For Once in Your Life Just Let It Go: The Terrible Mercy of Lament

My all-time favorite YouTube comment has to be this one, left underneath a clip of […]

Josh Retterer / 3.30.18

My all-time favorite YouTube comment has to be this one, left underneath a clip of the penultimate scene from 1982’s film, Blade Runner. Taking place immediately after an epic battle between Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer, we are witness to a self-delivered eulogy:

Best…Death…EVER!!! I sometimes sit down in the shower naked and quote this line as the water falls down my face…I’m not allowed at 24 hour fitness anymore…sigh.

Legos make everything better, don’t they?

Comedian Jimmy Pardo is fond of saying, “You know me, I’m an open book — but, I have secrets.” I’ve kept something from you, dear readers; something about me you don’t know.

I’m dead.

I don’t mean faced death in a Jason Micheli, Cancer is Funny sort of way (check out his Mockingcast interview with Scott Jones here), although he’s already experienced the same condition I have, that any Flannery O’Connor story graphically illustrates and so many Pixar films portray. They describe catastrophic ego death. That’s what popped my clogs in the end. Frank Lake, in his oft-quoted book, Clinical Theology, defines our egos like this:

The ‘I’, the self, the central part of the personality, the individual, the real self as experienced by the individual; in biblical terms, the heart, i.e. the centre of all the functions of the individual; (psychoanal.) the aspect of the personality in contact with the external world by perception, though, volition, emotion, and which strives to keep up a realistic relationship with the social environment.

I remember the moment when that “striving” Lake mentions ceased. It happened within the space of time it takes to hear a single sentence spoken over the phone. That sentence wasn’t the primary cause of death, more like that final bout of pneumonia after a long illness. I had been tasked with communicating the only thing I had worth saying — within a finite period of time. I discovered, during that phone call, then long after my window had passed, that I hadn’t succeeded.

It didn’t mean the other party had or would fail; it truly had little or nothing to do with them. My best efforts — across multiple venues: love, career, ministry — had simply been, repeatedly, not enough. That phone call represented just one more candle getting snuffed out, an epiphany that hadn’t happened under my watch, a decade of blood, sweat, and very real tears, gone. It was time I could never get back, for them or for me. There was something about the smell of that thin, acrid stream of smoke drifting up from the dead wick that, in aggregate, was just enough to do me in. And it did. It needed to.

Mockingbird’s own plenipotentiary and very Reverend Dr. Paul. F. M. Zahl, in his amazing book, PZ’s Panopticon, describes, with unnerving accuracy, my experience as he retells his own.

Within about ten minutes, I can honestly say that my old self was murdered.

He goes on to add, now narrating in the third person:

The document in front of him told him he had been living in the country of the blind. It screamed, the existence of the document screamed; you were wrong about your friends, you were wrong about your work, you were wrong about the present, you were wrong about the past, you were wrong about the future. Most of all, and this was completely devastating: you were wrong about yourself.

Having just had every single molecule of mojo suddenly ripped out, I did what PZ did next, after his own murder: “I fled to the desert.”

The desert is the perfect venue for a postmortem, practically, or in my case, metaphorically. Think about it: dry, cloudless skies, bright, unfiltered light, featureless horizons, little to distract from the task at hand. Deserts also serve as weaning stations, where the life lines that previously fed our ego have stopped flowing. Almost sounds idyllic. Robert Farrar Capon, in everyone’s favorite guide to the parables, Kingdom, Grace, Judgement, is a little more practical about our morbidity, and sees an unexpected bright side:

It [our ego] can respond to them [the good gifts in life] as a live hand and try to clutch, to hold onto the single good that is in it at any given moment — thus closing itself to all other possible good; or it can respond as a dead hand — in which case it will simply lie there perpetually open to all the goods in the comings and goings of the dance.

Into my — by now default — perpetually open hand came an opportunity to post some findings from my time in the desert, and that’s exactly what I have been doing here for the last year or so. It’s only been in the last few months that I finally I realized that I needed to stop poking at the remains, and take time to intentionally mourn the loss. Not that I actually scheduled it or anything. I’m not that psychoanal!

Around the time of my untimely passing, I found myself in the middle of a community made up largely of ministry types. They lent me their ears, their time, their wisdom, and more than a little of their patience. Recently, I commenced my deep dive into the frigid waters of lament while in that community. Sharing my story with them, I decided to paint myself as bad as I could — using a laser pointer to make sure they didn’t miss any of my failures and shortcomings — steeling myself against some scathing, but certainly justified, critiques I was convinced were coming my way. What I actually needed were people whose advice wasn’t going to be “try harder.” There is no mercy in “try harder,” only death, more law.

Fortunately, they didn’t tell me to try harder. The thought never would have occurred to them — because they’re dead, too! They are the same people who didn’t run once my decomposition had started in earnest. They listened, they actively encouraged me, they were present. There is a stunning amount of grace to be found in something as simple as hearing, “That happened to you, too?”

Pastor Ryan Pryor over at Mission Hills Church in LA shares his own “you, too” moment in his version of the “how I got dead” story:

I think I died in seminary.

