I remember Bishop Julius Trimble standing before a room of incarcerated women some years ago, speaking of the 23rd Psalm. He came to those words, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” and he paused there.
Looking out at those women, whose lives he knew contained so much of pain and death and distance, he said these words I’ll never forget. “Trouble is, it’s not just ‘through,’ is it? As if that valley is an easy walk.”
He held his left hand before him, sweeping it to the right, and on around himself as he spun in place behind the pulpit, saying, “It’s THRRROOOOOOUUUUUUUUUGGGHHHHH.” The women responded with instant recognition, knowing what he meant. They had lived it. You’re gonna be in that valley a while, sister.
There is power in naming that. In embodying it.
When we started this e-newsletter series ten months ago, we chose the word exile as a grounding image. We were thinking of “exile,” and our “abiding in” it through this pandemic, as having its own kind of trajectory. A beginning, a middle, and eventually an end.
An end, meaning we’re though it.
Turns out it’s more like THRRROOOOOOUUUUUUUUUGGGHHHHH. And we’re still spinning.
Six weeks ago, in a meeting of the Mental Health Task Force, we were pondering the continued relevance of this weekly missive and whether the language of “exile” remained meaningful. We have a faithful readership, all these months in (for which we thank you!), but we considered whether it was time to rethink or to change our language as we were stepping (or so we thought) from the shadow of the pandemic.
That day we decided to keep the “exile” theme. Exile isn’t, we said, just about a pandemic. It’s about ongoing concern for mental health that we see more clearly today; mental illness can feel like a kind of exile. And not only that:
Those were just the examples our team named that day. “Exile” still feels like a helpful rubric for the many ways we abide away from home, away from full participation, away from our fullest selves. So we’ll keep writing.
And now, six weeks later, that conversation feels a bit quaint, with the delta variant, and rising cases, and renewed masking recommendations by the CDC and from our conference. “You thought we were done!” you might say, laughing!
Or crying. Who isn’t weeping, or at least feeling the renewed weight of all this, at where we find ourselves?
Maybe exile isn’t something we get THRROOOUUUGH, exactly. Maybe it’s better described as weighing on us with a heaviness that varies over time. It lifts, and we think it’s gone. Until it isn’t. It’s fickle that way. If there’s a trajectory, it’s longer and wider than we can even yet see.
Which brings me back to Bishop Trimble and that Thursday night inside the prison, leading worship with Women at the Well, the prison congregation we Iowa United Methodists so courageously planted in Mitchellville fifteen years ago. He was saying two things with his physical enactment of that word “through.” First, that getting through the valley of the shadow of death is no quick and immediate thing. We spend real time in that valley. We don’t control it. It’s murky, and hard, and it might be bitterly long.
But still, Bishop Trimble went on to say, we DO get through it. That valley doesn’t claim us forever. There is an end. It doesn’t have the final word. And along the way, “I will fear no evil, for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” And a table in the presence of our enemies. And the house of the Lord forever.
It was true that night for our sisters behind bars. I saw them, seeing it.
And it’s true for us as we abide in this exile.
Let us see it, too. Stand up right now and spin once, twice, as you say that, THRROOOOOUUUUUUUUUGGH. Notice, friends, it ends. The spinning stops, in time.