THE SCRIPTURE READING from the Hebrew bible in many churches today features the tragic and raw story of King David’s grief over the news of his son’s death. Nevermind the circumstances that led to his end, the rebellious Absalom was lifeless and the bereft and heartbroken king cried. I have been there.
The death of a son
In the fall of 2010, the news of our Andrew’s death came rudely as an early morning knock on our door by two uniformed officers. In short, our son accidentally fell from the rooftop of his house 500 miles away in the middle of the night, while looking at the full moon. His promising progress through this life came to an abrupt end and a different one for those left behind had begun.
One of the prayers I prayed was (in effect) “Can I change places with him?” No answer came.
The King James Bible puts it this way:
When David heard that Absalom was slain he went up into his chamber over the gate and wept: and as he went, he said, my son, my son, O Absalom! my son, would God I had died for thee! (2 Samuel 18:33)
“When David heard”
Composers have long been inspired to set those words, of course, since the choral art naturally offers so much opportunity for expression. But this one by Eric Whitacre is (to me) the most faithful to the profound wave-like patterns of fresh grief. Over and over, the reiteration comes and goes, wells up, overflows, is broken down and built again. That is what my experience felt like for what seemed an interminable sequence in time. In part, because time is not measurable when you cannot feel the bottom of the pool you’re sinking in. The miles on that dreary road stretch before you into years.
But I’m further down the road now. Prayers. Consoling presences. Music. Companionship. The structure of work. Certain bits of light finding me where I was. These are the things that got me through.
No, I was not able to trade places with my son, but occasionally, I find myself sitting beside someone who is on a similar path. Advice is not the thing to give in those moments. Understanding is.
In an interview, Whitacre commented that “When David Heard” is the most deeply personal piece he’s ever written. He was 29 when he wrote it.
At 17 minutes, the anthem is probably not going to be sung at the offertory on a hot August Sunday, lest the faithful folks in the pew should lose hope of getting out in time for lunch. However, if you’ve never heard Whitacre’s interpretation of this scripture, I invite you to sit with it and allow the music to speak to you. It is the sound of grief.
This passage from 2 Samuel isn’t the only scripture read in this week’s lectionary, and there are threads of grace to take ahold of among the others, but to this father who misses his son, it was the most prominent one.
O Lord, comfort every grieving parent today with your consoling presence. Walk with them down that road. Amen.