March 21, 2021

Cabinet of Colloquial Curiosities, IV: Respair

Passage: John 12:20–36

Unless you’re truly a scholar of the Gospel of John, it’s likely today’s scripture passage will be—at least in part—unfamiliar. Yes, Jesus is speaking in parables, with familiar metaphors from nature. Yes Jesus is with his disciples. Yes Jesus is being followed by a crowd. This is familiar. But who are the Greeks? Why did they show up from hundreds of miles away? And why—in the midst of a crowd—does Jesus suddenly go into hiding? May God’s presence be with you in the hearing of this holy word.

Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir” they said “we would like to see Jesus.” Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus. Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies,

it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me.

Where I am, my servant also will be...

...Then Jesus told the crowd, “You are going to have the light just a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, before the darkness overtakes you. Whoever walks in the dark does not know where they are going. Believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of light.” When he had finished speaking, Jesus left and hid himself from them.

I am so grateful to be back with you after some time away on sabbatical, but I realize, coming back, that it wasn’t just two months but 12 months that I haven’t seen you. I know you’re there, participating from worship virtually, but it is so different to worship through this screen. Not being able to see you makes it hard for me to know how you are. I miss you. I’m glad to be back. I’d love to connect. Send me a note and we’ll make time.

While on sabbatical, I spent a month with my parents and a month with my husband’s parents, and that month with my husband’s parents was a huge reminder that when I married into the Lancaster family, I was invited into a new language. Words are important. There is an entire insider language spoken at the Lancaster household that takes some getting used to—a combination of movie quotes, old family stories, and a Southern vocabulary sourced from Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Missouri.

My favorite is this: if you sneeze, my father-in-law says “scat.” Yep. “Scat.” Not the traditional “bless you.” I mean, my dad says “gesundheit” because he lived in Switzerland for a while. But “scat” was all new to me. Thankfully I happened upon an episode of the radio show A Way with Words which explained the (very Southern) roots of this phrase, and found out that the long form is even better, “scat cat get your tail outta the butter.”[1]

That radio show A Way with Words is also where I came across Paul Anthony Jones little book The Cabinet of Calm: Soothing Words for Troubled Times which Bill, Christine, and I are reading as an accompaniment to the Gospel of John in the season of Lent. I am grateful for a deep roster of soothing words in our most troubled times.

The word for today is respair and it’s not hard to parse. It’s essentially the opposite of despair. If despair means the total absence of hope, respair means a fresh, reinvigorated hope. A recovered hope. A renewed hope. It means to have hope again.[2]

Vaccines. Spring. Daylight saving. Grandparents hugging grandchildren. Respair is right there at the surface these days. But respair and despair still oscillate around one another: my friend from college just gave birth to twins and caught COVID-19 in the hospital, the violent narrative of racism in America just got more complex this week when six Asian American women were killed in Atlanta, Paris and Rome are on lock down again, Global vaccination is still a long way off.

Despair remains. But then’s long list of gratitude brings fresh hope. A conversation with a friend brings fresh hope. Activism brings fresh hope. Planning for the future brings fresh hope. Despair and respair come and go in waves.

A linguist said, “the limits of our language are the limits of our world.” In the deep exhaustion of the past 12 months of pandemic life, the poverty of our vocabulary grows:

We call 2019 “the before times,” and I shutter to hear the word “unprecedented” again. Sometimes, I just don’t know what to say, and maybe you feel the same.

This year’s sorrow, this year’s grief, the crash course impact of this year’s toll on our collective lives—it’s unnamable. When I don’t know what to say, I read. I read and read and read until someone’s voice meets my own. At one point, I thought books about other pandemics might help, so I checked out a stack of books from the library about the Spanish Flu and Cholera and the Black Plague. It didn’t help at all.

But this winter, I did finally find some semblance of solace in Kate Bowler’s book Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved. Kate Bowler is a theologian who was diagnosed with stage four cancer in her thirties—just as she was (1) starting her teaching career and (2) enjoying motherhood after a long journey with miscarriage and infertility.

Cancer unfolded everything she held dear, and pushed her to rethink her core identities, and approaches to life. Maybe one of you listening today would find her words healing balm, even if her words make you cry and cry. What resonates with me today is this idea she raises up that “people in grief swear [people in grief turn to profanity] because they feel the English language has reached its limit in a time of inarticulate sorrow.”[3]

Kate admits that in those early months of cancer diagnosis, profanity helped. She says, “I’ve started swearing. And I mean it. I swear about cancer. I swear about dry croissants and coffee that cools too quickly. I swear about the budding ulcers in my mouth from intense chemotherapy. I swear about the refugee crisis in Europe. I swear before and after I receive test results…I swear about Curious George whining to the Man in the Yellow Hat. You get it, she swears. She needs a release. Profanity was her survival strategy while she awaited hope.

