As a pastor, I feel it’s important to speak into the moment, addressing our current circumstances with the eternal message of the good news and what that good news means amid the situations we’re facing. But if I’m honest, when I look around today, I’m overwhelmed. There’s so much going on in our world. Words aren’t coming as easy as they used to.
Thirteen weeks ago, the whispers of an uncontrollable reality emerged. The news had been telling us that a new illness was spreading across the globe, but like those before it, we thought our precautions and history meant that we could face it without much disruption. I don’t know that we had any idea what it would look like as the first domino fell as college basketball tournaments canceled games. The NBA was soon to follow. I knew when sports that make a lot of money were closed for precaution, we were in very uncharted waters. Little did we know.
For thirteen weeks, we’ve faced a new normal, that looks like anything but normal as the pandemic still ravages our world and takes a shot at humanity and society in a way not seen for a very long time. Thousands of lives have been lost, with no immediate end yet in sight. We talk about life opening back up, but much of that doesn’t really look the same. This new normal isn’t normal yet. It’s a shadow of what we recall, and we’re afraid that it may stay this way. The unknown impact of the reopening of our halted life sits in the back of my mind, and it makes me scared.
Thirteen weeks ago, this was all we faced. This was the national conversation. Then, another conversation began, a much need conversation, as people once again stood up in protest, this time across all fifty states and now across our world.
For the first time in my life, I have hope that the world will finally address the evils of systemic racism, but the cost to get here is heartbreaking. How many more voices crying out for justice will be silenced by the sins of racism created by history in need of repent. Watching the broken system, and those who support it, close their ears, and push back against the voices of the oppressed makes me angry.
And while we face these issues, we can’t seem to get past the division and those who continue to stoke the fires of division and disunity among us. One human family continues to be divided as those in power find strength in our differences instead of our collective story. Our lack of imagination in talking through our stories, differences, and dreaming of a better world for our children makes me sad.
I’m not without words, but those words are words like scared, angry, and sad. I know that I’m not alone in feeling these because I’ve talked to so many of you. What I’ve said today, I hear echoed in the voices of my friends and this church. And there is a reason for this.
This year has brought us crisis, upheaval, and uncertainty in ways many of us have never experienced. Our bodies and minds have responded with emotions like anxiety, sadness, and anger, emotions we most often associate with people experiencing grief and loss. Some of you are experiencing the loss of a loved one, for others, it’s a different kind of loss. We all are facing something, and that something is leading us to grief.
David Kessler is the world’s foremost expert on grief. He co-wrote a book called On Grief and Grieving. His co-author, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, originated the concept of the five stages of grief.
Now, there’s a lot of discussion about these stages, and whether they are stages at all. In many ways, these emotions can look more like a tangled mess, like an unruly extension cord, the more you pull on it, the more tangled up and endless it becomes. Others have described it as a roller coaster, doubling back on itself, leading us to the phrase “roller coaster of emotions.”
Whatever metaphor we may use to talk about these emotions, we’ve all experienced them in times of loss. What we also need to recognize is that we’ve experienced and are experiencing them today. In talking about this reality, David Kessler, in a recent interview, said this.
“We’re feeling a number of different griefs. We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different. Just as going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9/11, things will change, and this is the point at which they changed. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us, and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.” He continued on, addressing the other part of this that I think many of us feel. “We’re also feeling anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain…There is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety…We are grieving on a micro and a macro level.” And concluded with this. “Your work is to feel your sadness and fear and anger whether or not someone else is feeling something. Fighting it doesn’t help because your body is producing the feeling.”
But there is another layer that I want us to explore. I think for far too long when it’s come to grief, there has been a tension where grief meets faith.
When we experience suffering, the answer by well-meaning people has often been you just have to have faith. Many well-meaning people have caught off the grieving process with a misunderstanding of what trust in God looks like. We’re told to just have faith. We’re told to let it go. People who can’t seem to get suffering to line up with their understanding of God, tempt us to ignore the pain, numb it, or view it as wrong. We’ve been told to not experience the stages, roller coaster, and tangled up mess of emotions that come with grief. And that advice is wrong.
The danger in running from grief is that it can actually hinder us in our relationship with God, with others and with ourselves. We have to work to feel our emotions, to name them, to experience them, and to know that we have a heavenly father who not only listens to us but also sits with us amid our grief. We find this advice in a letter to the early church.
1 Peter 5:6-7
6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. 7 Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.
Humbleness and anxiety don’t seem like words that go together, but these verses teach us something important about faith, trust, and grief.
A proud person thinks they can handle things on their own, think they know better, think God isn’t doing a good enough job, and they can figure it out on their own. This is the temptation we talked about before. It’s actually a stage of grief called denial.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with denial. Dr. Ronnie Janoff-Bulman says, “Grieving appropriately means allowing ample time to remember and feel the loss as well as embracing occasional opportunities to distract ourselves and regroup.”
But fully ignoring our grief and the source of that grief is unhealthy. It’s also unspiritual.
According to this passage in 1 Peter, ignoring our grief and not bringing it to God isn’t trust in God; it the exact opposite. Our grief is built on our anxiety about what we’ve lost or what we’re going to lose. Ignoring that grief is to say we don’t trust God and that we have a better way to handle it.
We may be afraid to show our sadness, fear, and anger, especially when that anger is expressed toward God. But I know that he can handle it. I know we can do this, and that God can handle it, because scripture is filled with people expressing their most raw emotion to God.
Now, one of those places we find this is in a book in the Bible called Lamentations. It’s a book of public lament written at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, about 600 years before the time of Jesus.
To read this very honest book is to experience the humiliation, suffering, and despair of the people because it’s a book of public, collective grief. Rather than deny their grief and the source of that grief, the author of Lamentations invites us into their experience.
Three chapters into it, we read these words that speak to us today as we wrestle with our grief.
I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. 20 I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. 21 Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: 22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. 23 They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. 24 I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” 25 The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; 26 it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. 27 It is good for a man to bear the yoke while he is young. 28 Let him sit alone in silence, for the Lord has laid it on him. 29 Let him bury his face in the dust—there may yet be hope. 30 Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him, and let him be filled with disgrace. 31 For no one is cast off by the Lord forever. 32 Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. 33 For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone.
How do we hope amid this grief and loss? What do we do with the emotions we feel? What do we discover in the story of the people of God in similar times of uncertainty and grief?
During this sermon series, we will explore the landscape of these questions, and the intersection of our emotions and faith. We will look at stories of people who experience grief. We will look at their faith, their misunderstandings, and the correction God gave to them as their understanding grew. And, while there’s a lot to explore, there’s something with which I’m certain.
I’m not without words in this time of collective grief and uncertainty, but those words are words like scared, angry, and sad. I want to say that it’s all going to be okay, but right now, I won’t deny what I feel. I won’t deny that there is something to grieve. I will take that grief to God.
And, while I don’t have all the answers, I will simply lay my head against my heavenly father’s chest and let him hold me. And, maybe just listening to his heartbeat will be enough.