Read: Psalm 116
Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his faithful ones (Psalm 116:15, NRSV).
Sometimes it’s the panorama that takes your breath away. Other times, it’s the close-up—stunning in its particularity.
I thought of this as I read the post of a friend, Shari Deemter Oosting, this week. It related a conversation she had with her 11-year-old son, Asher. With her permission, I share it with you:
Asher: “I see a lot of signs with George Floyd’s name, and some with Breonna Taylor’s. But I didn’t really see many with the name of the man who was running.”
Shari: “Ahmaud Arbery?”
Asher: “Yeah, Ahmaud Arbery. Why?”
Shari: “I think we tend to have short memories. And we forget too many people. That’s part of the problem. Some of us act like this is new every time.”
Asher: “I think we should remember all their names.”
Shari: “Me too, son.”
We should indeed remember all their names—not “only” because they were each beloved children of God and divine image-bearers, but because sinful systems in which many of us participate contributed to their deaths. So, if you’re white—there’s that.
The fact of the matter is, though, that most of us can’t even trace our own family tree back past our great grandparents. The very people who shaped our DNA “fly forgotten as a dream.”
For those of us who have lost friends and family members to Covid-19, it’s impossible to get past the pain of particularity. We see the numbers rise each day, and we mourn the wide sweep of death’s scythe. But what brings us to our knees is the memory of particular people we’ve lost. For us, their lives can never be captured by statistics.
In light of all these losses, there is something exquisitely comforting in this verse tucked in near the end of Psalm 116: “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his faithful ones.” This does not mean that God enjoys their death. Just the opposite. It means that each person’s life is seen, mourned, loved and celebrated by God. And that holds true whether we remember their names or not.
One of my favorite walks here in the Angrogna Valley is the one that takes me to a village with the impossibly quaint name of Buona Notte. (The name means “Good Night” in Italian.) The path to Buona Notte winds through the woods and along the mountain, offering breathtaking vistas around every bend. But one day last week, it was not the panoramic views that caught my attention. It was a very particular plaque on the edge of town in memory of a man named Riccardo Gatto.
Riccardo Gatto was a protester from an earlier generation. Captured in Buona Notte by the Nazis in 1945, he left this letter for his parents:
“I was sentenced tonight to capital punishment. In a few hours we will have finished our troubled odyssey. I was convicted because I was a partisan. I die with a confident heart, sure that I have done my duty loyally. Courage to all—and especially to you dear mama and papa; I followed my idea, and although this is a blow for you, you must arm yourself with courage and overcome…keep it for my memory, Riccardo.”
Most of us will not receive a plaque that speaks so eloquently to future generations. But that doesn’t mean our lives will “fly forgotten as a dream.” In God’s heart, we are seen, mourned, loved, and celebrated—in all of our precious particularity.
Ponder this quote from chapter two of Gill Hornby’s novel, Miss Austen: “These are the things by which most of us are remembered, these small acts of love, the only evidence that we, too, once lived on this earth. The preserves in the larder, the stiches on the kneeler, the mark of the pen on the page.”
Pray the words of Craig Courtney’s “God of the Sparrow.” The text by Jonathan Cook draws on the imagery of Psalm 84:3 where “even the sparrow finds a home” at God’s altars. Here is a verse from the piece:
God of the sparrow, care for us,
Speak in our sorrow, Lord of grief.
Sing us Your music, lift our hearts,
Pour out Your mercy, send relief.
“The View from Here” Series
As many of you know, I am spending my sabbatical in Italy. After living for several months in the heart of Rome, I recently made a move to the mountains. (The Italian side of the Cottian Alps, to be precise—southwest of Turin and very close to the French border.) The transition was tricky, what with the pandemic and Italy’s tight restrictions on travel. But I am grateful for the spectacular change of scenery after being locked down in a two-room apartment. While the view has changed, I will continue to offer what I hope is a unique perspective on Italy—and the world—right now.
And yes—the picture above really is the place where I am living. Now you know why I’m calling this series, “The View from Here.” I hope that you will be able to enjoy that view vicariously, as well as some of the deep peace of this place.