by Brian Morgan
Though Paul tells us that “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16), I’ve discovered that some texts are revolutionary. They are what I call “signature texts,” ones that speak right into our broken hearts and lift us up out of the miry clay, set our feet upon the rock and put a new song in our mouth (Ps 40:2-3). After experiencing the poem’s power in Romania in 1988, it was David’s lament over Jonathan (2 Sam 1:17-27) that began to answer many of my questions as to how and why the poem is such an effective tool to process grief. Embracing this poem became a touchstone for my soul, coalescing countless channels of Divine love and sacred memories from divergent lands and distant ages.
David was in Ziklag when he first received the news that Saul and Jonathan were killed on Mt. Gilboa. The poem that David wrote was so significant that the editors of the canon, rather than placing it in the collection of the psalms, left it in the narrative portion of Samuel so that future generations would take time to pause from the story and enter into David’s grief. Perhaps this was in obedience to David’s instructions.
And David lamented with this lamentation over Saul and Jonathan his son, and he said it should be taught to the people of Judah; behold, it is written in the Book of Jashar. (2 Sam 1:17-18 ESV)
It is a holy act to stand with someone in his or her grief. David didn’t deny his grief, ignore it or bury it. He faced it and embraced it. It was unthinkable to David to continue his journey to the throne until he hewed out deep channels to act as conduits for his tears. David had incredible freedom before God to be honest about all the tensions in his soul. And in the careful selection of each image, he has given his grief a name. David gives voice to everything we have ever felt, but did not feel we had permission to speak. Yet David says it with a bold honesty, in full view of the public, and in the sacred presence of God.
The greatest gift that David’s lament gave me came at the end of the poem, where a national lament for a dead king takes a very personal turn, and David speaks in the first person.
I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
very pleasant have you been to me;
your love to me was extraordinary,
surpassing the love of women. (v. 26)
This is the final destination David has been driving towards throughout the poem–– the chance to speak a final word to his friend. It is always a moving moment at a funeral when the living speak directly to the dead. Years of buried feelings surface and saturate a few well-chosen words with a lifetime of emotion.
What stunned me was that David was able to go back to a past time and place where he was once painfully absent, and now relive the event as if being fully present. Before the poem––Jonathan is dead, David was absent, God was distant, and Gilboa was desecrated. After the poem, Jonathan is alive (in the recitation of the poem), David is present, God is intimately present between the two and Gilboa is sanctified. Once the poem is constructed, it creates a window into heaven that transcends time. And this holy window remains open forever, inviting all to freely relive the event in all the holiness of sacred memory. Every time the poem is read, that transcendence of heaven uniting with earth, of friends embracing, of love bursting the breast, breaks in upon us again and again.
Through those intensifying cadences of the poet we were mysteriously drawn to a place and time where we did not want to go, to a forbidden place and foreboding time when memories were marred by the tragic and lacerated by loss. But now the tragic has been transformed into the sacred. And those poetic cadences and rhymes we once dreaded now fill us with hope and anticipation of life, beautiful life, holy life that we can relive again and again. The poem creates a window into the sacred that transcends time, a widow that remains open…forever.
Where does David’s poem leave us? We are left to contemplate a love David describes as “more wonderful than the love of women.” When David comes to the depths of his sorrow he somehow embraces an indescribable love. The term David uses to describe Jonathan’s love is from the Hebrew root pala’ that describes something so extraordinary and miraculous that only God could have authored such a reality. The kind of love that sacrifices career and family relationships for another person, and finally gives his life’s blood that someone else might succeed is a love that describes the character of God. As Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
One of the most painful moments of my life came on Friday, December 2nd, 1976. I had just gotten a call from the hospital to say that Jessica, my newborn daughter, was very sick. One medical test told the whole story. She had the same enzyme deficiency my son David had died from a year earlier. I knew Jessica was destined to die. Accompanied by one of our elders, I made my way to the hospital to see her for the last time. I could only look at her for a short time before I turned away. I could not bear the pain. As I left the hospital waves of grief came crashing over me. I wanted to weep, but was too embarrassed in front of my friend. I was not there when Jessica died. She died alone, abandoned by her father. When the hospital graciously offered to take care of her body, I welcomed that. I could not bear the thought of laying her little body in the ground. How could we endure another memorial service? The thought was morbid to me.