Paul Anthony Jones, on the other hand, tries to supply us with a word like respair as a strategy toward hope. But maybe we can’t jump there quite yet. Maybe first we need a word for the sadness sparked by loneliness and solitude. We need a word for lethargic downheartedness. We need a word for the physical sickness we feel in our gut when the emotional rollercoaster ride is too much. Maybe we can’t turn to respair—renewed hope—until we have a word for the melancholic mix of happiness and sadness, that comes when we log onto zoom one more time, and feel real gratitude for electronic communication, and real ache for in person conversation.

We need words for what we miss, what we lack: do you miss that cathartic cry that can happen when you sing your heart out at a live concert, or even just here, in our gentle sanctuary? We need words that can help us sort out the raw emotions of pandemic, alongside the raw emotions of all the other things that also went on in the last year.[4]

And yet, as Kate Bowler says, the English language “has reached its limit in a time of inarticulate sorrow.” Words cannot save us.

That I think, is where Jesus is in today’s gospel story. By the end he falls silent. He talks and talks and talks about the sorrow that is up ahead, and then he retreats into despair. He knows his life is in danger. He knows they are plotting to kill him. It’s no secret. They probably took out ads in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Chicago Tribune just to make sure. Everybody knew. Jesus knew. He was going to die.

And so, we see Jesus’ wordy exhortations screech to a halt. At the end of today’s scripture passage, he just leaves. He doesn’t take an audience with the Greeks. He doesn’t even take a disciple with him. He carries his despair into a quiet place and awaits the return of hope. Jesus, The Word Made Flesh, gives up on speaking.

We can think of the entire Gospel of John as a crescendo. Jesus’ ministry builds and builds and builds. Each encounter in his public ministry is another note in a cresting symphony. Each voice adds a decibel to the sacred choir. Even the Greeks, from hundreds of miles across the Mediterranean join in the choir of voices echoing Jesus’ message.

In Chapter 12, Jesus voices the symphony’s major themes once more, and then suddenly the sound diminishes entirely. Maybe Lisa Bond knows the right musical word for this: when the symphony just stops. It is quiet. Jesus falls silent.

We have no insight into what happens next. Jesus hides. Did he spend the time in quiet prayer? Did he scream profanities into his pillow? Did he find that his own mother tongue, Aramaic, had also “reached its limit in a time of inarticulate sorrow”? We just don’t know. What we do know is that this passage marks a major shift in the Gospel of John. Jesus moves from his very public ministry—speech giving, healing, traveling—to his private ministry, where a series of “Farewell Conversations” give him a chance to say goodbye to his friends.

When Jesus does finally emerge, Jesus’s despair is tinged with respair. His “Farewell Conversations” are full of hope. “My peace I give to you,” “Do not be afraid,” “Trust in God,” “Remain in my love.” These are not messages to the crowd. These are personal, private notes of love to his disciples. He is preparing them despair, but leaving them with hope.

Something unspoken happened there in the hiddenness. It sharpened his focus. It zeroed in on what was most important. Something changed him when he took time away.

So, here’s what I hear in this text for us today: in the days ahead, each of us will need to do the same. We will need to follow Jesus into that hidden place. We will need to find our own hiding places, our own “retreat and return,” our own intuitive practices of tending to our “inner world.” Maybe you’re feeling “done” with being alone, with hiding in your house, with solitude. But this is, in my estimation, a different kind of thing.

We are being invited to carve out intentional time alone with God, in which we simply meditate, contemplate, pray; in which we stare at the blue sky, the night sky, the cloudy rainy spring sky; in which we listen to our breath, or our heartbeat, or the aches of our bodies, mindfully aware of the presence of the divine within. We are invited to scream obscenities to God into our pillows, journal every sorrow until our wrist hurts, let tears flow.

Something deep within us longs for intentional time alone, to hide in the presence of God. On New Year’s Eve,

when the ball dropped and 2020 was over, I was grateful. It symbolized a kind of ending. A kind of beginning. When the early March anniversaries of COVID-19 came and went, same thing, I was grateful. But none of those milestones flip a switch from despair to respair. These two experiences will circle one another, in their own ways, in our everyday lives and in our collective, communal experiences (and always have).

But if we can learn anything from Jesus today, it is that respair is possible, even when despair is nearby. In order to move back toward hope, we are invited to follow Jesus, quiet the symphony, turn inward, and immerse ourselves in a deep, experiential retreat into the unbidden ineffable presence of the divine.

Take an hour. Take 5 minutes. Take 90 seconds. Take whatever time you can to silence the symphony and let grow there a divine respair. Amen.

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[1] Southern Scat Cat, “A Way with Words,” October 18, 2015.

[2] Jones, Paul Anthony. “The Cabinet of Calm: Soothing Words for Troubled Times,” 2020, p. 157

[3] Bowler, Kate. “Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved,” 2018, p. 126.

[4] Paul Anthony Jones does actually suggest some ancient or forgotten words for these kinds of situations in his chapter on Dolorifuge, p. 59.