It was the summer before my final quarter when I remember the sound of the back screen door of our Pasadena bungalow slap behind me as I left. I was running down our street lined with cars before the morning rush when the air is cool and it’s still quiet enough to hear the birds. I didn’t make it far before I realized that something wasn’t right. I began to look all around me — the craftsman homes, the willowy palm trees, the pavement below my feet. All of it was blurry and frantic, tossing and turning.

“What is happening?“
This question haunted the countless doctor visits that were to come.

What was strange about my chronic illness was not necessarily what it was doing to my body, but how it killed me. I used to be sure of myself. I was a songwriter. I was educated. I was athletic. I was… Somehow all of those years seem to vanish in an instant. As my vision lagged 3 seconds from page to laptop, I now struggled to read and type. Driving was painful as I fought to focus on lights and cars. Even writing about it now makes my head spin a little.

There’s a famous and fascinating story in the Hebrew Scriptures in which Jacob spent the night alone by a river. Without an entrance, a man appeared in the night and began wrestling with him. Jacob and the man fought until dawn before the stranger threw his partner’s hip out of place. When a stalemate seemed inevitable, Jacob demanded a blessing from his opponent. Still engaged, the man looked at Jacob and gave him a new name: God-wrestler. It’s interesting that Jacob never received a blessing — God-wrestler did.

Jacob was afraid the night he was surprised by his violent companion down by the river. If it’s possible to prepare for this kind of death-match in advance, please feel free to respond in the comments. Unfortunately, I have a hunch that the unexpected fight is a necessary path for transformation for all of us. That morning near the Jabbok, God-wrestler walked away transformed but with a definite limp. I did too.

I don’t know exactly what happened to me during that year and some months. Hell, I know it was painful. I wrestled something fierce and assuredly died a brutal death of the only me I ever knew. Yet, it has been precisely this experience that has created space for authentic relationships and genuine healing in pastoral ministry. It’s my hope that when the dust has settled in the strange aftermath of our own wrestling, we too are able to move forward not only marked by our suffering but transformed by an encounter with God.

Ryan’s story makes me think of this famous passage:

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me (Psalm 23:4).

I think it’s through those valleys, shadows of death — as we may experience more than one, of varying impacts and intensities — where we find mercy, as God, the source of mercy, is with us. Going around the valley misses the point entirely. It reminds me of something PZ pointed out to me in a passage from Erik Erikson’s book, Ghandi’s Truth. Describing Mahatma as a “religious actualist,” Erikson fleshes that out this way:

Therefore I would interpret, and interpret with humility, the truth-force of the religious actualist thus: to be ready to die for what is true now means to grasp the only chance to have lived fully.

That is an axiom. We can have only fully lived when we have received mercy, often having to die to feel the need for it in the first place. Joan Didion, in her book about the loss of her husband, The Year of Magical Thinking, encourages us not to try and undead the dead.

I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.

That fight is echoed in Hans Urs von Balthasar’s, Love Alone is Credible:

The first thing the Cross does is cross out the world’s word by a Wholly-Other Word, a Word that the world does not want to hear at any price. For the world wants to live and rise again before it dies, while the love of Christ wants to die in order to rise again in the form of God on the other side of death, indeed, IN death.

If you were waiting for a dramatic denouement right about here, I’m sorry, there isn’t going to be one. Over the last few months, Mockingbird friend, Pastor Mandy Smith and I have had a series of conversations about death, lament, and mercy, as you do. She has a wonderful way of paraphrasing 2 Corinthians 4:10: “The way I’m finding true hope is in that promise that we carry around the death of Jesus in our bodies so that the life of Jesus may be seen in our bodies—what feels like death to us looks like life to others.” That’s a pretty good hope. Death to life, for me, a sinner. He is risen.

Now for the weather.

Joan Didion reading Blue Nights, the tragic sequel to The Year of Magical Thinking, this time, on the death of her daughter.

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12 responses to “For Once in Your Life Just Let It Go: The Terrible Mercy of Lament”

  1. Sean says:


  2. Luke says:

    Great post Josh. Thank you for sharing. One of my favorite lines from Capon is “Death is the operative device that sets us free in Christ — that liberates us from the fear of loss that otherwise dogs our every step.” It hurts like hell but it can liberate.

  3. Nate Mills says:

    Thank you for this. There is much in here to relate to. This was very fitting to read after just stepping out of a Good Friday service. I will be rereading this a few times as Holy Week draws to a close.

  4. Patricia F. says:

    Thank you so much for this, Josh.

  5. Rod says:

    Wow. What a great Easter post. Thank you!!!

  6. Thank you for this, Josh. I also have a chronic illness. The old me died in August 2013. Your words are uplifting.

  7. Rob Jirucha says:

    I enjoyed this topic. Though, I would have better connected if I read more about your own journey of death and experience in the desert. More of a window into your own lament. Not just a series of quotes. But I may be missing something (other posts?). Or, I’m not dead yet.

    • Josh Retterer says:

      Great comments Rob! Just click on my name, and it will take you to an archive of past posts that I’ve written. Most of them contain aspects of that desert experience, or snapshots of experiences I had. This was just a wrap up of the experience-too big to tell in one serving. Hope that helps!

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