Psalm 22:1-2, Jonah 3:10-4:11
The Rev. Tom Herbek
April 29, 2018
The Neutral Zone is a place where no authority rules, where no action is allowed. It is a place in between the places of action. In Star Trek, it is the boundary that separates Star Fleet, the United Federation of Planets, from the Romulan Empire. What would it be like to live in the Neutral Zone, where everything is up in the air? Luckily, we don’t have to live in such a place, where nothing is clear, and where life is in limbo.
And yet, there are times when we do. Most of us have gone through periods in our lives where life seems to stop or be put on hold, where the future is uncertain and the past seems to offer only minimal guidance. And this is our Neutral Zone. It is the time when the cry of the Psalmist, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is a cry that resonates with each of us. In the Neutral Zone, we have lost our bearings. Our plans, our hopes, our goals all seem remote and meaningless. All of our energy is absorbed in trying to understand what has happened to us.
It is a time when nothing makes sense, just like for Jonah. Everything he had been taught, everything Jonah believed about God and the way the world works, had been turned upside down. And just like Jonah, just like the Psalmist, we hate this time. And our culture knows so little about how to prepare us for the limbo of such a time, how to help us avoid the pain and the sense of helplessness of the neutral zone.
We find ourselves in the Neutral Zone when we lose a part of our life that we have felt we could always count on: a parent, a job, a loved one, a marriage, a world where the good people are rewarded and the bad people are punished. Yet, after Psalm 22, and the absence of God, the Psalmist writes Psalm 23. The writer of this next Psalm describes God’s presence as we walk thru the valley of the shadow-of-death. Rabbi Harold Kushner, whose young son died of progeria, writes:
For all those who hurt because of the loss of love, for all those who in their moments of despair see God and God’s world with its inevitable prospect of death as a “caster of shadows,” I would call their attention to one word in the line from the Twenty-third Psalm, a word they may not have noticed: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death….”
I have known people who were hurt by life and chose to remain in the shadow. They never made it through the valley to a place where the sun could shine on them again. I often wondered why they chose to stay there. After our son’s death, my wife and I joined a support group for bereaved parents, The Compassionate Friends. It was a lifeline for us when we needed it, and we remain grateful for its help.
My wife and I attended for some three or four months and then “graduated,” feeling we had gotten what we needed from the group. But there were parents there who had not missed a meeting in ten years. That bothered me. It seemed that being parents of a child who died was such an important part of their identity that they were reluctant to give it up. They remained in the valley of the shadow instead of finding their way through it. I say this not to judge them – twenty-five years after my son’s death, it remains the single defining moment of my life – but to try to understand them.
- The Lord is My Shepherd
It is in the Neutral Zone experiences of life that we go through times that are overwhelming, and yet, the Neutral Zone times may provide a perspective, an angle of vision about life that we can get nowhere else. In a world where multi-tasking is the norm, the experience of the Neutral Zone may be the only thing to break us out of our continuous partial attention to what is going on around us at any deep level.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery promises us the revelation that the unknown brings and the fullness of life that comes with it. ”A single event,” Exupery writes, “can awaken within us a stranger totally unknown to us. To live is to be slowly born.”
But the Neutral Zone is not such a place. It is only when we begin to take the steps out of the Neutral Zone, out of the valley of the shadow of death, that we renew the process of being slowly born. It means that we must accept the fact that such movement has within it an element of consequential risk. Joan Chittister comments:
Risk, the willingness to accept an unknown future with open hands, is the key to the adventures of the soul. Risk stretches us to discover the rest of ourselves -our creativity, our self-sufficiency, our courage. Without risk we live in a small world of small dreams and lost possibilities.
Risk prods us on to become always the more of ourselves.
-Between the Dark and the Daylight
She goes on to describe a possibility in loss that we can’t really see in the Neutral Zone. She calls it, “The Liberation of Loss”:
There is a resurrection that comes with loss. People can no longer see in us the person they saw before, true. But that is one of the gifts of loss. Loss frees us to begin again, to be seen differently, to tap into something inside of ourselves that even we were never really sure was there. But, whether we knew it or not, did badly want.
We can now -perhaps must now– be ourselves but in some very different ways.
It’s when we hunker down inside ourselves at a time of great loss- withdrawing from the world, refusing to bloom again some other place- that the loss stands to destroy us. When we walk out the door of loss we find it always open. The only problem lies in whether or not we take that first step over the doorsill.
It is, of course, possible to freeze in place. We can simply sit our lives away waiting for someone to discover what we were and want us to be it again. The problem is that, unknown even to ourselves, perhaps, it wouldn’t be possible even if we tried. We can’t simply go back to being what we were before. Everything has changed. The situation is new. The life demands are new. And we are new now, too. We know what it is to be wrenched out of the only self we have ever really known, the one we thought we would be forever. Most of all, we know more about life and more about ourselves now. We are meant to go on, yes- in fact, we have no choice- but we are meant to go on differently.
I don’t know who said it, but someone who had obviously experienced the Neutral Zone once said:
“It is the things that you cannot do anything about and the things that you cannot do anything with, that do something with you.”
For those of us who have experienced tough losses, and all of us have, then the message of Easter is not just, “Don’t be afraid to die,” but it is even more than that. The message of Easter for all of us is “Don’t be afraid to live, to live for those things worth dying for.”
Our church family is a place where people who find themselves in the Neutral Zone can find support and comfort and companionship. Anne LaMott describes how essential it is that we have companions on the journey:
Alone, we are doomed, but by the same token, we’ve learned that people are impossible, even the ones we love most- especially the ones we love most: they’re damaged, prickly and set in their ways. Also, they’ve gotten old and a little funny, which can be draining. It is most comfortable to be invisible, to observe life from a distance, at one with our own intoxicating superior thoughts. But comfort and isolation are not where the surprises are. They are not where hope is. Hope tends to appear when we see that all sorts of disparate personalities can come together, no matter how different and jarring they may seem at first. Little kids think all colors or patterns of shirt go with all patterns and colors of pants, and it takes us elders a minute to see that they in fact do. Blue madras shorts can look great with a Peter Max print top, in the right hands- say, of someone who has found a visual rhythm, in patterns that play off each other without being chaotic. I’ve seen this many times.
Only together do we somehow keep coming through unsurvivable loss, the stress of never knowing how things will shake down, to the biggest miracle of all, that against all odds, we come through the end of the world, again and again- changed but intact (more or less). Emerson wrote, “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” I hate this idea more than I can capture in words, but insofar as I have any idea of “the truth,” I believe this to be as true as gravity and grace.
With caring companions, we can find our way through the Neutral Zone, find our way through the valley of the shadow of death. And with patient and compassionate companions, our time in the Neutral Zone can enable parts of us to come alive in new ways.
And then, when our time in the Neutral Zone has done its work, we will begin to find opportunities we never saw before.
May all Neutral Zone wanderers find here a warm and compassionate place, and a loving and understanding family. And may we know God is still with us – even through the Neutral Zone.