The prophet Isaiah did his work during a time of transition and trial for the people of Israel. They fell into captivity by the Babylonians. The nation of Israel was split apart, with some staying in Israel, some being sent in dispersion to other parts of the Babylonian empire. As a result, in many parts of the book of the prophet Isaiah, we hear of the great sadness of the people, dispersed, unable to follow the old ways, forced by their captors to entertain them, to work for them, to accept new ways and foods and rules that felt so very alien to them.
But this brief passage near the end of Isaiah’s recounting is a song of rejoicing. It is when the captive Israelites have returned home to their native land, and it is a time of joy. They are returned to their land and their God, and they are ecstatic.
Isaiah cries “By God’s spirit, I bring good news to the oppressed, I bind up the brokenhearted, I proclaim liberty and release! It is the year of the Lord’s favor, and of comfort for those who mourn. We will replace the ashes with garlands of flowers. We will replace the anointing oil of death and grief with that of joy.”
Could there not be a better passage from Scripture for us to ponder as we remember or brother in Christ, Alex M? Our beloved Alex, who is returned to his God with his broken heart mended, a garland on his head, anointed with the oil of gladness?
His life paralleled what Isaiah spoke of. Certainly he knew sadness. This past year, he lost his partner in life and love, his beloved Nadine. He had lost his brother and sister-in-law. His dear son David died tragically of brain cancer a decade ago. Sadness upon sadness, grief upon grief…layers of brokenheartedness.
Much as those children of Israel, dispersed across an alien empire did, so many centuries ago.
He knew about being a stranger in a strange land. He was born here – barely – his mother was pregnant with him when she arrived in this country from Lebanon. Although he was American by birth, he was Lebanese by blood, and by family, and the family relished and continues to relish its roots. And yet it could not have been easy to be a child from the Middle East in West Virginia. To always balance the competing requirements of being like all the American kids – though he was an American kid himself – and of honoring the beautiful culture and land that the family had left. A part of America, and yet like so many immigrants, not completely a part. A sense of difference, of expectations that might press down on him sometimes.
Much as those children of Israel did as they struggled in Babylon to find their way back to their own culture, their own place.
Alex could have chosen to focus on the tension between the two worlds he inhabited. He could have wept at the loss of homeland, as I suspect his own mother sometimes did. He could have thought too hard about those who thought he didn’t look American enough, or that he ate foods that were different.
Much as the children of Israel sometimes did, and complained bitterly about, during their time of trial.
But the bitter oil of mourning was not his flavor. He chose the oil of gladness.
He embraced his country, and it truly was his country. He served in the Armed Forces.
He kept true to the great beauty of his culture, relishing a good kibbeh or a delicious mamoul even this past weekend. He would argue as to the right proportion of lemon juice and garlic in the tabbouleh, and laugh while he was doing it.
He loved his work, and was good at it, whether at Dillard’s or at other retail establishments. He loved people, and his customers knew it. His was the adornment of the garland of fresh and beautiful flowers. No ashes of discontent or sadness for him.
He knew, in the way that only those who have had deep challenges in their lives do, that we do not travel this earth alone. We do it in companionship with others, who have their own deep challenges, who help each other, and with the help of the God who restores our joy over and over again.
He grieved, but he knew that grief, although deep, is transitory. He understood that God surrounds us with divine love and with the love of our families and friends, and it is that which binds up our wounded hearts.
We do grieve today. Alex was a delight. He never complained (except to Sandy and Sherry, but just to keep them on their toes). He was always supremely hospitable. I spent some time alone with him the day before I died. After we had shared prayers and Holy Communion and anointing, I said, “Just rest, Alex. I’ll sit here quietly and read and keep you company.” But he couldn’t rest. He felt the obligation to engage in conversation if I was in the room – I finally left so the dear man could actually fall asleep in peace. He didn’t want to put people out – he drove himself to WalMart frequently rather than waiting for one of the girls to take him, and was beloved of the clerks there, who delighted in conversing with him as he scootered around the store. How could we not grieve the loss of such a man?
But we know, as he knew, that he is now wearing that garland of flowers. He is anointed with the oil of gladness. He is with his dear ones, especially Nadine and David, who have the TV tuned to “Dancing with the Stars” and a plate of hummus and kibbeh and tabbouleh on the table. For Alex, and for all of us who love him, it is indeed the year of the Lord’s favor. It is good news. He is where he was intended to be, in the place where there is no oxygen tank necessary, no Lasix required. He is listening to the music and is watching people dancing, and perhaps even dancing a bit himself.
Alex M was an oak of righteousness, and he is rooted in heaven now, and we are graced by the gentle shade he has cast on all of us.
Thanks be to God.