“When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.”
Those are the opening lines of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a haunting but sparely written story about life in the aftermath of an apocalyptic event that leaves much of the world burned. Ash falls from the sky like snow and blots out the sun.
The Road is perhaps my favorite piece of fiction, and I’ve been thinking about and rereading passages from the book since the horrible firestorm that devastated parts of Sevier County on Monday.
On the surface it feels out of place for a book about an apocalypse to serve as the foundation for today’s homily. I had been pondering using Isaiah 43:2 for today’s scripture verse but thought the part about “walking through fire” might be too soon. Instead, God kept bringing The Road to mind, so I beg your indulgence and I pray it will all make sense in the end.
The protagonist in The Road is known only as The Man and he is running out of time to get his son, known only as The Boy, from what I’m fairly certain is the Knoxville area to the ocean.
Life, apocalypse or not, is better at the ocean.
As you might imagine, life after an apocalypse has its challenges. The Man and the Boy carry everything they own in a couple of backpacks and a rickety shopping cart. Food and clean water are scarce. It rains a lot. It’s cold. Most all of the other people we meet in the story are not very nice to be around. The Man and Boy encounter tribes of people intent on committing acts of violence against other survivors or of harvesting them for barbecuing at some future point.
Tribes in and of themselves are not bad, right? The Bible talks about the 12 tribes of Israel. We even get a little tribal in our own lives. Maybe we consider our co-workers a tribe. Or the friends with whom we have something in common, like going to church. Or, being a cancer survivor.
My tribe of cancer survivors got smaller by two this year. Belinda completed her life in January and Marie in March. Both fought ovarian cancer with courage and dignity, with lots and lots of laughter, and with loved ones walking beside them every step of the way.
I was in the middle of my own cancer journey when I met these two wonderful women, Belinda in an art class at the Cancer Support Community of East Tennessee and Marie in a cancer survivor support group.
Belinda was a spitfire, quick with a joke and she loved to bake. When she went into the hospital for a bowel blockage in the fall of 2015 she was told she was going to get a colostomy. Belinda called and asked me to come to her room because she wanted to know what to expect. Apparently you’re never too old for half a game of “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”
Marie was one of the strongest women I’ve ever met, whose laugh breathed new life into hearts tired from chemo and radiation treatment and who used curse words with the skill and dexterity of a chef dicing vegetables. When she announced that she was stopping treatment, I knew the only appropriate response was a string of expletives I can’t repeat from the pulpit.
I miss Belinda and Marie every day. Saying goodbye to them ranks among the most difficult things I have ever done in my life. There were tears. There were beautiful words of affirmation, gratitude and love. Ok, there may have been a few choice curse words. And there was hope, lots of it, for a future world without cancer.
Hope feels strange at the bedside of a dying friend, after the death of a spouse, when a relationship ends, or a catastrophic event or disease diagnosis changes your life forever.
Today marks the second Sunday of Advent, a church season that is all things expectant and hopeful. We know that Jesus is coming, both incarnate as the baby in the manger and resplendent as the Savior, bringing to his people a message of joy, peace, love and hope.
Yet Advent comes to an end, gloriously, on Christmas Day.
On the other hand, grief, loss and loneliness have no such endpoints. While there are people who think we should move past our feelings as quickly as possible because, you know, life goes on, our emotions are complicated. It’s a process, and it’s different for each of us.
In this season, the season of firsts without our loved ones, when grief weighs us down and joy feels like a lifeless planet in another solar system, I invite you to remember that underneath all of those heavy, heavy emotions, as small as it may be, there is a spark of hope.
Hope lives when the people of our state rally so hard behind the people devastated by wildfires that organizers run out storage space for all the donations. Hope lives in every safety pin that lets a marginalized person freaked out by the election result know there are safe people around them. Hope lives in all of us who dream of and work for a better world without poverty, disease, inequality and injustice.
Hope lives, even when we’re not ready to fan the flames. It will be there … waiting. In God’s timing, we will recognize it.
In 2 Corinthians: 8-9, Paul talks about this a bit. “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed.”
One commentary I read about these verses says three pairs of the phrases — perplexed, persecuted and cast down — refer to wrestling moves. The other, of being troubled on every side, is a reference to running. Being cast down is a final wrestling move. Imagine being physically thrown to the ground by a conqueror. But Paul says Jesus’s promise is that we may be cast down but we are not destroyed. We will face difficulties in this life, but we will rise again, able to overcome them.
That’s the hope. For hearts at peace in a new reality. For new dreams to replace the ones that are difficult to see. For a world better than the one we leave behind.
In McCarthy’s The Road, The Man doesn’t hope for himself. He knows his time on earth is coming to an end. He’s known it all along. That’s why he has to get The Boy to the ocean. The Boy is the hope a better world. The phrase McCarthy uses is “carrying the fire.”
You need to go on, he said. I can’t go with you. You need to keep going. You don’t know what might be down the road. We were always lucky. You’ll be lucky again. You’ll see. Just go. It’s all right.
It’s all right. This has been a long time coming. Now it’s here. Keep going south. Do everything the way we did it.
You’re going to be okay, Papa. You have to.
No, I’m not. Keep the gun with you at all times. You need to find the good guys but you can’t take any chances. No chances. Do you hear?
I want to be with you.
You can’t. You have to carry the fire.
I don’t know how to.
Yes you do.
Is it real? The fire?
Yes it is.
Where is it? I don’t know where it is.
Yes you do. It’s inside you. It was always there. I can see it.
May we always see the hope, even if we can’t feel it ourselves right now. It is there. Always.
PHOTO CREDIT: www.annvoskamp.com