I opened my mouth, and the words would not come.
Have you ever found yourself without words? A friend’s diagnosis, a loved one’s bad news, an accident or a loss. You open your mouth, but the words just won’t come. Or if they do come, they don’t reach very far. You’re left speechless; nothing to say.
I guess we all know this silence, in this world that confronts us all with our share of unspeakable moments.
How many sympathy notes have ended up in the recycling bin next to my desk? I start to write, and somewhere mid-sentence I trail off into platitudes or preacher talk and the words just drop off the page. I have to shake the pen as even the ink seems to resist being wasted on cliché.
When we do form words with our lips or bring them to the page, we fear saying or writing the wrong thing, failing to validate the pain and suffering or magnitude of a situation with something that feels simplistic or dismissive or trite.
I’ll never forget the pain expressed by an older gentleman in my church in Nashville. He was a big, burly, and proudly irreverent man who in his 70s could still remember the words of a hospital chaplain 40 years earlier, when his daughter was in critical condition. The chaplain came to the room and said something about heaven sometimes needing angels and a word about the will of God – words that felt so out of place that they caused this nervous young father to erupt and pin the chaplain to the wall in anger, daring him to say anything like that again.
Well, I don’t want to be pinned. I don’t want to say the wrong thing. The empty thing. It’s much easier – much safer, it turns out – to say nothing.
Maybe that’s why the phrase “No Words,” has so much contemporary usage, especially on social media. “No words” we write or hashtag in the midst of the latest news. No words in the face of injustice. No words when we’re appalled at violent action or violent speech. No words for the scope of suffering from our neighbors globally and here in our own state amidst disaster and flood. In times of crisis, our words might be the first things to go. No words.
The theologian John Pilch has pointed out that the Hebrew word for “widow,” like the widow in our parable this morning, means a person with no words. It literally means “silent one,” or “one unable to speak.” (1) The widow knew what it was to be without words, though for reasons different than many of us. In this ancient Mediterranean world, men played the public role, and without a man in her life, a widow stood pinned with her back against the wall. Just consider the injustices widows faced in the Hebrew Scriptures that Jesus read. Tamar was promised a husband but Judah refused by dragging his feet, leaving Tamar without the protection of marriage and children. The widow of Zeraphath faced starvation. Naomi, the mother-in-law of Ruth, was experiencing hunger and loneliness.
Being widowed could leave one without property, impoverished, and vulnerable to the whims of a male relative or an unjust system. Over and over again, the Old Testament implores the people of God to take care of the widows. The widow was an archetype for those marginalized and vulnerable. This was especially when up against a judge.
In ancient Israel, the duty of a judge was to maintain peace and order in the community. There were no juries, so a judge was trusted to mediate fairly and impartially. But the judge in the parable could care less about either of those criteria, just has he could care less for any external standard. “He neither feared God nor had respect for people,” Jesus says. This judge has no heart for the cause of justice. He arrogantly and arbitrarily decides the cases of the people who come before him.
“No words” the judge had said to this widow as the system and circumstances drowned her out. Maybe she was the victim of a payday lending scheme, or maybe unjustly tethered to her late husband’s debtors, maybe someone owed her promised wages; no matter, the judge keeps refusing, “there’s nothing you can say.”
But she keeps coming. She’s un-phased by the judge’s reputation, or the height of his desk or the strength of his door or all the things that seem to form a blockade to what is true and right. She keeps coming, despite all in this judge and in her society that seems bent on her defeat.
In JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the elves admit that they’re losing their forest lands. But they keep trying. Keep resisting. They describe their struggle as “fighting the long defeat.” Tolkien is probably the source of a comment made by Paul Farmer, who has fought a “losing battle” for health care for the poor, particularly in the impoverished nation of Haiti where even in recent weeks we see further evidence of the disasters of poverty and defeat once more. In Tracy Kidder’s biography of Farmer called Mountains Beyond Mountains, Farmer says, “I have fought the long defeat and brought other people on to fight the long defeat, and I’m not going to stop because we keep losing. No… I actually think sometimes we may win. I don’t dislike victory… We want to be on the winning team, but even if we lose we will not turn our backs on the losers, it’s not worth it. So we fight the long defeat.” (2)
No matter the defeat, the widow keeps coming. No matter the efforts to silence her, she keeps speaking those words of truth. “Grant me justice,” this seemingly voiceless woman keeps saying. She persists, she continues, she beats on the door, she grabs the judge by the robe and shakes him into consciousness of her. There are all kinds of ways we might describe her words: resolved, determined, words of advocacy, strength, and justice, but at the very first, I believe they are words of hope.
In a crisis, our words are the first thing to go. But our hope is the last.
Without hope, there can be no words. Our sentences trail off. Our efforts tire. Without hope we can’t keep coming back to the judge day after day.
This is not simple optimism, which descends into the sentimental. Optimism tells us that the way things are is not so bad. But hope refuses to settle for the way things are, telling us that the way things are is not the way things must always be, or will always be. Hope tells us that the disaster of a flood for the most vulnerable is not the way it must be, that the crisis of racism and division is not all we can imagine for this world, that violence or abuse or loss does not have to be passed over or normalized, and that the suffering of the present is not all we can expect in the future of God’s kingdom.
Optimism would tell this widow to go home, listen to the judge, accept his ruling, and find the good that still exists in her life – sit down at her table, pour herself a glass half-full of tea and add plenty of saccharin.
Hope tells her that the unjust judge and the system he represents do not have the last word.
