Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.
Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.
Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.
Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.
To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.
Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.
Listen now to the poet who penned Psalm 71:
Psalm 71:1 In you, O LORD, I take refuge; let me never be put to shame.
2 In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me; incline your ear to me and save me.
3 Be to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress, to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress.
4 Rescue me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of the unjust and cruel.
5 For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O LORD, from my youth.
6 Upon you I have leaned from my birth; it was you who took me from my mother's womb. My praise is continually of you.
7 I have been like a portent to many, but you are my strong refuge.
8 My mouth is filled with your praise, and with your glory all day long.
Let Evening Come
Text: Psalm 71:1-6
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 8-21-16)
Just over twenty years ago, at age of 48, the poet laureate, Jane Kenyon, died of leukemia. Terry Gross interviewed Donald Hall, Kenyon’s husband and a poet laureate himself, and asked, “Did your wife maintain a faith in God throughout her illness and death?” He responded with one word: “yes.” He did not need to say more, because Kenyon’s poetry is a running conversation about matters of faith.
I realize that the very mention of “poetry” causes some people to break out in hives. It brings back miserable memories of digesting the syntax of John Donne or sifting through the sonnets of William Shakespeare. It conjures up the “know it all” student on the front row, always waving his hand and insisting: “Oh, I know, I know, what that poem means.” Poetry gives some people a literary headache wishing that the poet would stop speaking in metaphors and just say what she means.
So, why do we have to listen to poetry in church? The answer to that question is clear. Whenever we listen to significant parts of Scripture, we are listening to poetry, or at least, the poetic. From the magnificent first creation story in Genesis to the soothing image of the Shepherd in the 23rd psalm to the mysterious incarnation story at the opening of John’s Gospel, poetry, the Bible, and faith dance on the same ballroom floor.
Jane Kenyon knew that truth. In Terry Gross’s interview with Donald Hall, soon after Jane’s death, he explained: “Faith did not keep her from suffering. Often there were long hours of the night when there was no grace present, and there was suffering and despair." I am grateful for Hall’s honesty. I can pay attention to a poet who holds faith and suffering together and does not insist on the spiritual nonsense that real faith somehow eliminates suffering.
Hall explains that when he and Kenyon moved to Eagle Pond Farm, they "got into the habit of going to church" because that is what the neighbors expected of them. In an interview with Bill Moyers, Kenyon observed: "Before I knew what had happened to me, I'd become a believer”—not in the frightening God of her childhood, but in "a God who, if you ask, forgives you no matter how far down in the well you are. If I didn't believe that I couldn't live."
Kenyon’s faith is expressed with sheer elegance and beauty in her poem, “Let Evening Come.” The closing stanza invites evening to come, be it the evening of our struggles, the evening of our despair, even the evening of our death: “Let it come, as it will, and don't be afraid. God does not leave us comfortless, so let evening come.”
A few years ago, a troubled young man brought his loaded automatic weapon into the McNair Elementary School in Dekalb County, just outside Atlanta. On that day, every Atlanta resident feared another tragic story of gun violence gone mad. On this day, though, the story had a different ending.
Antoinette Tuff, an office worker at the school, was on call that day. The troubled young white man, carrying a AK47, entered the school and shot off several rounds of ammunition to get everyone’s attention. That is all the news could tell us.
Later we learned that inside the school office, though, a much different story was unfolding. Mrs. Tuff talked to Donald Hill not as a madman brandishing an automatic weapon, but as a deeply troubled child of God, even as she had been deeply troubled recently when her husband of 33 years had left her. She spoke these simple words to him as she would have hoped someone would have spoken them to her, “Sweetie, it will be okay.”
The conversation continued and not much time passed before Donald Hill was telling Mrs. Tuff his own plight and then set aside his gun without a person being harmed. Anderson Cooper of CNN asked Antoinette if she considered herself a hero. No, she considered herself a vessel for God and that her recent life experiences had prepared her for this terrifying moment.
What did she want people to walk away learning from this experience, asked Cooper. She hoped that through this experience people might come to know that God really does exist and that God was there that day for her, for the children, and for the “man with a gun.”
When evening came in her all-too-short life, the poet Jane Kenyon was not finally overcome with fear and dread. When evening came and the air was thick with the prospect of death at the McNair Elementary school, the office administrator, Antoinette Tuff, was not finally overcome with fear and dread.
At the heart of Kenyon’s poetry and Tuff’s calming words, you can hear the cries of the poet in Psalm 71: “You are my hope, O LORD, my refuge since youth.” The psalmist looks back over his life that has often been filled with pain and suffering. Yet, his is a life that has been grounded in trust in a God who hears our prayers and stands with us when the trials of life should “threaten to undo us,” even “when evening comes,” our God “does not leave us comfortless.”
The God we meet in Psalm 71 is not a God promising refuge from the rough and often harsh, indisputable realities of our own mortality. Psalm 71 is about a God who does not forsake us even when we are feeling the most forsaken. It is the God who answers the cry in the dark: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me” with the dawn of an empty tomb on Easter morning.
Long before he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in D.C., the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached a sermon called: “Our God is Able.” In the sermon, King tells the back story of his leadership in the Montgomery bus boycott. Almost daily, he got threatening phone calls, had rocks thrown through the windows of his home, and he worried for his own life and for the well-being of his family.
King writes: “I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. Finally, I went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee. I was ready to give up. I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had almost gone, I determined to take my problem to God. My head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. . . ‘I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone’.
“At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never before . . . It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, ‘Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever’. Almost at once my fears began to pass from me. . . . the outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm” (Strength to Love, p. 113).
Both King at midnight and Tuff at midday dispel any notion that taking refuge in God is some sort of magical protection from the worst that life has to offer us, some sort of Harry Potter “Invisibility Cloak.” To trust that God is our refuge gives us confidence to walk through the toughest trials of life, and in Tuff and King’s cases, courage to confront violence with nonviolent love, thereby, ultimately to disarm violence.
To trust that God is our refuge is to sing with Martin Luther: “And though this world, with devils filled, Should threaten to undo us, We will not fear, for God hath willed God’s truth to triumph through us.” To trust that God is our refuge is to cry out with the psalmist: “From my mother’s womb You brought me out. To You is my praise always.” To trust that God is our refuge is to walk into every evening, even the evening of our own dying, with confidence that our God “does not leave us comfortless.”
“In you, O LORD, I take refuge,” says the psalmist. So breathe deeply, trust God fully, and “let evening come.”