Ash Wednesday, Doctor Who, and The Work of Grieving

This morning I was watching Doctor Who – “Gridlock” – the episode where the Doctor and Martha go to New New York and Martha gets kidnapped and taken to the motorway. There’s a scene in this episode in which the recorded news is signing off the air and the broadcast signs off with The Old Rugged Cross.  The scene shifts among the different cars on the motorway. Everyone is singing except for the Doctor, and tears are running down cheeks. This scene had never made me tear up before. But it did today.

Today is Ash Wednesday – the beginning of Lent. So I’m in a contemplative mood anyway. And suddenly I hear The Old Rugged Cross. When the healing choir at my home congregation went to the hospital to sing for Don, this is the hymn that he requested specifically. Now, if you know anything at all about Unitarian Universalists, you might find this a bit unusual. Well, it probably is. But Don was seeking at the end of his life. He was doing the hard work of religion and spirituality. And this was his favorite hymn.

So the pastoral healing choir came, and regardless of the theologies in the mix, they all sang The Old Rugged Cross for Don. And when he died, not very long after that, I had the choir and the congregation sing it at his memorial service. The choir also sang an anthem, Precious Lord, by Thomas Dorsey. They got through it beautifully, and then I could see that many of them were weeping. And so was I.

So when I suddenly heard The Old Rugged Cross this morning, I suddenly began to tear up. I thought of Don. He was a big Doctor Who fan. I thought how nice it would be if he were here with me. But this is not to be.

Lent is a wilderness time. We recall Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, and his journey toward Jerusalem and the cross.  We abstain from things. And I realize that I am in my own grief wilderness.  And sometimes in the wilderness, things can sneak up on us. The Old Rugged Cross snuck up on me today.

Grieving takes time. It can’t be rushed. Lent takes time. The Doctor, who travels through time, often skips things he doesn’t have the patience for. However sometimes he gets stuck sitting it out with everyone else. In “Vincent and the Doctor” he has to sit with Amy and Vincent van Gogh waiting for an alien to appear in a church. He’s terribly frustrated and says, “Is this how time normally passes? Really slowly, in the right order?”  Yes. Yes it is, Doctor. And this is how we have to work through it.

At the end of “Gridlock” Abide With Me is playing. Another hymn Don liked, and I like it, too. It’s a reminder that, although we grieve, although we are in the wilderness, God is with us. We may wonder why God remains silent. We might plea, as the psalmist often does, for God to show God’s self so that we don’t feel abandoned. But in the end, we are not abandoned.

God has never led me into the wilderness without leading me back out again. So Lord, I am trusting in you. I miss Don. Hold him gently. I feel lost sometimes. Shine your light on the path ahead. And Abide With Me.

That’s all I’ve got. That’s my mite.


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