Sixteen years later, God called me back to the same hospital. Again, it was in December and, just as when both my children died, it was raining. There a precious boy of one of our church families was fighting for his life. I did not want to go, but I was mysteriously yet powerfully drawn to watch as a dear couple loved their son and refused to turn away from the face of death. As he lay dying, we began singing hymns and psalms. When we sang the words of the second verse of the hymn, “It Is Well With My Soul,” heaven united with earth and love burst forth from our breasts. There came a transcendent sense of peace, of power and victory over death that I will never forget.
God was gracious to call me back to my Gilboa to see what I did not want to see. I discovered that even when I left my daughter, he was there all along, caring and loving. Following David’s example, I wrote a poem for Jessica. Through the power of its images I was able to reconnect with her: to tell her I loved her, to experience holy love and the power of God that transcends death. I have gone back to that time and place many times. It has become a sacred memory. Now I tell my friends who are engulfed in pain, “Do not wait sixteen years to write your poem. Write it now, and turn the tragic into the sacred.”
Let it Rain
In appreciation for my daughter, Jessica Lynne
November 30, 1976 – December 4, 1976
O Jessica, nine months we waited
for your precious hidden frame
to break through the darkness
and turn our souls into day.
Unto us it was given,
morning came, its dawn so bright,
it loosed our sackcloth,
and girded us with light.
Your form so pure,
yours the sweetest gaze
a mother’s dream,
a father’s praise.
Then on the third night
while I slept, you cried;
your mother held you tight,
she knew, but it was hidden from me.
All through the darkness
she cared for you…
then gently laid you upon the altar;
she knelt beside those well-hewn
stones and wept.
Then I heard
the shophar’s ringing cry…
Terror struck, “Impossible!” I cried,
“Could it be to walk this way again–
conception to pain, never to regain,
when the first born, has already paid?”
I pulled back, withdrew,
traumatized by the pain I already knew.
I could not stay and watch,
for now I knew.
My eyes could not gaze on your little tent,
which would all too soon,
be broken down and laid to rest,
in the earth, rather than upon a breast.
Waves of grief came crashing down,
heaven was calling through the rain,
“Pour out your heart like water,”
but I turned and left, numb from pain.
O Jessica, nine months we had waited
for your precious hidden frame
to break through the darkness
and turn our souls into day.
O Jessica, O Jessica, where are you now?
Where did the Sower plant the seed?
I long to know,
but it is hidden from me.
O could I now go back,
and that dark hour relive,
when you lay limp and still,
I would be your papa and give.
I wanted to forget,
it is easy to forget,
but I could not forget you,
my first precious daughter,
Sixteen years past,
and in my wanderings here,
I came across that valley again–
it was raining.
This time I did not turn away,
but obeying heaven’s command,
I knelt beside the stones
and stayed until dawn’s early light.
O Holy night, angels sang,
The grip of night grew limp,
and each soul felt its worth.
He did not turn away
traumatized by pain,
but stretched out his hand
and placed it into the flame.
Beyond his hand I saw
the wrist, impaled by my spear,
pierced so deep with wounds,
yet draws me near.
Beyond the wrist, his gaze,
O that gaze ablaze
with such love it burst my breast,
evoking deepest praise.
O death where is your victory,
O grave where is your sting?
Captured with awe, I stared
and stared, and then I knew,
that when I left,
he had cared for you.
“Hardly your life clear forth of heaven was sent,
Ere it broke out into a smile and went.
So swift your days, a gift to us was lent
You, now a daughter and saint inextricably blent,
Will one day teach your father in some heavenly tent.”
Adapted from George MacDonald’s, Diary of an Old Soul, (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1975), 131. MacDonald also lost a son and a daughter.