Sunday, June 09, 2013

The Power of Grief

1 Kings 17:8-24
Luke 7:11-17

A few weeks ago I presided over a memorial service for a former classmate and childhood friend; a friend I grew up with, fought with, played with, shared birthday parties with, built forts with, and attended summer camps with.  My friend and I (and others of our little group) had known one another at least since first grade and had all kinds of childhood experiences together.  So it is as I shared with the congregation at the memorial, saying goodbye to a childhood friend means saying goodbye to at least a small part of one's own childhood in the process.  It is a reminder, I think, of the "seasons" of life; "a time to live, and a time to die".

Last week I received a note from his widow thanking me for my service but also expressing a profound grief that often goes beyond the loss itself.  We grieve the loss of a loved one, of course, but we fail to acknowledge the almost certain disorientation as we struggle to come to terms not just with the loss but with how our lives are forever changed.  This disorientation can also be exacerbated by well-meaning friends who, in an attempt to provide comfort, try to remind us that the pain will pass in time.  The rational mind knows this to be true, of course, but we are not often rational in our grief.  Friends mean well in awkward attempts to comfort those who grieve, but trying to somehow "distract" a grieving person from the reality of their loss or trying to explain away the pain can often trivialize the loss and actually compound the confusion.

Even the psalmist seems to trivialize loss as it is expressed: "Do not put your trust in princes, mortals in whom there is no help.  When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish" (Psalm 146:3, 4).  Well, those we love are "mortals" and we know this much to be true, but in our grief we are not well consoled with such words that really do make our losses seem ... insignificant.  Maybe in the grand scheme our loss is not going to matter much to anyone else, but to us - at least in that moment of loss - our world and the life we once knew and took comfort in has come to an end.

An interesting essay I came across last week actually speaks directly to our inability - or unwillingness - to deal with death honestly.  Carl Trueman is a seminary professor of church history at Westminster Theological who wrote that the problem within the wider church is not that "entertainment" has become too prevalent; it may be that we are experiencing the wrong kind of entertainment too often, particularly in worship. 

"Worship characterized by upbeat rock music, stand-up comedy, beautiful people taking center stage, and a certain amount of Hallmark Channel sentimentality neglects one classic form of entertainment ... tragedy.  Tragedy as a form of art and entertainment highlighted death, and death is central to true Christian worship."  

Of course Christ is resurrected!  But the death had to come first.  And that particular death, I think, is the one we do not deal with honestly - or we make an after-thought.  We prefer jumping straight from Christmas to Easter, so we gloss over or outright ignore the death.  Dancing about and taking any particular "joy" from such a horrific and gruesome death (like "Happy Good Friday" greetings) ignores the humanness of Jesus and the excruciating pain He felt, takes even a perverse joy from that torturous death and even diminishes our own humanity, discounts the profound grief of his mother who was forced to watch this tragedy unfold, and reduces Jesus' worth to little more than a head of livestock; just a "sacrificial lamb".  We choose to ignore all this and thus deny ourselves the full experience and the fullest expression of Divine love.

Some would argue that we are Resurrection people, that Christ cannot be killed over and over again.  Well, we have completely perverted the Holy Day of Christmas as nothing more than an occasion of mindless consumerism, and Easter has been reduced to little more than an occasion for new clothes.  But we do these things "over and over"; why do we choose to ignore the Crucifixion?  Or worse, why do we somehow make this occasion a "happy" one?  Would we take joy in the death of a loved one who died while risking their lives for us?  Why do we take joy in Jesus' painful death?  Or overlook it altogether?

I do not think Mr. Trueman suggests we should dwell on death, but how can we really experience and appreciate life and its truest gifts if we try to ignore or gloss over the reality of death?  Philosophers and theologians have tried to convey the idea that it is impossible to appreciate "good" if we never experience evil.  It is, I think, what Mr. Trueman terms a "distraction", a "diversion" from real life that a constant diet of "upbeat" entertainment in worship is about; a "diversion" that leaves us ill-prepared and ill-equipped for the inevitable; a "distraction" that tries to pretend we can somehow avoid grief.

Some might suggest that a constant diet of death can actually lead to a state of depression.  While I can appreciate that perspective, I might suggest that rather than writing off loving and living as worthless endeavors since it will all come to an end sooner or later, we might be more inclined to appreciate what is in our lives in their appropriate "seasons" while they exist - that is, if we are willing to understand and truly appreciate the nature of "gifts"; something given as an expression of love, but also something the loss of which reminds us how very alive we truly are.  If we never experience pain, if we never suffer any grief, how "alive" can we really be?

The stories of Elijah and Jesus with these widows suffering their losses of sons must first be understood in their cultural context.  It was rare that widows had any rights or owned property, so a son was crucial to their very survival in a society that seemed to have had little use for widows.  This cultural reality is judged, however, in the Law (Deut 16:11) and in the psalms (68:5) as well as in other writings throughout Tanakh (I'm trying to remove "old" testament from my vocabulary, and Hebrew gives me the best option for now!). 

So it must be noted, in that cultural context, that these women had each suffered a profound loss that transcended the loss of a loved one; their own state of being was at stake.  The safety and security of their former reality were at risk, but thanks be to the Living God this was not the Holy Father's will for their lives (another particularly detestable attempt to comfort those who grieve by assigning death directly to Divine will)!  In a moment of spiritual clarity, the Divine intersected with the secular and not only restored life to those formerly "dead" but also gave to these grieving widows a "new way of being".  Nothing ever stays the same, even for these widows after their sons were restored!  Not "same ol' - a whole new reality, a whole new way of being!

Notice in both stories neither widow was spared the grief of her loss.  Even the widow with Elijah thought she was being somehow judged by YHWH through this "man of God" for some long-forgotten sin!  But isn't that often a reaction to an unexpected loss, wondering what we did to deserve this, wondering why the Lord is somehow "unfairly" judging us?  Or even wondering why the Lord will not do for us what He did for these widows? 

There can be no doubt that any significant loss in our lives is going to change everything to some degree, but we must not be reduced to a moment of "blaming" the Lord for our loss.  This, unfortunately, can often be a byproduct of too much "happy hour" entertainment in worship, if Mr. Trueman's assessment is accurate.  Rather we should learn to look to our Lord for our own "new way of being" - through His death on the cross.  It is in the weakness of our grief in which the strength and might of our Holy God is most pronounced - especially when we realize Divine grace is Divine grief. 

We cannot change that age-old reality: stuff happens and even those we love will die because death - like our Lord - is no respecter of persons; there is no partiality as Peter discovered (Acts 10:34).  But the "new way of being" in the Covenant of the Lord is His promise that though we are surrounded by death, Life will always burst forth - through Him, with Him, in Him.  But it is only in our grief when this Reality finally comes to fruition.  In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.   

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