Waiting for the lessons of grief...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for this week based upon the gospel reading in Matthew for the 32 week of Ordinary Time.

One of the paradoxical gifts that death and grief often give to me is the blessing
of having my eyes – and heart – awakened.  This has happened enough times in my life to know that I am not making it up or pretending that the emptiness and sorrow is illusionary: it is real, it is profound and any sentimental talk to the contrary is foolish and even mean-spirited. St. Paul used to tell his beloved friends in Thessalonica in roughly 51 CE that:  we must not be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”

+  We do grieve – and hurt. We weep and rail at the emptiness like every other human being.

+  And we trust by faith that as we enter and embrace this grief there will be a gift within it that God will share with us if we stick with the journey and wait upon the presence of the Lord even in our pain.

It is a mystery – a sacred and holy paradox – how our grief can also offer us insights and blessings if we practice patience and trust. In her memoir, Nothing Was the Same, Professor of Mood Disorders and Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University of Medicine, Kay Jamison Redfield, writes about how grief and depression are different.  “Laughter,” she observes, “often lies close in with despair, numbness nearby acuity, and memory with forgetfulness (during grief.) I would have to get used to this, (but during the burial of my husband) I didn’t know at the time… that grief does (this.)”

She continues:  “Grief, (you see) unlike depression, is a journey one must take largely unattended… the lessons that come from grief come from its unexpected moves, from its shifting views of what has gone before and what is yet to come.  C.S. Lewis said that ‘grief is like a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape…’ She then concludes that the gift born of faith and practice is that:  “Grief conspires to ensure that it will in time wear itself out.” That is, grief has a beginning and an end.

+  Left to ourselves, most of us don’t know this. What’s more, most of us don’t believe that patient waiting is how God works in our lives. We tend to think that we have to do all the heavy lifting – that we are the masters of our own destiny – and if we don’t do something about the pain born of grieving, it will destroy us.

+  So we distract ourselves with work or worry, fill ourselves up with medications and alcohol – or food or sex or anger. In our ignorance we elect a vain pursuit of relief from our suffering rather than wait for the blessing that is hidden within the whirlwind of our grief.  Without the stillness and silence of a season of waiting, we usually miss the blessings of our own grief.

And that is part of what I think Jesus is trying to tell us in the peculiar parable found in Matthew’s gospel for today:  The Lord is coming to us – often slowly and more often than not disguised within events and realities that we do not initially comprehend – so are we prepared for this mystery? Have cultivated the ability to wait?  Are we being prudent rather than foolish with our time and energy?  I think today’s parable is a genuinely hopeful story about God’s grace, but before we can grasp its blessing, we have to struggle through some complexity.

Let’s be clear that from the outset this sounds like another weird and somewhat troubling Jesus story. It may have had resonance in the Master’s own time – or in the era when St. Matthew was working to strengthen the church about the year 80 CE – but 21st century Americans are neither interested in apocalyptic wisdom nor are we thinking about the second coming of the Lord, right?

+  Further we have NO idea what Matthew is talking about when he tells us about 10 bridesmaids with varying amounts of oil for their respective lamps who are all waiting for a bridegroom to arrive at the feast. This is a cultural detail from first century Palestine that is simply beyond our understanding.

+  We don’t know – and mostly don’t care – that back in the day young, unmarried women often joined a wedding procession to mark the start of the marriage feast. And because this feasting went on for up to a week, it was a great place for single women to meet prospective husbands. Scholars suggest that’s probably why the bridesmaids were waiting for the groom to arrive in the first place. So in Matthew’s day such a detail would have sense, but for us it sounds archaic and confusing.

And there’s one more thing about this story which is more allegory than
parable:  it sounds inherently unfair – even anti-gospel-like. All the women brought lamps, all the women brought oil, all the women waited and all the women went to sleep. Yes, some were more prepared for a longer wait than others, but that is true in every moment of our lives. So is Jesus telling us that if he is late – or hidden for a time in a way none of us can predict – then we’re going to be locked out of God’s grace forever in a darkness filled with weeping and gnashing of teeth simply because we haven’t brought along enough oil for our lamps?

Now I don’t think that’s what’s really going on, but if you just take a surface reading that’s what you might conclude.  So let’s go a little deeper owning that this is a weird Bible story that makes us all uncomfortable, ok? Because if we push below the surface to the heart of grace, there are two insights that are beautiful for those with eyes to see and hearts to feel, ok?

