Tag Archives: Grief

Life with God: The Book of Psalms – Week 3 – Sunday, June 14, 2015

Sunday’s Reading:
Psalm 69:1-16

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

When things are going well – when “life is good” – it’s not hard to come up with the language we need to describe the way we look at the world or the way we feel about God. The words of wisdom and praise that we’ve looked at over the past two weeks, epitomized by Psalm 1 and Psalm 113, come easily to our lips, and we find little difficulty lifting our voices to rejoice in the God who has created us to enjoy a world of beauty and joy and abundant life. We can talk with some confidence about how the righteous are blessed and the wicked are cursed, about how great God is and how God is worthy to be praised.

When things fall apart, however, we often find it hard to speak. In part, that’s because the experience of trauma and pain and sadness deadens our minds. Even if we have something to say, it often takes more energy than we can muster to bring those words to the surface. There’s more to it than that, though, and it has something to do with a problem that I identified last week. We have a problem talking about suffering. We have a problem, in large part, because we’ve bought into a whole pack of half-truths that have left us paralyzed when the tough times come. Everything happens for a reason. God never gives us more than we can handle. He or she is in a better place. This must have been God’s will. I call these half-truths because each of them comes out of a place of sincere wrangling with the character and nature of God, and because in some circumstances they might be comforting to people. Perhaps you’ve found solace in one of these expressions during a time of trouble. If you’re anything like me, however, these well-meaning words have brought more harm than help when I’ve faced the reality of suffering and pain.

In the fall semester of my senior year of seminary, I was just getting up from my seat to enjoy a break in class, when I received a phone call from my father that shook me to the core. My cousin, Kenny, had been out jogging along the road near his house, training for his next weekend of duty with the US Army Reserve, when he unexpectedly collapsed and died on the spot. He was 21 years old and in peak physical condition, and yet in the blink of an eye he was gone. Katie and I packed our things and made the drive home to Michigan for his funeral service, which was going to be held on the following Monday morning. At the service, as I sat in the front row with the rest of my family, I was hoping to hear something – anything – that spoke to the unimaginable grief that we were experiencing, and I suspect that others may have heard what they needed, but I didn’t. Instead, the pastor’s sermon was filled with well-worn clichés about how it was Kenny’s time to go, about how God needed Kenny in heaven to play goalie, about how God’s will was unsearchable and unknowable. Maybe I’m just nit-picky. Maybe I was alone in being incensed at what I was hearing. But I don’t think so. I think I was dissatisfied with a message that failed to reckon with the pain, the anguish, the incomprehensibility of it all. I was missing the language of lament.

Save me, O God,
     for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
     where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
     and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying;
     my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
     with waiting for my God. (Psalm 69:1-3, NRSV)

Last week, I mentioned that the Hebrew name of this collection of songs that sits in the middle of our Bible is Sefer Tehillim, or “the Book of Praises”, and that this communicates a profound truth about the collection as a whole. Alongside that truth is a fact that you might find surprising, and that fact is this: at least one-third of the Psalms have been identified as psalms of lament, intended to express feelings of despair and longing, of anguish and pain. One-third of the psalms contain the words of individuals and communities struggling to understand the circumstances in which they find themselves, and crying out for deliverance from the God who has promised to be with them and see them through. Often, the language is stark: in various psalms the psalmist asserts his innocence, accuses God of being responsible for the pain and suffering that he is experiencing, and demands that God make things right today, if not yesterday. This is raw, honest, deep human emotion. These are words that take the promises of God seriously and don’t shy away from calling God to hold up God’s end of the deal.

