A powerful, thought-provoking insight....

Give me a well-trained tongue that has been borne out of silent listening in the sanctuary of my heart.

~ sevensacredpauses by Macrina Wiederkehr

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Work of Grieving

"Too many times we stand aside and let the waters slip away
             . . . dare to dance the tide."  ~   Anonymous

Why do we grieve?  Why are our hearts so entangled with one another's?  Why must we mourn our losses—large and small—and suffer the consequences when we refuse to do so?

Losses, changes, transitions—good, bad, or indifferent—all bring about grieving.  Some instances of loss, change, or transition affect our relationships because of death, illness, distance, work schedules, and even philosophies.  Our relationships form the bases of our lives.  We were created for community and when that community is disrupted, we grieve.

Grieving, despite its bad reputation, is a necessary part of growth.  Without the work of grieving, we tend to lose ourselves in the tangled emotional webs we weave.  Grieving helps to gently untangle our needs, our fears, and our doubts from the truth of a change. Grieving helps us value and appreciate what went before and look forward to what is in store for us.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of taking a class on the Psalms from Dr. Kathleen O'Connor at Columbia Theological Seminary.  I say privilege because Dr. O'Connor loves the Psalms.  Part of the work we were assigned during the class involved choosing a type of psalm (lament, happy, etc.) and writing one of our own.  The assignment elicited an inward groan from me because I knew immediately what sort of psalm I needed to write: a lament.  The idea of writing a lament was on the surface a simple one; yet underneath, an assignment that would pull from me difficult emotions surrounding my life and my relationship with God.

Yet, I wrote my psalm.  It was indeed a lament.  Now, one thing to know about laments: they are fluid; they move from anger and despair through grace and mercy into joy.  I find psalms of lament the most hopeful psalms.  My psalm dealt with the grief I have experienced throughout my life, my ache for understanding the "why," and the ultimate mercy and solace I found in God's presence with me throughout all of it.

In the stanzas of the psalm, I compared grief to being on the beach. However, I took that comparison a step further and wondered if God was indeed the grief itself.  God is often said to be joy and love—why not grief?  If we began to experience our grief as yet one more way of being present with God, would the work be any easier?  Would we be more in touch with the mercy and solace available to us through God's presence?

             Henri Nouwen writes,  

            Jesus, the Blessed One, mourns.  Jesus mourns when his friend Lazarus dies (see John 11:33-36); he mourns when he overlooks the city of Jerusalem, soon to be destroyed (see Luke 19:41-44).  Jesus mourns over all losses and devastations that fill the human heart with pain.  He grieves with those who grieve and sheds tears with those who cry.

             The violence, greed, lust, and so many other evils that have distorted the face of the earth and its people causes [sic] the Beloved Son of God to mourn.   We too have to mourn if we hope to experience God's consolation. 

When Jesus goes to the Temple in Jerusalem and reads scripture, the scripture he reads is from Isaiah 61, verses 1-3:

 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
            because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
           to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor,
            and the day of vengeance of our God;
                        to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
            to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
            the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. 
 They will be called oaks of righteousness,
                       the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.

We hear Jesus tell the crowds gathered on the hillside that those who mourn will be comforted (Matthew 5:4). 

We all live our lives in the presence of God/God is always present to the messiness of our lives. Part of what we learn from studying Jesus’ life is that Jesus experienced everything we experience. Jesus lived a human life; was very familiar with the losses and transitions through which we all live.  The reason Jesus' life lessons are so important for us is that they create a sense of familiarity, of understanding, of acceptance—of comfort.  There simply is nothing we can experience with which God has not become intimately acquainted.  God comforts us with presence—just as we comfort those around us with our own presence in times of trouble, in times of grieving. 

Back to grief and the beach—grief is like the waves at the beach, sometimes they roar in from way far out and knock us down, sometimes they sneak in from just a little way out and pull the sand from under our feet, and sometimes what looks like one of those waves that will surely knock us down actually dissipates before it ever reaches us.  If we look at each of these instances of grief and see God as the grief, how does that affect our experience of grief, of God?

Are there times in our journey through grief when we see God coming?  Do we realize our feet are about to be knocked from under us?  How about those times when we think we see God approaching only to feel a certain withdrawal, bringing a sort of disappointment with it.

Through the varying depths and strengths of our experience of grief, God works with us in sorting out our issues, our questions, our needs, our desires.  I have come to accept that God ensures we have what we need to do the work we need to do when we need to do it.  The role we have in this is openness and acceptance.

In looking back at the Psalms class and the practice of writing a lament, I found that the movement from lament through grace into joy was exhilarating.  By writing my own psalm, I realized that I had lived through that movement time and again. In seeing it as such, I saw the hope and comfort which kept me going from a different perspective.  I experienced God as being an active participant and a companion on my journey. 

Indeed, God is the guiding presence in my life which leads me through difficult periods and onto the high beach, safe from the rolling waves, to rest, to be comforted, to heal.  We each have those high beaches in our lives.  God is indeed the power which brings us there.  If God is present with us on those high beaches, then God is also present with us in the waves.

When considering God as actually being the waves of grief at that beach, perhaps we can experience a deeper sense of hope in the midst of our grieving.  When God is so deeply a part of the work we must do, then that work is good work, healing work, growth-inducing work.

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