Curing Despair Through a Community of Love

I met G.R. hepped up on coffee and a late night of reading Hebrews.  Glen and I had been discussing the necessary finitude of time as a delimiting factor in evil.  The insight we arrived at – which we considered quite significant (too much coffee) – has been obscured by the more than 40-year interval. We assumed that there was a consumptive element – thanatology – connected with God which is itself an effect of God’s presence.  Alone that early morning, reading Hebrews 12:29 – “our God is a consuming fire” – I felt I had hit upon scriptural verification of this principle.  I entered Glen’s room after 1 a.m. with, “OUR GOD IS A CONSUMING FIRE.”  G.R., Glen’s roommate, had only recently returned from refueling helicopters for the Army in Vietnam. . .

He has never asked me about that night. In the nearly 45-year interval we married, raised children, had careers, and 10 years ago we jointly performed Glen’s funeral. We used to run three miles several times a week and recently, partly due to age and partly due to G.R.’s cancer we walk about half that far.  A liver transplant and spreading cancer mean that G.R. more or less shuffles.  But we walk when we get together and we mainly reminisce. Between us we have covered a good part of the planet but we mainly talk about the people we have known.  The trajectory of their lives is now clear or finished.  The professors we had are gone and several of our friends.  John died in the jungle having finished a Bible translation. Glen lost both legs, an eye, a kidney, and yet never lost his optimism. Charles. . . goes unmentioned – too painful.

G.R. came to see us in Japan during the coldest winter and worst snow on record.  He remembers the cold classrooms. A near heart attack in Tokyo – he says I rushed him – but he had downed two cans of potent hot caffeine – a novelty he had never seen.  He paid for a 40-mile taxi ride to get home.  When he taught my classes, the students could not understand his jokes but would laugh in unison if he said, “This is a joke.” I let him drive with my son in the car – Zach said he was never more frightened. Always the practical joker, he especially enjoyed it when he was the butt of the joke. At the table he asked Joelle the function of a particular dish.  She explained that it was a Japanese food arranger – as Japanese are keen on presentation.  When I came into the dining room he had, with Joelle’s instruction, turned an ordinary bowl upside down on his plate and stacked the food around it.  He had not suspected quiet Joelle capable of such mischief.

On Tuesday Mazie, Chris, Sharon, and Joelle, join us for a walk. G.R. lights up at their presence and they all seem to return the favor.  G.R. quizzes Chris about Thailand and his roots – he has always had a special interest in Thailand. Mazie steadies him as he stumbles along, laughs at his jokes, eventually he and I have to stop as the group moves on.  G.R. confides in me that he has never met such people. I know what he means but I have no explanation. In his grounded way he says, “Don’t explain it just accept it.”

G.R. joins us for a few Bible Studies and meetings. David leads what we call our “depression group” as we are reading Jean Vanier’s Seeing Beyond Depression. Vanier seems to have a singular message: an accepting, loving, group is key in getting beyond depression. David and G.R. resonate as they both have been in the military. G.R. was a military chaplain – a full bird colonel.  We ask him to lead us the next week and he is thoroughly prepared when we meet. We discuss the epidemic of suicide. Retirement has not been easy and he seems satisfied that we appreciate his good advice.  He is happier than I have seen him for some time.

He is able to come to our Tuesday night Bible study. Jake lends some gravitas to the evening in his devotion. G.R. notes his scholarship.  He also asks who the guy is that knows everything about Hebrews, and I explain that Stuart once taught the class at the college level. Though he has always found me quite underwhelming, G.R. finds this lovely group of people overwhelming.

Just as Mazie and Chris managed to restore vital signs in Faith and I after being left for dead, they show G.R. the same sort of nourishing kindness. Sharon makes sure he has all the right oils and G.R. listens carefully – he never listened to me so well.  Sharon resembles his daughter who is several years older.  Alec seems to actually find G.R.’s humor somehow funny – which only encourages him with the bad jokes. During this final visit we pray for him and everyone encourages him to move to town, which he decides to do.  Mazie volunteers us all to move him. He is touched at the gesture.

Each week in his absence the group prays for G.R. and this past week he asked us to pray for a miracle as his body is rejecting the liver transplant. I always ask someone else to pray as I know how impressed he is with this group (and I think he is suspicious I am an inadequate intercessor).  Sharon prayed in her straight-forward way for a miracle.

G.R. called me and I explained who prayed and how.  He said, “Sharon prays so well and knows exactly what to say.”  His main transplant doctor called and has a new medicine that she thought might be the key.

Stephen Paddock killed 59 people this week – and there are no explanations. He was wealthy, and as his brother explained, “He was just a guy.” He was not a terrorist, not a bigot, and without a history of mental illness.  This sort of radical evil is inexplicable and impenetrable.  Paddock is part of an epidemic of despair and gun violence – most of which is committed by white middle-aged men who commit suicide by hand gun – the leading cause of death for this group.

There is an inexplicable and impenetrable resolution to this despair and the inexplicable evil it kicks up – the love of people who are capable of agape community. Seeing it through the eyes of G.R. has made me doubly appreciate the profound healing to be found in community.  It is not there for most people, and I am suspicious it is not there for most Christians. The chorus we used to sing in 70’s and have revived at Forging Ploughshares, “They will know you by your love” – would be corny in another group.  Here we know the love of God because of Mazie, Chris, Sharon, Jake, Alec, Rachel, David . . .

As G.R. said, “Don’t try to explain it” but know that apart from it lurks profound despair which is only countered by this inexplicable love.


Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.