“ Good grief ”
Message preached on October
“Blessed are those who mourn,
Again, we are gathered on the hillside as disciples sitting with Jesus. He begins what we call the “Sermon on the Mount” with a series of blessings, according to Matthew’s gospel. “Beatitudes,” we say. You know, “blessed … happy are those … who grieve,” we hear him say. Again, sitting here with Jesus, we may do a double take. To grieve is to be happy? To grieve is to be blessed? Last time you and I sat here together, we pondered how poverty could be considered a beatitude, something sounding a bit beautiful, a blessing, a happiness – whether actual poverty, as in how the gospel of Luke remembers it, or “poor in spirit,” as in Matthew’s rendition. Both Luke and Matthew added Jesus saying that for these poor persons, these poor in spirit people – theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Not theirs someday will be, but theirs is now the kingdom. This draws us up short. It may, in fact, turn our view of the world upside down … or better put, turn it right-side up.
Something I need to say about these beatitudes is that this is not a catalog of ethics, a ‘to do’ list, a map of morals. We are not instructed that ‘if only’ we could attain these things, then blessedness/happiness would be ours. No, that is not what Jesus is saying. On that hillside, he sits us down with him and begins with some blessings. No strings are attached to them. We are not expected to jump up and try to attain them, as if poverty (actual or spiritual) were something to be achieved. Of course, some down through the centuries have sought to do so. The best example many of us think of is St. Francis of Assisi. Our own tradition lifts up simplicity as a virtue, though I can tell you that Brethren were not all that poor down through the years. They often were land rich, even as they sought to speak and live simply.
Still, these beatitudes with which Jesus begins his sermon are not a demand from God for us to live these things out if we are to be blessed. Ethics come later in this sermon on a hillside, interspersed with more of these unconditional statements concerning God’s love and care. I have a hunch that when Matthew pulled together this collection of Jesus’ sayings into what we call a “sermon,” he purposely began with these beatitudes to remind us that living out the gospel is itself a grace. It begins and ends with God’s blessing, which is woven throughout anything and everything we do as disciples of Jesus. We sit down at his feet and listen to get this straight. As we pass along the faith, this beginning is essential. We are not sharing a law to be obeyed, but rather a gospel to be lived. There is a difference. Law is built upon “if you do this, then you will get that.” Gospel begins with blessing out of which flows a lifestyle of grace - a gift from God.
Having said that, it does seem strange to think of grief as a blessing, a gift from God. From the outset, it is important to note that grief is not something with which God is unfamiliar. Recall, if you will, the story of Noah in the first book of the Bible. As this episode there begins, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Genesis 6:5-6). When things don’t go according to plan, we grieve. Even God did and does. Even now, our “bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice,” can “grieve the Holy Spirit of God,” according to the apostle Paul (Ephesians 4:30-31).
Grief is a significant part of our journey of faith. The Psalms sing chorus after chorus, prayer after prayer, to help God’s people deal with disappointment, disillusionment, disaster, loss – everything that moves us into times of mourning when, in the physicality of the Old Testament, we might - like Job - tear our clothes and throw ashes all over ourselves in the face of tragedy. An entire book is attributed to grief – Lamentations. There, the open wound of mourning is placed into the hands of God. “He (God) has filled me with bitterness,” it says “he has sated me with wormwood. He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, ‘Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from the Lord’” (3:15-20). It almost sounds like blaming God. And in a way it is. But only because God is big enough to handle our grief.
In the very next breath, the author of Lamentation continues, “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’ The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.” A few verses later comes this: “For the Lord will not reject forever. Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone” (3:21-26, 31-33).
All of this and more lies behind the second beatitude of the hillside: “blessed are those who mourn.” While the first blessing spoke in present tense, saying that for the “poor in spirit … theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” this second blessing for those who mourn speaks in future tense, “they will be comforted.” You may be tired of being reminded when we share our joys and concerns that “grief takes time.” But it does. Mourning is a journey. We do not arrive at the comfort overnight. The fortification that the process of grief brings is not immediate. It may feel like a long walk to get there, and very often the destination arrives almost like a surprise. But that is how the blessing of grief happens. It arrives as a grace – a gift of God along the way.
