When I was a child growing up in Pentecostal churches the phrase “turn or burn” meant mouthing a panicked sinner’s prayer or burning eternally in the Monster God’s hellfire. Today as my heart breaks again for my friend, Jerry, that phrase unexpectedly returned to my mind. Less than a month ago Jerry lost his beloved brother suddenly in an accident. Today, just minutes ago, Jerry emailed me that his sister, the remaining half of his spiritual arsenal; his shield that had worked in conjunction with the sword that his brother had been, has received another diagnosis of cancer. And what can I say? “My God,” is absolutely all I can think as the tears well up and trace the paths of their countless predecessors: tears of pain and joy, of loss and gratitude, tears of questions with no answer whatsoever, tears when there are no words left at all. I weep. I cry silently and then I notice a peculiar emptiness.
I don’t know what to do except pray, even if it’s only these simple, desperate words, “My God.” I don’t know what to say, so I say nothing and that’s where the emptiness is – right there: right where a loud, accusatory, and raging “WHY?!” would have been before. I don’t know what to do, but what I’m not doing at least right now, in just this moment, is not asking why. This leaves this space vacant, empty; this space where previously tough resentment, hard obstacles, and heart-high walls have been hammered into fine, glistening, repellent fashion by a blacksmith of isolation whose every challenge and loss blew like bellows into the toxic fire of “whys” and bitter “One day…” threats. Oh, the smoke from the noxious flames always sent signals of alarm and distressed calls for rescue, but without fail anyone, anyone, even God, who cared enough to get close enough to help, also got close enough to get burned. But now, now a cool wind blows through the blacksmith’s darkened shop and the anvil looks more like an altar. Without the the echo of the hammer and the crackle and spit of the fire I hear “turn or burn,” which, frankly, with it’s brimstone baggage seems like damn cold comfort. But on the next breeze that stirs old ash, also comes a fresh understanding in this hallowed out space. If we can, through resistance and ritual, with white knuckles and bended knee, through sometimes saltine-dry prayers and sobbing surrender, if we can just empty the space, if we can just turn from any and all questions of “why?” even for a moment, lay down the bellows, douse the fire, take off the apron and sit, we sometimes notice, perhaps in the cooler corner opposite the old furnace, a tiny green sprouting intruder of trust. It’s a strange and welcome sight, though more than a little perplexing as all I’ve really known is blacksmithing. I don’t know nothing about gardening.
I’ve grown skilled in burning offenses, glowing hot resentments, cauterized wounds, and throwing relationships like kindling. I know nothing of growing something new and tender green. The wonder of the tiny sprig of trust with it’s reaching roots and the wonder of my own unknowing amid the smell of soot and ash lights this new understanding of “turn or burn.” I can burn with questions of why. I can be consumed by the fires of needing reasons and in believing that in each denial and in every loss that my answers are gone or I can turn toward my complete unknowing, my complete lack of questions and also toward this love that has been likened to a great, Good Shepherd, this gentle, determined Gardner, who asks me, as He asked Mary, with the tomb behind her and the garden before her,
“Why are you crying?”
“They’ve taken my answers and even my questions,” I reply.
But then, in the stillness of the glory of this single seedling of trust, hardly a garden, He speaks my name.
He speaks my name and, like Mary, the Knowing of His Spirit within me springs forth and answers,
My Pentecostal training of “turn or burn” left my soul’s only option for vocation as blacksmith but my not knowing is, with bleeding hands and soiled knees, preparing me to be, finally, a Gardner’s apprentice, a Rabbi’s ragamuffin disciple, a faltering, failed, trembling, and faithful child of God.
But without answers and without even questions, how does that help Jerry? What does that leave me to offer my frightened and grieving friend? What it leaves is something better than answers that never helped even when they came. It leaves me brokenhearted, but faithful and willing to weep and wait in the garden outside empty tombs with the brokenhearted and weeping and waiting and to listen for the Gardner, ready to recognize the Teacher, to sit together in our unknowing until Daybreak dries our tears and we feel That Which We Felt Was Lost rise up within us and we know resurrection.
That’s all we have: brokenness, hope, and glory.