gentle beauty illuminating an entire forest made me feel that everything is going to be okay.
It is autumn now, and normally I’m not particularly happy about that. I don’t usually like the coming of fall because I know the long winter will soon descend with more darkness than light. The world will go into gray tones for too long. But this year, I’m relieved to see the leaves turning pumpkin colors, the grasses fading into brown – Earth shedding her beauty as she goes into hibernation. Because I just want this year to be over.
January began with a suicide in our extended family; I was the one to receive the phone call. I had to find my middle son and tell him his wife’s dear brother took his tormented life. Then the two of us had to find her and break the news that would break her heart. Those were awful days.
A reprieve from the grief seemed to come a few months later, when both my oldest son and his wife and my grieving son and daughter-in-law came over one evening to tell Stasi and me we were going to become grandparents. Not just once, but twice, at the same time – both couples were expecting. They had T-shirts made for us; the shared happiness was simply wonderful. We talked about the cousins growing up together, little cowboys running around Gramma and Poppy’s house bringing joy and lightheartedness. Maybe happiness gets the final word.
Then our oldest and his beloved wife went through a horrible, brutal miscarriage. I buried my first grandson on the mountain behind our home. We stood as a family around the tiny grave while his devastated mother spoke these words: “Patrick, the day we learned we were pregnant with you was the best day of our lives. And the day we lost you was the worst.” Watching my children grieve is the worst thing I’ve gone through as a father.
But then promise rose again a few months later, as our attention was mercifully turned to the wedding of our youngest son. I love weddings; I love the beauty, the romance, all the fairy-tale symbolism. I love wedding receptions. Theirs was held outdoors under the stars of a summer night, with hanging lights and laughter and dancing. It seemed to whisper again that all will be well. There is something winsome and enchanting in the best wedding parties, something that speaks to the deepest longing in our hearts. No one wanted to leave.
We were all enjoying the afterglow the next morning when my phone rang. Our dear friend Craig, whom we’ve known for almost forty years, was calling to tell us his cancer had taken a terrible turn. A month earlier he was almost in remission; now he would die within six weeks. I hung up and threw my cell phone as far as I could. This would be the second time in my life I would lose my dearest, closest friend.
And that is why I am fine with the coming of fall, and the passing of this year.
Can we just be honest? Life is brutal.
There is just enough goodness to rouse our hearts with expectation, and plenty enough sadness to cut us back down. When the cutting down exceeds the rising up, you wonder if you shouldn’t just stay down. “I wept when I was borne,” wrote the Anglican poet George Herbert, “and every day shewes why.” Yes, life can also be beautiful. I am a lover of all the beautiful things in life. But may I point out that the movie by that name – Life Is Beautiful – takes place in a Nazi concentration camp. The story is precious in the way the father loves and protects his little boy from the ghoulish realities all around. But the father is killed at the end. Many, many people die horrible deaths at the end.
We need more than a silver-lining outlook on life. Much, much more. We need an unbreakable, unquenchable hope.
As I stood at the window for my morning vigil, the amber light of dawn was turning every fall color an even richer hue. It looked like something from a painting – transcendent, mythic. And for a moment it all felt brimming with promise. You’ve probably felt that promise too, as you stood in some favorite spot, watching the beauty of the rolling waves, marveling over spring flowers in the desert, walking the streets of Paris at night, sitting in your garden with a cup of coffee. Something keeps whispering to us through the beauty we love.
“Many things begin with seeing in this world of ours,” wrote British artist Lilias Trotter. “There lies before us a beautiful, possible life.”
I savor those moments; they are among my most treasured memories. But whatever it is that speaks such promise, it seems to slip through our fingers every time we reach for it. I know that simply wanting this year to be over isn’t the answer because who really knows what next year will bring? “Each day has enough trouble of its own,” said the most compassionate man ever.