There aren’t many good radio stations in the city I live in. Like, roughly zero. But for a few glorious moments this morning the heavens opened, the clouds parted, and a shaft of wondrous auditory light suffused my little Volkswagen Jetta as I flitted about, running errands on a windswept prairie day. U2’s “One” was playing on the radio. It’s probably my favourite song. Ever. I hadn’t heard it for months, maybe even a year. And here it was! On a crappy Lethbridge radio station that ordinarily dispenses a nauseating combination of top-40 pop trash and mid-eighties light rock (think Katy Perry and Chicago back to back)! Such rapture, such undeserved grace! It was almost more than I could bear.
I drove as slowly as I could until my next stop, but eventually I had to get out of the car. I hate it when you have to quit listening to a song at the best part… Did you come here to play Jesus to the lepers in your head?… Aargh!! It was a quick errand, and I figured if I hurried, I might get back in time to hear the end of the song. So I hurried… I arrived back, panting and hopeful, and frantically turned on the radio. But instead of the rousing finale of a truly legendary song, I was greeted by a spectacularly irritating, shrill, technologically modified teenage voice “singing” about stuttering. Or something. All I can say is that it was well and truly awful. “Disappointment” would be a rather understated way of describing the vast chasm between expectation and the sad, sad reality that greeted me when I turned on the ignition.
Earlier in the day, I had sat in a small, sparely furnished room in a senior’s residence with a dear old saint. He, too, spoke of disappointment. He spoke about how hard he was finding it these days to be in public gatherings due to his poor hearing, about how lonely it feels when you can’t understand what people are saying, about the pain of feeling like you don’t belong anywhere anymore, like the world is passing you by. He spoke about how he had wanted to go to school when he was a small boy, but there was no money and no dad, and someone had to “bring home the bacon.” In grade six. He spoke of long days of hard labour for meager pay. He spoke of what it’s like to lose someone who you have loved for a lifetime and to wish that they were still there.
I felt very small in the face of such stories. What does one say? Maybe nothing. Yes, probably that would have been best… But sooner or later the silence gets too heavy, so we scramble to fill the space. We prayed, we moved on to other things. We talked about the weather. It’s unusually warm for this time of year.
To be human is to be disappointed. Our disappointments can range from the ridiculously trivial to the existentially crippling, but no one avoids the disappointment train completely. And disappointment can come from any number of sources—our relationships don’t turn out the way we hoped they would, our job doesn’t turn out to be as fulfilling as we expected, decisions we made with the best of intentions don’t lead to the consequences we thought they would, our bodies start to betray us sooner than they were supposed to, our children make choices we wish they wouldn’t… whatever. Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward, says Job. Yes. And always—inevitably, unfairly—this is true for some more than others.
This week, I’ve been reading in and around Isaiah 55 in preparation for my Sunday sermon. A few chapters earlier, in one of the most famous passages in all of Scripture, I read these words:
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
I like older translations of this verse better, the ones that say “man of sorrows” instead of “man of suffering.” I don’t know why, really. Maybe because “sorrow” tells me that this man knows how suffering feels. “Suffering” describes something that happens; “sorrow” describes the effect that these somethings have on real human beings. “Sorrow” seems to be a more, I don’t know, human word than “suffering.” Yes, I like… I need… we need… this “man of sorrows.”
But I sometimes wish for another man, altogether. I sometimes wish for a man of victory and conquest, a man of radiance and joy, a man of resolution who tells me that everything is all right and I have nothing to fear. A man who skips past disappointment and sorrow and suffering, a man who wipes away tears, and makes all things new. Yes, this would be a much more useful man than a man of sorrows. We have had quite enough of this sorrow business by now, thank you very much.
We are roughly halfway between Ash Wednesday and Easter, and I suppose I am in a halfway, stretched out sort of space today. I am grateful for the man of sorrows who feels our disappointment and pain, whatever the scale, who knows what is like to feel lonely, rejected, and “held in low esteem.” How we need the man who suffers with us. But how we also need the man who holds the possibility and promise of something better, truer, and more lasting than this world, with all of its disappointments and delights, all of its maddening mixed messages.