We do ourselves a disservice, I think, when we tell ourselves that this kind of language isn’t appropriate for the believer. We have this idea that we are supposed to passively accept what happens to us, that God has a plan for all of us, and that if we can’t understand it we’re just supposed to grin and bear it. If that’s how we’re supposed to approach times of suffering – if that’s what Scripture is supposed to teach us about the relationship between God and the believer – then I don’t know what we’re supposed to do with stuff like this:

O LORD God who delivers me!
     By day I cry out
          and at night I pray before you.
Listen to my prayer!
     Pay attention to my cry for help!
For my life is filled with troubles
     and I am ready to enter Sheol.
They treat me like those who descend into the grave.
     I am like a helpless man,
adrift among the dead,
     like corpses lying in the grave,
whom you remember no more,
     and who are cut off from your power.
You place me in the lowest regions of the pit,
     in the dark places, in the watery depths.
Your anger bears down on me,
     and you overwhelm me with all your waves. (Selah)
You cause those who know me to keep their distance;
     you make me an appalling sight to them.
          I am trapped and cannot get free.
My eyes grow weak because of oppression.
     I call out to you, O LORD, all day long;
          I spread out my hands in prayer to you.
Do you accomplish amazing things for the dead?
     Do the departed spirits rise up and give you thanks? (Selah)
Is your loyal love proclaimed in the grave,
     or your faithfulness in the place of the dead?
Are your amazing deeds experienced in the dark region,
     or your deliverance in the land of oblivion?
As for me, I cry out to you, O LORD;
     in the morning my prayer confronts you.
O LORD, why do you reject me,
     and pay no attention to me?
I am oppressed and have been on the verge of death since my youth.
     I have been subjected to your horrors and am numb with pain.
Your anger overwhelms me;
     your terrors destroy me.
They surround me like water all day long;
     they join forces and encircle me.
You cause my friends and neighbors to keep their distance;
     those who know me leave me alone in the darkness. (Psalm 88, NET)

God invites us to call out in our time of need, not with platitudes or half-truths, but with everything that we have and all that we are. That includes our questions and our doubts, our fears and our concerns, our anguish and our pain. It may be that we can look back on our experiences and discern the hand of God. It may be that we can look back and see, alongside the tragedy and the grief, something that has made us stronger. But in the moment, in the midst of the pain, we are not weak or faithless if we shout or scream or wail. If anything, in moments like that we are truly ourselves: people of God who trust that God can bear our pain and, in time, transform it.

Brothers and sisters, today we hear the unbridled language of lament. If you find yourself in a situation of pain or anguish, may these words free you to bring your whole selves before God and to know that God hears all of our prayers, draws us to Godself in the midst of our grief, and promises to bring us through the pain into a new day, a day in which the language of lament becomes the language of trust and hope. Amen.

Flight to Egypt (Second Sunday of Christmas) – Sunday, January 4, 2015 (NL Week 18)

Sunday’s Readings:
Complementary Text – Psalm 11:1-3
Preaching Text – Matthew 2:13-23

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

We gather for worship as the Christmas season is drawing to an end. Today is, in fact, the eleventh day of Christmas, and if you had a mind to do so, you could continue loudly and proudly singing your favorite carols for another couple of days, secure in the knowledge that the celebration of Christ’s birth is still ongoing across the world. I would venture to guess, however, that you could search high and low through your stacks of Christmas music and find virtually nothing that touches on the deeply disturbing text that has been set before us today.

The truth is, the story that confronts us this morning is – as one of my professors in seminary was apt to say in reflecting on this text – the dark side of Christmas. It is a story that seems to come out of nowhere, a story that startles us with its sparse description of an unfathomably brutal order from a heartless tyrant. There’s no way to tell what the magi knew about Herod the Great when they were warned in a dream to return to the East by a different road, but we have the witness of history to tell us just what kind of king he was. According to one of the prominent historians of the time, Herod was widely known to be paranoid about his position as king. He was constantly on guard against perceived threats to his power and authority – so much so, in fact, that he is said to have killed three of his sons and his wife because he was convinced that they were conspiring to unseat him and take his place as king. The arrival of the magi and their request to meet the newborn King of the Jews were events that could not go unanswered, and the decision to send a detachment of soldiers to eliminate a challenger to his throne would not have surprised many people who knew Herod at all.

