The Far-Off Song

I stared at my phone. Two-hundred people. Two-hundred. Dead. And for what?

I finished reading the article from Saturday’s LA Times: “‘Take Ahmed and let me die’: Victims of U.S. airstrike in Mosul recount a day of horror,” slowly feeling the numbness creep over me as I read the accounts of real people who survived the unimaginable. Senseless atrocities – a man searching through the rubble of his former home to find his wife’s torso (as in, that’s all that’s left); or a four-year-old girl coughing up what looks like oil as she waits three days to see a doctor. Homes and families dissolved in minutes.

“Acceptable civilian losses” our generals would call them.

“Collateral damage” the news terms them. To be expected in our military’s push to dislodge yet another militant group.

Closing the phone, I saw half-remembered reports flashing across screens over two weeks ago – Estimated 200 civilians killed in U.S. airstrike: investigation ongoing – but at the time I was too busy . . . what? Working? At the gym? At home? Too busy to give more than a cursory sigh and hastily turn my attention elsewhere before the tide of helplessness washed over me.

Only this time, I couldn’t push it down; couldn’t redirect. And the horror, the rage, and the frustrated impotence rose in my throat.

Let’s be honest, I’m not totally without agency here. I could donate to groups like Preemptive Love Coalition, or go there myself. I could advocate for the helpless both here and abroad and vote for policies and politicians that snuff out violence rather than proliferate it. I could do all of that but right then, as I finished getting ready and vented to Mikala, all I could think about was the uselessness of the church service I was about to take part in.

She nodded as I rambled on: “We’ll all stand there and talk to God and yeah, I guess it’s cool we’re part of a community that cares and talks about this stuff – that does the refugees support thing and is full of people who are educated about these issues and are willing to help – but what the hell’s the point!? They’re still dying while I sit here feeling bad . . . .” I trailed off since there was, after all, nothing to say or do.

Then I actually went to church.

The service was as beautiful as always (and as useless as all beauty and worship ever is). A hopeful sermon followed well-read scriptures. Then I knelt for the lengthy Lenten confession the choir began to sing Mendelssohn’s Kyrie and, as the room slowly filled with the billowing sound, I felt the rage and the helplessness slowly driven out – displaced by beauty – and I exhaled. I didn’t even realize I’d been holding my breath. The faces in that morning’s articles swam before me as that ancient Greek refrain continued: Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, and as it did I felt the redeeming power of lament actively molding despair and impotence into hope and resolve.

While the sound washed over me, I remembered a scene George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind. The boy Diamond is speaking with the North Wind, who has taken him for a ride through the sky, but has now told him she must set him down to perform a task: she must go sink a ship, and watch all its passengers drown.

Diamond, who is scandalized at this news, begins assaulting her with questions:

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“But how can you bear it then, North Wind? For I am sure you are kind. I shall never doubt that again.”

“I will tell you how I am able to bear it, Diamond: I am always hearing, through every noise, through all the noise I am making myself even, the sound of a far-off song. I do not exactly know where it is, or what it means; and I don’t hear much of it, only the odour of its music, as it were, flitting across the great billows of the ocean outside this air in which I make such a storm; but what I do hear is quite enough to make me able to bear the cry from the drowning ship. So it would you if you could hear it.”

“No, it wouldn’t,” returned Diamond, stoutly. “For they wouldn’t hear the music of the far-away song; and if they did, it wouldn’t do them any good. You see you and I are not going to be drowned, and so we might enjoy it.”

“But you have never heard the psalm, and you don’t know what it is like. Somehow, I can’t say how, it tells me that all is right; that it is coming to swallow up all cries.”

“But that won’t do them any good—the people, I mean,” persisted Diamond.

“It must. It must,” said North Wind, hurriedly. “It wouldn’t be the song it seems to be if it did not swallow up all their fear and pain too, and set them singing it themselves with the rest. I am sure it will.

The conversation continued, ending when North Wind sets him in a cathedral to await her return, sets off to perform her duty, and drowns a ship full of people – people  who would soon know the suffocating horror of drowning at sea. People with spouses and children and parents who would never see them again. And surely the London papers the next day told the story of the passenger ship that foundered off the coast, leaving no survivors. Someone probably read the article and felt the helpless fury at unnecessary evil. Surely these people were not able to hear the “far-off song” over the din of the Wind; nor were their relations over their wails of shock and grief.

And yet, somehow, we’re called to hope.

Hope? In the face of despair and tragedy?

Yes.

Not because I hope for escape. Not because I believe there is some other place we all get to fly away to someday, where humanity’s pains here seem as nothing to our joys.

Nor because I hope for utopia, that humanity unaided could summon the energy to push against our nature and create peace, safety, and justice on this tired world.

I hope because this is what I am called to do here. Now. This fool’s hope that Beauty will be both our first and last word and that it is worth pursuing, whether humanity lives to see its fullness. I hope because the call of those who knelt beside me and cried out to this Lord and this Christ, asking for mercy, believed fiercely in their vocation as beauty-bringers – sent into the world to arrest death and decay through self-giving love – singing their one note as truly as they can, believing their voice adds one more note to the psalm, adding to the tide of Beauty that not only created the universe and will someday gather it to Itself, but also sustains it in the interim.

This morning as the Kyrie echoed the sound of that far-off song, I was able for the briefest of moments to understand the North Wind’s confidence. For the slightest moment, in the midst of lament, I was able to believe that Beauty may indeed “save the world.”

As a final thought: it is fascinating that this particular song has been our church’s confessional refrain during the season of Lent and that, as we move steadily toward Easter, the shattering beauty of the lament begins to be reshaped into a song of hope, of ascents, even of rebellion. As we contemplate one of our own who gave his life to show the needlessness of violence and the slow, irresistible march of life, I’m reminded (and will leave you with) the words of David Bentley Hart in his short book on theodicy, The Doors of the Sea:

“Easter is an act of ‘rebellion’ against all false necessity and all illegitimate or misused authority, all cruelty and heartless chance. It liberates us from servitude to and terror before the ‘elements’: It emancipates us from fate. It overcomes the ‘world’: Easter should make rebels of us all.”

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