I used to share a little book by Granger E. Westberg, entitled Good Grief, with those who had recently lost a loved one, or faced some other kind of loss. In it Westberg, a Lutheran minister who helped create the parish nurse program, identified ten stages of grief in his 64 page book. Recognizing, however, that grief is complex and deeply personal, he wrote that there is no “right” way to grieve, and that these are not steps we all go through in exactly the same pattern. They are just there. They come with the territory.
Let me simply name and describe them. These “bus stops” (if you will) along the way of grief feel very familiar – at least they do to me as I journey through the loss of my health. The initial one is a state of shock, where we don’t feel the impact of our loss. We may, in fact, feel not much at all. Shock is our body’s natural sedative to hold back pain … for a while. It’s often followed by waves of strong emotion, the second stage. Friends of those who grieve sometime ask, “how are you feeling?” I know I have. The only problem is that this is a very hard question to answer in the middle of it all. It’s better just to sit and listen.
Along the way of grief it’s okay to be depressed – which Westberg identified as another step along the way of grief. Let me say, however, that clinical depression is something different. Thank you, Meghan for helping us to understand this. In grief, depression comes and goes. Clinical depression, however, does not leave - it becomes chronic. In both, being depressed is not “bad.” It is not a failure along the way. It is not an absence of faith. To the contrary, it takes faith to admit being depressed.
Other “bus stops” along the way of grief that Westberg identified are physical distress and panic, both of which are felt bodily. We may over or under-eat, for instance. We might experience nausea, dizziness or have bad headaches. Our immune system may not up to par and we can become susceptible to colds or infections. Anxiety along the way can immobilize us or it may make us hyper or impulsive. These all come with the territory of grief.
Feeling guilt is also par for the course, another step along our journey. Something we did or didn't do may bother us greatly – perhaps, for instance, what we said or didn’t say to a dying loved one. This is a very normal feeling, by the way. We run into problems, however, when we irrationally blame ourselves for something over which we had no control.
I find myself waiting at the anger “bus stop” fairly frequently. Many times my wife has patiently listened to me say, “I want my body back!” or “I am so tired of this hospital, I want to scream!” or “why didn’t the surgeon just replace my hip and femur last year?” If you’ve read the book of Job in the Bible, you find plenty of examples of this, along with examples in his friends of how not to respond. They basically tell him not to be angry. God, who finally speaks in a whirlwind at the end has some choice words for these not-so-helpful friends. I hope I have been a non-anxious presence with many of you during such times, listening to your anger (as well as your other responses as you journey through these stages of grief). It’s okay to be angry when life changes – when you can no longer do what you once did.
Now, we can resist moving on in our grief, remaining at a certain place along the way, feeling unable for various reasons to make a shift. I can still remember Buddy Clayton, over twenty-five years ago, telling me, “You know, they took my driver’s license away.” The fact that this car mechanic - who lived across the street from the church – had been bedfast for years didn’t matter. His resistance was another step along the way of grief. And it was okay.
Eventually, however, rays of hope start to shine through, when we glimpse – even for just a moment – new possibilities, leading toward acceptance. These final two steps do come – hope and acceptance. They cannot be forced. Nor do they lead to the past, to making our lives just like they used to be. No, something new emerges. “Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus said, “for they will be comforted.” Notice, his promise is in future tense. We journey toward it … and it takes time and our own energy to walk, step by step. That’s true no matter our loss, whether we grieve the death of a loved one or mourn the loss of health or lament any major change in our lives.
Back to this second beatitude. A major change those first disciples gathered around Jesus on that hillside would face in the future was the fact that God’s kingdom didn’t burst forth like they thought it would in the years ahead, after he rose from the dead and then left to be with God. Yes, the Holy Spirit came on Pentecost like wind and fire, and the church was born, but Jesus didn’t return. Like us, they had to deal with a messy world. There is much to grieve today in how things are. No matter what your politics are, we can tear our hair out and rend our clothes over the current state of affairs. In fact, I’d say our country is in a very angry stage of grief right now. Would you agree? Can we, as disciples who sit at the feet of Jesus on the hillside, be a non-anxious presence in our world, really listening through the grief – listening not to respond, but just to hear? Can we be a beatitude, a blessing, God’s grace in this world? This promise from the mount is for us along the way: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
Remember what the apostle Paul wrote his young friend Timothy, “God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7, KJV).
Remember, also, what John wrote in the last book of the Bible – a glimmer of hope for those who walk through grief toward the kingdom. “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’” (Revelation 21:3-5a).