“Give ear to my words, O God, consider my meditation.” (Psalm 5:1).
In the Genesis story, did you hear the words of grief and fear as Abram turned to God, “O Lord, what will you give me, for I continue to be childless? I have no son of my own to be my heir.” Abram, whose name became Abraham, and who was the father of great nations and great religions, had left his homeland for a new place. He had acquired great wealth. And now he lamented, “All of this that I have worked for, and have great expectations for, will fall to someone who is not my kin.” Great had been the promises and now great was his grief.
In the gospel reading, the Pharisees came to warn Jesus. His friends and disciples had become increasingly insecure because even though they may not have known exactly how to understand Jesus’ words, they were familiar with the warning signs. They were aware that change was coming. Out of their grief and fear, they were saying, “I can’t bare the thought of your absence. My world will be turned upside down. My heart aches with the thought that you will not be here.” And Jesus grieves for Jerusalem, the heart of Judaism and now the city that kills its prophets.
Change is in the wind. And the wind seems always to be blowing. On the heels of change comes grief. Grief means having to say goodbye when we are not ready to say goodbye. There are many books written on the subject, but none of them can truly prepare me or you for our personal losses. Although significant, the griefs of saying goodbye number far greater than the farewell to a family member or friend. Grief accompanies other losses as well: the loss of childhood experiences such as may accompany an extended illness; the end of a relationship; the loss of some aspect of one’s self as with a loss of courage or faith; the loss of job and income, or a change of homes; the loss of role such as when one transitions from student to career or from career to retirement; the loss of ability, such as eye sight or losses experienced through aging. Not only has my hair turned gray, I grieve that I can no longer run 8 minute miles. In fact, I’m happy on the days when I can run a mile.
There are so many feelings of hurt that flood our lives when we grieve. Most significantly, I think of the deep wound that cuts into our hearts and souls when a loved one dies. Our American perspective is that we have great technology and wealth and that we should be able to fix anything. I was recently with a family that had immigrated from Africa. They shared their belief that in America medical care was so complete that all babies could be made well. Not true. Surely we should have some formula that will fix the wounds of our grieving! The truth is, we do not know what to do with our wounds, so we find it easier to evade them. There have been times when I have placed my grief neatly in a box and set the box on the top shelf. I got busy by filling the void of my loss with anything that would divert me from reopening it. Other folks find other ways to retreat. They may physically close their doors to others, or emotionally separate by finding some medicine that will insulate their feelings, or they may spiritually retreat by blaming God and turning away. Some people, though, extend their arms, inviting others to join them, even to bless them.
In French, the word blesser means “to wound.” Woundedness and blessedness seem strange bedfellows. Nevertheless, this could be the reason that so many ministers, psychologists, social workers, and others in the helping professions come with histories of physical, emotional, and spiritual deformity. It’s what Henry Nouwen refers to as the “wounded healer.” Being wounded is being blessed from a biblical perspective in which God strengthens weaknesses.
In the letter to the Hebrews, it is written, “Remember those in prison as if you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured” (Hebrews 13:3). Ministry is not about the well helping the sick; it’s about connecting with the wounded places within yourself, so as to be able to connect with the wounded places of another. It’s about journeying with the other person so that both you and the other move toward healing and wholeness.
As a chaplain who sits with those who are wounded, I am always aware and careful. When I walk through the hospital corridors, I am very aware of the sacred spaces in which I sit. I am humbled by the presence of God that I see within the children and their families. I am careful that I bring my wounded self to sit with them.
In sacred space we find a place of safety, like the wings of the mother hen. When I was a little girl on the farm near Syracuse, NY, I remember cold and windy days and the heads of chirping chicks poking out from beneath the feathered safety of their mothers. Sacred space – a place of refuge, like a favorite cabin in a quiet wood or a favorite stretch of beach. Sacred space – a place of honesty and simplicity like the familiar smell of a loved one as she or he offer their embrace or the toothless grin and chocolate covered hug of a kid. Sacred space – a place or time when we are silent and we pray “give ear to my words, O God, consider my meditation.” In times of serious illness, suffering, and grief, it is a place where hearts may be broken open.
In sacred space we find someone patient and courageous enough to simply sit; someone who will give us the honor of listening to and for our sadness, our loneliness, our joy or our hurt; someone who will hold us and not ask or expect us to be or do anymore that we are being or doing in that moment.
In sacred space we find the presence of God. I will never forget the first time I heard my friend Ros sing. I did not know Ros until late in his life – he was a composer and professor of music at Wilkes University. He was also the director of music and organist at the church where I was a member. He had lung cancer which had spread along his spine and made it difficult for him to sit at the organ. So, on this Sunday, he sat at the piano and as he played the offertory, that sanctuary became sacred space. Without announcement we heard the pure, somewhat weak, somewhat ethereal tones of his tenor voice. I don’t remember what he sang; I remember God’s presence within him, purely, simply.
In sacred space we find God present, reaching out to take our hand. “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand, I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.” This familiar spiritual was written by Thomas Dorsey, as he grieved the death of his wife and newborn child. Just when we think we cannot make it, like the painting on the ceiling of the Sistene Chapel, we get a glimpse of the hand of God reaching for ours. “When the shadows appear and the night draws near, and the day is past and gone, At the river I stand, guide my feet, hold my hand; Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.”
In the center of grief is a pool of light. It is a sacred place where pain gives way to God-faithfulness. Jeremiah lamented:
I remember my miserable wandering, the wormwood and poison.
Within myself I surely remember, and am despondent.
Yet one thing I will keep in mind which will give me hope:
God’s mercy is surely not at an end, nor is God’s pity exhausted.
It is new every morning. Great is your faithfulness!
God is my portion, I tell myself, therefore I will hope. (Lamentations 3: 19-24)
God’s mercy is surely not at an end. It is new every morning. Great is your faithfulness! Amen.