Joan Humphrey grew up on a farm in Kansas. She was born, the third of four children, to Donna and Jake Humphrey. The Humphrey farm of 480 acres, near Woodlawn Kansas, raised cattle and crops. Joan attended a one room school there until the eighth grade. She was a cheerleader at Sabetha High School. She also was an officer in her school’s chapter of ‘Future Homemakers of America’. She graduated second in her class. A class of 48. Here is the caption under her yearbook picture: “keen sense, common sense, no room for nonsense”. *
Joan then attended Wheaton College, because her pastor was a graduate. Later on, she entered law school at Northwestern University. Her classmates there teased her about her slow prairie speech. They also envied her lack of stress over exams. In law school she met a boy named Michael. They worked summer jobs on behalf of the poor: disability benefits, evictions, food stamps.
Joan and Michael were married in 1975. He wore a white suit. She wore daisies in her hair, and a white Moroccan caftan.
Joan and Michael then began to raise their own family of four daughters. Every morning, he brewed coffee. He pre-heated her cup with boiling water, filled it with coffee, and carried it to the bed where together they could talk about the day to come.
Joan’s life had two paradigms, professional woman and devoted mother. She cooked dinner every night. She established a daycare center in the courthouse where she worked. She packed lunches for four daughters, making sure to use Tropicana orange juice to limit the girls’ sugar intake. The newspaper quoted Joan as saying, “I wanted my family to be a family that shared their food and the mom could cook like my mom could cook.”
Joan’s temperament and industry brought her, in the year 2000, to the federal bench. She became a judge in the US District Court in Chicago. It was the culmination of a fine career, a position that had eluded her on other occasions. But… In 2002, one of her rulings angered white supremacists. One of these was convicted of plotting to have her killed. They did not succeed. Yet on February 28, 2005, two years ago, Joan’s husband Michael and her mother, both on crutches, were murdered. They were both shot in the head and chest with .22 caliber bullets.
Holy Week, every year, brings us to the precipice of a most disturbing question. At some point, we grow up or wake up enough to ask the question that Joan’s daughter Meg asked her that week. “Mom, why is the world so evil?” Holy Week—with its fleeting laud and honor, its temple conflict, its night of betrayal, its day of trial, its hour of tragedy, and its subsequent, lasting silence—brings us right to this matter of evil. Why? Why Mom? Why is the world so shot through with evil—sin, death, the threat of meaninglessness?
After 300 of his students died in a plane crash near Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, Chancellor Melvin Eggers of Syracuse University brought the question, via a newspaper interview, to his religious leadership at Hendrick’s Chapel. I will never forget his interview, the pain of it, the grief in it, the troubled angst of it, which never left him over the few remaining years of his life.
After 3000 died on 9/11, 2001, that next Friday, hundreds of people filled our sanctuaries, without invitation or liturgical preparation. Here they were, truly hunting for the language and heart with which to assess the same question. What in the world is wrong with this world?
After 300,000 were lost in December on the day after Christmas, 2004, out of a numbed and fogged stupor, there has gradually emerged a serious question, a question about bearing, perspective, and, ultimately, about faith. What kind of world is this? Who is the God who has breathed life into such a place? “Mom, why is the world so evil?”
The same reckoning can arrive in a far more quotidian fashion. One middle aged morning in the winter you may wake up to list the smaller showers of estrangement that meet us every day, long before we ever are drenched in the great thunderstorm of evil:
You meet them every day…
A contentious person is like a continual dripping of water…
In our time, people of conscience are truly alive, suddenly and earnestly alive, to this question, which is, again, the whole content of Holy Week. It is a question that, in the main, is a matter of grief, trouble, and loss. Which is, of course, the whole content of the church’s experience and memory of Holy Week. It is a matter of deep, abiding grief to face the gone-wrongness in life. And, while we have tried, in our churches, to feed the hunger in this question, to slake the thirst in this question, to provide compelling responses to this question, to a great degree, across the land, we have failed. And failure is the whole content of Holy Week. It is a grief to this preacher that our pulpits, nation wide, have thus far failed to meet the grief and loss and especially fear that pervade our time like a mist in London along Aldersgate Street, like an invisible unholy ghost, just on the edge of our awareness. Like a dawn that just will not come.