What makes this story even more chilling, however, is that as much as we’d like to look at it in isolation, as much as we’d like to believe that Herod was a singularly depraved monster, we know that this kind of evil is all too commonplace. A couple of weeks ago, the world learned of the prolonged terrorist attack on a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, that led to the deaths of over 130 students whose only crime was being related to members of the Pakistani military. Last spring, we watched and prayed with families in Nigeria after the terrorist group Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls from their school building and held them for ransom. The list goes on and on: Thousands of children feeling violence and crime in South and Central America over the last several years; 26 people, including 20 children, shot at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut in 2012; 85 teenagers gunned down at a youth summer camp in Norway in 2011; in every corner of the world (and far too often) the angry and fearful lash out against the innocent in displays of violence and brutality that leave us shocked and saddened.

Why bring up these terrible tragedies in the midst of this Christmas season? Because it was into this broken world that Christ was born. It was this world – shattered by violence and hatred and grief – that God visited in the person of Jesus Christ. It was this world – where might makes right and the powerful rule with fear and oppression – that received the Word made Flesh and then deprived him and his family of home and country like the estimated 50 million people worldwide who live as refugees today. It was this world – so desperately in need of hope for a different kind of future – that was given the gift of a Savior.

The story of the flight to Egypt and the death of the Holy Innocents is the story of how the powers-that-be rage against any challenge to their authority, any conceivable threat to the status quo, any inkling that the world might change in such a way that they might be removed from their place. It is the story of how God took on the risk of challenging those powers anyway by becoming one of us, experiencing firsthand the terror of an occupying army, the desperate search for safety, the yearning for home, the uncertainty of being a stranger in a strange land. As the story unfolds, we will see how God in Christ confronts those powers head-on, entering the very halls of power to declare the beginning of the end for business as usual and announcing a new reign of hope for a world groaning under the weight of sin, death, and the fury of hell. But for now, brothers and sisters, we wrestle with the story that is before us today. If the wonder of Christmas is to endure, then it must be remembered in all its fullness. The wonder of the magi’s visit is tempered by the knowledge that those visitors from the east had to leave by another road because of the brutal king who awaited their return. The song of the angels is nothing more or less than an affront to those who rest securely in their power and status and influence and forget that the good news for our world is that their reign is coming to an end. The peace of the baby sleeping in the stall is soon shattered by the sound of Rachel weeping for her children and the image of the Holy Family racing for refuge from the brutal tyrant who wants them gone for good. This is not the stuff of Christmas carols, and yet these events give those carols their potency and their relevance, for they remind us that the one who was born for us and given to us has also lived as we have lived, that his presence with us in the midst of this world’s sorrow and pain and grief are our strength as we face all that has been and all that will be, and that his promised coming will bring a brighter day to a world in need of hope and renewal. May it be so. Amen.

Reflection for “The Longest Night” – Sunday, December 21, 2014

On Sunday, December 21, the Falls City Area Ministerial Association hosted “A Service of Lament for the Holy Season”, sometimes called a “Longest Night” or “Blue Christmas” service. Pastor Andrew preached the homily at the service; the text of his reflection is posted below.

Scripture for the Longest Night:
Old Testament Reading – Psalm 142
New Testament Reading – 2 Corinthians 4:6-10
Gospel Reading: John 1:1-5

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

If you look back at the call to worship that began this evening’s service, you’ll see that the words of that lament are excerpted from Psalm 88, one of the so-called psalms of lament. With your indulgence, I’d like to read that psalm in its entirety, because on this longest night it expresses a depth of sorrow that is really unparalleled by any other passage of Scripture:

Lord, God of my salvation,
by day I cry out,
even at night, before you—
let my prayer reach you!
Turn your ear to my outcry
because my whole being is filled with distress;
my life is at the very brink of hell.
I am considered as one of those plummeting into the pit.
I am like those who are beyond help,
drifting among the dead,
lying in the grave, like dead bodies—
those you don’t remember anymore,
those who are cut off from your power.
You placed me down in the deepest pit,
in places dark and deep.
Your anger smothers me;
you subdue me with it, wave after wave.
You’ve made my friends distant.
You’ve made me disgusting to them.
I can’t escape. I’m trapped!
My eyes are tired of looking at my suffering.
I’ve been calling out to you every day, Lord—
I’ve had my hands outstretched to you!
Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do ghosts rise up and give you thanks?
Is your faithful love proclaimed in the grave,
your faithfulness in the underworld?
Are your wonders known in the land of darkness,
your righteousness in the land of oblivion?
But I cry out to you, Lord!
My prayer meets you first thing in the morning!
Why do you reject my very being, Lord?
Why do you hide your face from me?
Since I was young I’ve been afflicted, I’ve been dying.
I’ve endured your terrors. I’m lifeless.
Your fiery anger has overwhelmed me;
your terrors have destroyed me.
They surround me all day long like water;
they engulf me completely.
You’ve made my loved ones and companions distant.
My only friend is darkness.
(Psalm 88, Common English Bible)

Does any of that sound familiar to you? The questioning? The longing? The feelings of being distressed, subdued, drowned, afflicted, engulfed, or distant from others? Some of it does to me. Perhaps some of these feelings resonate with you this evening. It’s sort of incredible to read about emotion this raw in Scripture, isn’t it? So many of our friends and neighbors get nervous when they start hearing this kind of talk. By and large, they’re good Christian folk who want us to make the turn from grief to hope because they’re afraid that faith can’t stand in the face of this sort of despair. They’re unable to fathom sorrow so deep that it can’t abide the thought of praise, yet here it is in our holy book. In Psalm 88 there is no acknowledgment of God’s goodness, there are no feeble attempts to paper over the pain. There is only this stark truth: sometimes we truly feel that darkness is our only companion.

On this longest night, perhaps it is all that you can do to sit with your grief and name the pain that has defied your attempts to comprehend it. Psalm 88 ends where it does because sometimes we just can’t make that turn quite yet. If that’s the case, then I pray that you find some small measure of comfort in the fact that you are not alone in dwelling with that grief, that you are gathered with others who understand what it means to be in pain, even though it can never be exactly like yours.

At the same time, I pray that you hear anew this word from John’s Gospel. You don’t have to understand it. You don’t need to acknowledge its truth. You’re not obligated to lay your grief aside because of it. Just listen to it again:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light. (John 1:5, CEB)

You might feel like you’re trapped in the shadows, but the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.

You might wonder if you have any friends besides the darkness, but the light shines into that darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.

You might wonder if the night will ever end, but the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.

The light may not be strong. You may not even be able to see it at the moment. But the light is there, this light that sometimes flickers and falters but is never mastered by the murk and muck and mire of this world. The light is Christ, the one who came in weakness and vulnerability to drink the overflowing cup of human sorrow and pain and loss. That light is Christ, who himself suffered death and from the cross wailed that he, too, felt that he had been abandoned by God. That light is Christ, who rose again to break the grip of sin and death and hell and who bore our humanity in all of its brokenness and loss to the heart of God.

Dear friends, on this longest night, may these words take root in your own hearts: the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light. May the Spirit of God rekindle your hope, renew your faith, and strengthen you in love, and may the peace of God which surpasses our understanding guard your hearts and minds as you continue your journey toward healing and wholeness. Amen.

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 18) – Sunday, August 3, 2014

Sunday’s Readings
Isaiah 55:1-5
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14:13-21

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

When Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.

What happened next turned out to be one of the most enduring stories found in Scripture, the only one of Jesus’ miracles to appear in all four of the gospels. That story is well worth the time we’ll spend on it, but I’m convinced that to truly understand the importance of the feeding of the five thousand in the wilderness, we have to circle back and come to terms with just what it was that Jesus heard that caused him to head out to a deserted place.

It turns out that what Jesus heard about was an event that has gotten much less airtime than the miracle that follows. If you’ve ever heard anyone demand someone’s head on a platter, that person was either knowingly or unknowingly making reference to the news that Jesus had received: news about the brutal death of his cousin John the Baptist at the hands of Herod Antipas, the ruler of Judea and Galilee. John had been arrested by Herod because of his insistent preaching against the powerful and connected, especially Herod himself. The event that led to John’s death had, in fact, been a celebratory dinner, thrown by Herod for his friends and associates. At that banquet, the host had been so entertained by a dance performed by his daughter-in-law that he had offered to grant her anything she desired. At the urging of her mother, she’d asked for… well, I think you get the picture.