First is the simple yet demanding truth that waiting is inevitable: waiting for good things or bad, waiting for the wisdom of our grief or our joy, waiting for Christmas or a report from our most recent biopsy, waiting for election results.  Waiting is a fact of life and all of this waiting evokes some anxiety in most of us, don’t you think?

+  Waiting proves to us that we are not in control of very much, that we’re not aware of the deeper truths taking place in most of creation and that we’re not able to do very much about most of the things we care about.

+  Waiting and the anxiety it produces is very unsettling – so I am coming to think that one of the reasons this story has legs is because it reminds us yet again that God’s people have been waiting for ever. We are neither alone in our anxiety nor are we unique, special or privileged.

Bible scholar and preacher, David Lohse, puts it like this: From the earliest Christians on, we have confessed that waiting can be most difficult. Moreover, Jesus tells this parable in his own “in-between time,” his own time of waiting. This parable is set between Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his trial and crucifixion. And one thing Matthew and all the Evangelists agree on is that Jesus knew what was coming. So here he is, teaching the crowds, facing off with his opponents and instructing his disciples…even as he waits for the coming cross. Jesus, too, knows how difficult waiting can be and is with us and for us in our waiting.

That is clearly what the poetry of today’s Psalm underscores, too: We will not hide the sacred truths of the Lord from our children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, his might and the wonders that he has done for us… even as we wander through the Exodus – or wait during times of exile, fear and disaster – we will wait upon the Lord and trust that while it is hard, blessings will come as surely as the morning sun.

+  That’s one blessing this weird little parable suggests to me: we are not alone in our waiting and we are not the first to be anxious.

+  Any thoughts or reactions to this reminder before I give you the other one?

The second truth that I am playing with from this parable – and quite honestly from within my own waiting and grief – has something to do with recognizing that there is both a foolish as well as wise way to wait. Not all waiting is equal – or sacred – or designed to help us discover the blessing in our waiting, ok? Some waiting is clearly destructive and self-centered; some is a total waste of our time. But there is also a wise waiting, a prudent waiting like Dr. Jamison describes in her memoir, a waiting that helps us find the light within our darkness and pain.  She writes:

Depression is unrelenting, invariable, impervious to event. I knew its pain to be undeviating.  Grief was different. It hit in waves, caught me unawares. It struck when I felt most alive, when I thought I had moved beyond its hold… grief, you see, taught through indirection. It was an unyielding teacher, shrewd and brutal. It attacked, soft and insidious at times, gale force at others, insistent that (in time) I see (my loss) … in a more distant place where all that had to do with (my beloved) had to be. (She goes on to say that she learned through her grief that she needed both time and solitude – waiting – to grasp the lessons from this hard mentor) for solitude allowed tending and grief compelled solitude. Time alone in grief proved restorative. Time alone when depressed was dangerous.

·   Like others throughout history, Dr. Jamison discovered that she needed to focus her waiting on the time-tested practices of those who had also been through this cruel journey in the past. She needed to learn from the community of faith and practices of other pilgrims on the road of grief.  

·   So, she read the Psalms and her Book of Common Prayer. She turned to poetry rather than the distractions of television, for in these resources she came to “know what our ancestors knew.” There is a foolish waiting that wastes our sorrow and a sacred waiting that leads to prudence.

Most of us today no longer know the wisdom of what sacred waiting can bring to our times of trial or rejoicing.  We are so addicted to getting results. We are so uncomfortable with our own wounds.  So Jesus gave us a story that makes us not only uncomfortable, but confused as if to say: See, you really do need some assistance. Like Bono of U2 sang: sometimes you can’t make it on your own.

But here’s the thing about Bono – or Dr. Jamison – or any of us who have taken the time to learn from others about the journey of waiting in grief or darkness: we need guides. We really can’t figure this out for ourselves. There truly are foolish and prudent ways to deal with the anxiety of waiting.

That’s one of the reasons God gave birth to the church: we all need guidance, we all need encouragement, we all need the company of others who have been there before us to help us when we find ourselves in trouble and unable to make it all by ourselves.