We have not been able robustly and preparedly and piercingly to remember, to call to mind our biblical, Christian, tragic sense of life, when most we have needed it. To hear Job on the ash heap: “What is my crime?”; and Second Isaiah: “A man of sorrow, acquainted with grief”; and Jeremiah’s lamentations; “all the rivers run to the sea”; and the tears of the David, “all flesh is grass”; to evoke Ecclesiastes, speaking of 9:11, “the race is not always….but time and chance happen to them all”; and the affliction of Paul, “persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed”; and best of all Jesus himself, “if it be thy will, let this cup pass from me”. You cannot read all of Barbara Brown Taylor on Job the night of 9/11. It has to be read ahead. You cannot do all of a seminary course on Jeremiah the night after Tsunami. It has to be read ahead. You cannot absorb all that Paul says in Galatians, the afternoon of Lockerbie. It has to be read earlier. In wrestling we used to make weight, trying to lose 5 pounds in two hours by jogging in sweat suits through the school showers. Bodily life, Christian life, does not easily allow such last minute maneuvers.
This morning, we try again, as we enter Holy Week:
Jesus meets us today along this very road of tragedy in life: of evil, grief, loss, estrangement, and failure. His church lives still as a community that knows in its bones how to face evil with honesty, grief with grace, failure with faith, and death with dignity. H R Niebuhr warned his generation to suspect the false sense that somehow a “God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross”. Oddly, it is the starkness of the cross, the coarseness of Jesus’ death, the tremendous sense of loss and failure and grief of Holy Week that is your best gift to a frightened world. His cross truly names the tragedy of evil. His cross permanently enfolds that tragedy in the larger goodness of life and the lasting goodness of God. His cross radiates a thin measure of hope, that there is life beyond brokenness.
Remember your baptism and confirmation.
The world is good, the good handiwork of a divine goodness that passes all understanding and endures forever.
Yet, the world is just not right, but somehow off track, wrongheaded, with something ‘loose’ rattling around in side it—the shadow of sin, the specter of evil, the sorrow of death.
We have to face both and to pray for deliverance from the latter to the former. So we teach our children to say: Deliver us from evil.
Robert McAfee Brown said so memorably (how I miss his voice): “Friends, this is God’s world, but it is a crummy world, and we have to live with both realities”.
To Meg’s question “Why?” I have no answer for you. But the good news is that you have an answer for me. And if you think I do not see it you are mistaken. And if you think I do not appreciate or admire it you are mistaken. And if you think I do not respect it you are mistaken. You live your answer by choosing the cruciform path of faith. You meet evil with honesty, grief with grace, failure with faith, and death with dignity. You carry yourselves in belief.
You remember that it is not the passion of Christ that defines the Person of Christ, but the Person that defines the passion. You remember that it is not the suffering that bears the meaning, but the meaning that bears the suffering…that it is not the cross that carries the love but the love that carries the cross…that it is not crucifixion that encompasses salvation, but salvation that encompasses even the tragedy of crucifixion… and that it is not the long sentence of Holy week, with all its phrases, dependent clauses and semi-colons that completes the gospel, but it is the punctuation to come in seven days, the last mark of the week to come in 168 hours, whether it be the exclamation point of Peter, the full stop period of Paul or the question mark of Mary—Easter defines Holy Week, and not the other way around. Oh, we want to be clear, now: the resurrection follows but not replace the cross, for sure. Still, it is also true that the
cross precedes but does not overshadow the resurrection. It is Life that has the last word.
When we pray, deliver us from evil, there is a God to whom we may pray, in the assurance of being heard: Deliver us from evil…
Maybe that is why Joan Howard—her married name is Joan Howard Lefkow—she like Dorothy Gale of the Kansas farm, she like Billy Graham of Wheaton College, she like Ernest Fremont Tittle of Northwestern University, she like your own mother in kitchen and coffee and packed lunch, answered her daughter’s question (sursum corda!) in faithful witness (hear the Gospel!) to tragedy and goodness and hope.
I confess that I read her statement some months ago, weeping, in the middle of an utterly boring Board meeting, and was for several moments unsure of where I was, or whether these few sentences were read from the printed page as human comments, or were resounding in the mind and heart as divine utterance. Which is this voice? Human or Divine? You be the judge.
Joan says to her daughter, as the Gospel says to us:
I am so sad…It is a human tragedy…Honey, most people are good, most people would not think of doing this…Remember the sermon years ago at the Episcopal Church in Evanston, where the girls sang in the choir and I made sandwiches for the homeless once a month…The priest said, ‘Some things are just broken…they’re broken…just broken…They’re broken and you go on from there…Don’t think you can repair them but get up and go on from there…But whoever did this, I want to look them in the eye and say…How could you?…How could you do that to me and my family?”
*New York Times, 3/10/05