Jump back to today’s reading, and you can see a striking contrast. Far from the center of power, Jesus wanted nothing more than to get away from everything. He was worn down by his grief, looking for silence and solitude so that he could deal with the pain and sadness of John’s death. When he arrived, however, he was anything but alone. In fact, the crowds had heard about his plans to leave town and beat him to the spot, getting to the other side of the lake by foot before he could make it there by boat. Despite his grief, Jesus was deeply moved by the sight of the crowds who had traveled miles to seek him, and he spent the whole day with them, healing their sick and proclaiming good news to troubled hearts. As evening approached, the disciples had seen enough. They knew how badly their teacher needed rest, and they insisted that Jesus needed to send the crowds away so that they could fend for themselves and he could finally take a break. To their surprise, Jesus turned the tables on them, demanding that they feed the hungry people gathered there by the lakeshore. Incredibly, the five loaves of barley bread and two fish that they brought to Jesus became more than enough when he took over as the host of the meal. By the time dinner was finished, not only was everyone stuffed, but there was more leftover than there had been when the meal began.

With apologies to Charles Dickens, what we have here is a tale of two meals, and the differences between them couldn’t be starker. The meal hosted by Herod – attended by the powerful and featuring an abundance of food and entertainment – descended into brutal violence and resulted in the death of a man whose only crime was speaking the truth about those present. The meal hosted by Jesus, on the other hand – attended by people on the margins of society and featuring a spread that would have barely fed five people, let alone five thousand men plus women and children – was a reflection of God’s will for life and refreshment and renewal and abundance for all people.

I mentioned before that this miracle is the only one recorded by all four gospel writers, and I don’t think that’s an accident. I believe there’s something about the meal Jesus hosted with his disciples that continued to speak to God’s people long after the crowds disbursed and Jesus finally got to rest. For the earliest members of the church, what happened on that lakeshore seemed to happen again and again whenever they gathered for worship. Those first Christians, often drawn from among the poorest and most vulnerable members of society, saw in their gatherings a multiplication of God’s blessing and God’s abundance. That blessing was especially apparent in the celebration of the Eucharist or Holy Communion, in the breaking of the bread that united them with one another and with their Lord Jesus. No matter their station in life, their family connections, their status in society (or lack thereof), the ordinary things they brought – hunks of bread and flasks of cheap wine – became much more in the presence of Christ. Those earthly gifts were capable of bearing the grace and love of God, broken and shared for those gathered and for the sake of the world. In the pattern of the feeding of the five thousand – bring, bless, break, and share – they saw a pattern for how God continued to act in their midst each Sunday.

So it has been for centuries. We who gather today do so in the expectation that it is in the decidedly ordinary – bread, wine, water, and word – that God promises to give us nothing less than the extraordinary gifts of love and grace that are ours in Christ Jesus. We gather, not at the table of a tyrant like Herod, whose precious honor led him to do the unthinkable, but at the table of the one who even in weakness and grief looked to the needs of other before his own, and in so doing revealed the character of God in an unmistakable and unforgettable way.

Brothers and sisters, this weekend we celebrate again the truth that, in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, the finite is capable of bearing the infinite. We will soon gather around the table of our Lord and receive the very body and blood of Jesus, the ultimate sign of his compassion for you and me and the whole creation. We will also bear witness and join our voices in prayer and praise as Addy comes to the font and by common water and holy Word will be cleansed, claimed, and commissioned for a life of loving relationship with God and loving service in the world. As we prepare to receive and call to mind these precious gifts, let us pray that we might be strengthened through them and inspired to go out this week and, in the midst of our own trials and struggles and griefs, serve our neighbors with compassion so that all might come to know God’s love. Thanks be to God for ordinary gifts and extraordinary grace! Amen!