When I was a little boy, my father realized he missed singing in the choir at
church. So, after a long absence, we returned to the Newtown Congregational Church. He thought it was a good idea that his children learn the Christian tradition, but mostly he wanted to sing the songs of the faith in harmony with a good church choir. He loved to make music. And one of the earliest hymns I learned in that church – a hymn that in time became a constant friend and guide to me during times of darkness and doubt – was “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.”  The lyrics come from the poet John Greenleaf Whittier and contain a stanza I memorized later in life:

Drop thy still dews of quietness till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress
And let our ordered lives confess the beauty of thy peace.

Over the past few weeks as we sat with my father while he moved towards death I found myself praying those words over and over again: sometimes flat out as a prayer, other times singing it to myself and sometimes using my prayer beads. During quiet times in the nursing home or later at night in our motel room, I recalled that there were other times when I’d prayed this hymn, too:  the first being the day I was arrested for civil disobedience with the Farm Workers during the grape boycott; then when my babies were being born and we had no money; and later when I was trying to make sense out of my divorce. This prayer-hymn from my tradition has always grounded me in grace and God’s peace – and I love it.

+  But sometimes I forget it.  I don’t know why, but it happens. On the Friday before my dad died, for example, I was getting all agitated and frenzied about junk I couldn’t control. He had slipped into a coma and I was furious with what I sensed to be the chaos all around him.

+  So I started storming around the kitchen, cursing, pacing from room to room, wanting to strike out and DO something because… I was in Massachusetts and he was in Maryland – and there was nothing I could do to change any of it. It was making me crazy.

I wish I could tell you that in that time my old hymn-prayer friend helped me regain my composure that night, but the truth is I completely forgot about it.
Looking backwards, it is clear that for a few hours I wasted my grief and made a mess of things rather than let the time-tested peace of Christ ease the strain and stress that surrounded my father’s death. Clearly, I needed more practice. That what I was getting at when I told you that sometimes death blesses me with eyes to see and a heart to feel. It puts things into a more balanced perspective for me and calls me back into what is most true.

Drop thy still dews of quietness till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress
And let our ordered lives confess the beauty of thy peace.

To be followers of Jesus means we are willing to learn and practice the ways of the Christ – not just by singing a hymn – but cultivating the beauty of Christ’s peace born of an ordered life.

+  Let me say that again: an ordered life.  A way of living that trusts and practices quiet, solitude, prayer, the songs of our faith, careful listening, spiritual reading, walking meditation for these are the time tested resources given to us by God to help us find the blessings of prudence and wisdom in our waiting.

+  If we are willing to learn, God promises us blessings. If, however, we choose to be foolish, while I don’t believe that God banishes us forever to an eternity of weeping and gnashing of teeth. But I do know that we will experience an excess of anxiety and emptiness that might be relieved by grace.

The ancient words of the Psalmist reworked for our era by Peterson say it best: 

Listen, dear friends, to God’s truth, bend your ears to what I tell you.
I’m chewing on the morsel of a proverb and I’ll let you in on the sweetest old truth, stories we heard from our fathers and counsel we learned at our mother’s knee. We’re not keeping this to ourselves, we’re passing it along to the next generation—God’s fame and fortune, has done a marvelous thing. God has brought to us blessings from within even our sufferings; this is the truth God commanded our parents
 to teach it to their children so the next generation would know and all the generations to come: God’s steadfast love and grace lasts forever.

photo credits:  Dianne De Mott


Peter said…
Thank you for this, brother. Dr. Jamieson's reference to CS Lewis reminds me of "A Grief Observed" when, after wasting his time in rage and depression over his wife Joy's death, he one day had a sudden quiet, powerful realization of her presence, and that at some point, he realized what he had been doing and how it was ultimately ineffectual. And that at some point, he was going to be all right. Not what he had been before, not the way things had been when she was alive, but like Reynolds Price, with a whole new life awaiting his acceptance.

Grief is like depression, certainly feels like it if you remember that depression can be deadness or anger, to name but two possibilities. But it is true, grief comes in waves, and although I can "see" them, I am not ready to fully embrace the blessings within the journey as yet. But they are there, and the waiting time, as hard as it can be, is nonetheless needful and can be productive.

And eventually, a whole new life may emerge.
Peter said…
Oops: Dr. Redfield.
RJ said…
So glad for your wise and loving words - and your gentle and wise love.

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