For hope is rooted in the God we know in Jesus Christ, who suffered and died to know our deepest sufferings, our greatest crises, and our ongoing vulnerability, but returned and in his resurrection shared the ultimate words of hope, that the worst thing is not the only thing. It’s not the last thing. Not for him, not for us, not for this widow. (3)
“She keeps coming,” the judge says. Hope is what makes her persistence possible. And finally the judge says, “I will grant her justice…”
If that’s true of this hyperbolic, disgraceful, unjust judge listening to a widow, how much more is it true of a loving God, who wants none of us rendered voiceless? In the gospel of Luke, this parable calls us to be persistent in our prayers, and even more, relentless in our hope. It calls us to be like this widow, who even in her desperation with so much overpowering her and causing her words to catch in her throat, continues to give voice to her deepest longing, believing she will be heard.
Prayer isn’t always so arduous. Sometimes it’s grace at a mealtime, or at the bedside of a child or grandchild recounting God’s gifts in your day. But sometimes those same hands you once learned to fold neatly and quietly in prayer are reaching, grasping for anything, or knocking at the door. Like at a community meeting before a march some years ago – as members of the black community organized against injustice in their society, and one older African American preacher read this parable from the pulpit and then said, “Until you have stood for years knocking at a locked door, with your knuckles bleeding, you do not really know what prayer is.” (4)
Sometimes we feel we knock so long that we just stop altogether.
Frederick Buechner is a Presbyterian minister and one of my favorite authors, whose memoir called, The Eyes of the Heart, includes many powerful stories, including a poignant description of his brother’s final days.
It was on July 11, 1988 the day Buechner turned seventy-two that his brother called him to say that he had been told he had incurable cancer of virtually everything and didn’t intend to be around for more than two weeks more if he could possibly help it. He then added, ‘By the way, Freddie, Happy Birthday’ Fred told him that he loved him as much as he had ever loved anybody in his whole life… Fred said he had a feeling they had not seen the last of each other, and his brother made a soft, descending ‘Ah-h-h’ sound as a way to thank him for saying it. Maybe to thank him for believing it.
Buechner said his brother never went to church except once in a while to hear him preach and he told Fred he didn’t want a funeral. But he did ask Fred to write a prayer for him that he could use in these final days. The prayer read, “Dear Lord, bring me through darkness into light. Bring me through pain into peace. Bring me through death into life. Be with me wherever I go, and with everyone I love. In Christ’s name I ask it. Amen.”
Buechner would learn later, from his brother’s son-in-law, that the prayer he wrote for his brother had been on the table beside him when he died.
Do you ever feel like a widow in your prayers? Which is to say, do you ever feel like one unable to speak? Like you need someone to form the words for you? You’ve knocked at the door, or you’ve grabbed God by both lapels, and your voice has just become hoarse from the shouting.
If you’ve ever been that person with no words, I hope you can remember this widow, who though so many would render her speechless and hopeless, she still found the words to speak. Which is to say, she found the hope that the worst thing she had known was not the last.
Can you form such words today? If not, can someone else form them for you?
I opened my mouth but the words would not come – the prayers would not come, I mean. And when I prayed, it was if the words weren’t reaching, weren’t rising any higher than the ceiling.
Some of you know that yesterday was a national day of awareness for pregnancy loss and infertility – and even as we place another rose on our altar celebrating a new baby born this week, we also make space for all those who have experienced such grief.
Jenny and I have, and it was the most voiceless, speechless time in my life of faith. No words, when your expectation that all will go smoothly doesn’t turn out; we had been married for 6 years, we wanted a baby so we’d have one, right? No words, when you experience the waiting and the wondering. And there were definitely no words the day when we lost a pregnancy at around 10 weeks. I remember everything about that day: where we parked at the clinic, what we were wearing, the ultrasound technician, and the catch in her throat as she shared the hard news.
Jenny and I gathered ourselves, and in our silence began to walk the institutional halls, trying to compose ourselves and not really knowing where to go from there. Then out of a side hall appeared the woman who had been our fertility specialist for the last 6 months. We didn’t know she was there that day, but it was the only familiar face we had seen. All she had to do was look at our faces and she whisked us into this side room. There was little to say, but she stayed with us, gave us some water and tissues, and at some point Jenny formed the words, almost like a prayer, “You know, I just always assumed we would have a lot of children.” And the specialist said, and I’ll never forget it, “Sweetheart, that can still happen.”
You know amidst the platitudes and prayers that wouldn’t seem to reach in those days, it was those words of a nurse practitioner that have remained with me. I don’t know everything about how God works in the world, or how God answers our prayers, but I do believe God is always working to inspire us to retain our hope in the midst of the unimaginable. And I know this much, that I stood there just as overwhelmed and silent as I had ever been in my life, and someone else’s words became words of hope for me, helped me to begin to form words of my own, and helped me believe that the worst was not the last.
Maybe you have no words like that today. That’s okay. They can’t be forced or contrived. And they come for us all at different times. But if you do have them, say them. Say them as persistently and boldly as a widow who found her voice before the bench of an unjust judge. Because I promise you someone needs to hear them, someone needs to believe them, and the Kingdom of God is made up of words and widows just such as these.
- In The Cultural World of Jesus, Year C
- Cited in “Keep Praying and Don’t Give Up,” Journey with Jesus (October 20, 2013)
- Owing to Frederick Buechner’s description of resurrection: “The worst is not the last.”
- Story told by Fred Craddock