The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
This is an auspicious date for our congregation…not because St. Patrick’s Day is this week (hence the great Celtic music)…not because we should “beware the Ides of March” tomorrow…but because we have been worshiping remotely for a full year.
And even as some of us are getting vaccinated, before we rush to celebrate the light at the end of a very long tunnel, we need to take stock of what we’ve been through together as families, as a congregation, a community, a nation, and a species. For some of us, the pandemic brought us in sight of possible death for the first time. “What if I get it…will I survive?” For others among us who are dealing with serious illnesses already, you may have wondered if it was safe to get ongoing treatments at the Cancer Center or the hospital. And some of us are dealing with a double grief of the death of a loved one in the midst of so much death, which is compounded by not begin able to mourn in the company of family and friends in a typical memorial service.
You may or may not know someone who has died as a result of the novel coronavirus, but the figures are staggering. Estimates are that 1 in 3 Americans know someone who has died of Covid. More Americans have died of Covid in one year than died in the Second World War, which for us lasted four years. Novel coronavirus deaths in America have exceeded 9/11 deaths by 127 times. About 1 in 624 Americans has died as a result of the virus, and we know that people of color have died in even greater numbers. 225 people have died of Covid in Larimer County…to put that in perspective if they were sitting here today, they would be overflowing from our sanctuary here at Plymouth. The global numbers are very hard to imagine…2.6 million people have died. I don’t even know how to put that in perspective.
All of us grieve in different ways. Culture and nationality have something to do with it, and the current administration has actually tried to put grieving into the national spotlight on February 22 with lighted candles outside the White House to remember those we’ve lost. I think that we, as a society, will need to come to grips with the collective trauma we’ve experienced.
I don’t know if you’ve heard the verb, “to keen,” but keening is a wailing lament for the dead. It comes from the Irish Gaelic…and from a culture that knows how to weep and mourn more expressively and openly than most Anglo-Saxon cultures do. When was the last time you heard of a ripping great wake for a white Congregationalist or Episcopalian? Doesn’t happen.
At my father’s memorial service in 1986, my younger brother, who had been unable to shed a tear at the time of my dad’s death, wept with abandon. It was deep, true, and healing. And my mother told him to pull himself together. I’ve learned a thing or two about grief since then, and I often tell families coming to a memorial service that this is a place that welcomes your tears. And so, I say to you: this is a place that welcomes your tears.
One of the things the church does right is to acknowledge and provide a setting, a container, for grief and mourning. We have ritual moments for saying a final goodbye and sending off our loved ones. We have prayers committing their souls to God’s care. This is critically important spiritually and emotionally. If we don’t acknowledge our grief and work through it, it will fester…the wound will become deeper and not lessen.
The Psalms provide so many examples of lament for us with the broadest sweep of emotion, from anger to dejection to bitterness to sorrow to regret. Have you been through the loss of a loved one? Most of us have. See if this sounds like something you experienced at some point in the process of grief:
“But I am like the deaf, who do not hear;
like the mute, who cannot speak.
Truly, I am like one who does not hear,
and in whose mouth is no retort.” (Ps. 38.13-14)
The numbness of grief is a very common experience, when your emotions are so raw and in overdrive that you just can’t take another thing in. We are overwhelmed and silenced by our grief. I know that feeling, and perhaps you do, too.
But silence is far from the only way we experience grief. The Psalmist demonstrates to us that we can shout out to God for help.
“Do not forsake me, O Lord;
O my God, do not be far from me;
make hast to help me,
O Lord, my salvation.” (Ps. 38.21-22)
You’ve undoubtedly seen those British World War II posters that say “Keep Calm and Carry On,” as well as all of the take-offs. One of my favorites is on the back of a sugar packet I picked up in a café in Italy, which says, “Keep Calm and prendi un caffe!” (That is a good example of the ways in which Anglo-Saxon and Italian cultures are very different!) But maybe we don’t have to keep it together with God…maybe God is ready for us to weep and stamp our feet and cry out loud. Many of us are really good at keeping a stiff upper lip, but there is a time and a place for lament…acknowledging that this is all a bit too much to handle on our own (whatever this happens to be). Lament can involve wailing, weeping, groaning, crying over a grief, whether it’s the loss of a loved one, dealing with a serious illness, isolation during a lockdown, not seeing grandkids or parents for a year, losing a job, missing the normality of life…any situation that causes you grief. In a few weeks, you will hear Jesus quote Psalm 22 from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If Jesus can lament using the Psalms, it’s okay for us to do that, too.
Every one of us has encountered something that is too heavy to bear on our own. The good news is that you don’t have to carry it alone! (And that doesn’t mean taking it out on your family or colleagues or kicking the dog!) The genius of a lament in our setting is that it opens dialogue between you and God. Crying out to God in distress is a great way to begin! Psalms of lament are the largest category within this collection, and with good reason: being human is difficult…it’s hard…it is riddled with losses and griefs…not just for a few of us, but for all of us. The Psalmist usually circles back in a psalm of lament to include confidence in the ability of God to be present and to turn things around with us. The most succinct form I know is from Psalm 30:
“Weeping may linger in the night,
but joy comes with the morning.” (Ps. 30.5)
Last week I was in Santa Fe with two of my UCC CREDO colleagues, and we talked at length about the experience all of us have been through with this pandemic. One commented that for us who live though the pandemic, it will be like our parents or grandparents’ experience of living through the Great Depression. All of us were concerned about the collective trauma we’ve experienced. What is it like for you to internalize the catastrophic number of Covid deaths? Every one of us has felt the impact of the pandemic, personally and by extension. And I don’t think we should discount our own experiences during this time, even if at first glance you think of them as trivial.
As we take baby steps at coming back together, and as we live into the next year, we’ll continue to talk about where you are, how relying on God can help, and ways we can learn from our pandemic experiences to shape the future.
This has been a very long year. I thank you for your patience with the changes in our worship and in the life of our congregation, a life which continues to expand in new ways and in new directions.
Will you be with me in prayer? How long, O Lord, how long? We are so weary of confronting things in new ways, that your constancy is welcome and make us feel at home in you. Help us to sense your presence in palpable ways…help bear our burdens…bind up our wounds…give us hope for a new day.
© 2021 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact hal at plymouthucc.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.