Grief & Change & Joy
Jeremiah 4.23-28a & Psalm 31.1-5,9-10,14b-15a
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
The images in our scripture texts today echo the inner landscape of grief as I have experienced and while everyone’s experience of grief is different, I’m guessing that some of these images may resonate with you. The sorrow, despair, and anger, the need for solace and help that grief brings are held in these texts. This day in September, 9/11, has held cries and echoes of grief in our nation for 21 years. Each year we remember when terrorist extremists attacked the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, DC and attempted to attack our nation’s capital. We have each experienced many kinds of grief since then or before then. and acutely so in the last two and a half years. New grief brings up old grief. Grief is more a part of the landscape of our lives than we want to acknowledge, and it has always been so for human being. Listen with me to these ancient words of scripture from a prophet grieving for his nation, Israel. And from a poet, a song-writer, singing a grieving prayer for protection from the sorrows of the world.
23I looked at the earth, and it was without shape or form; at the heavens and there was no light. 24I looked at the mountains and they were quaking; all the hills were rocking back and forth. 25I looked and there was no one left; every bird in the sky had taken flight. 26I looked and the fertile land was a desert; all its towns were in ruins before the [Holy ONE], before [the] fury. 27The [Holy ONE] proclaims: The whole earth will become a desolation, but I will not destroy it completely. 28Therefore, the earth will grieve …
Bible, CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 29664-29676). Kindle Edition.
I take refuge in you, LORD. Please never let me be put to shame. Rescue me by your righteousness! 2Listen closely to me! Deliver me quickly; be a rock that protects me; be a strong fortress that saves me! 3You are definitely my rock and my fortress. Guide me and lead me for the sake of your good name! 4Get me out of this net that's been set for me because you are my protective fortress. 5I entrust my spirit into your hands; you, [Holy ONE], God of faithfulness-- you have saved me. … 9Have mercy on me, [Holy God], because I'm depressed. My vision fails because of my grief, as do my spirit and my body. 10My life is consumed with sadness; my years are consumed with groaning. Strength fails me because of my suffering; my bones dry up. … 14… [Yet]I trust you, [GOD]! I affirm, "You are my God." 15My future is in your hands. …
Bible, CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 20310-20340). Kindle Edition.
It came as a shock to me at the age of twenty-four that grief would be a part of my whole life. I guess I thought that grief was something you could avoid if you worked hard at having a happy ever after and worked hard at being a good person, a good Christian. But at twenty-four, I learned that, indeed, bad things happen to good people when my youngest sister died in a car accident at the age of sixteen. Not her fault or the fault of the teenage driver who was her friend. Someone else’s mistake. Still, it happened and could not be undone. Big grief, in my face.
We all come to a reckoning with individual grief at some point in life – through a death, an illness, a job loss, a relationship loss. If we are lucky, we first learn as children surrounded by loving companions, parents, family to grieve through the loss of a pet. This teaches us in a very real but gentler situation the ways of sorrow and how to mourn, how to externalize the pain in our hearts through ritual and words. Beyond our individual griefs are our experiences, like today, 9/11, of communal grief. You can probably each name your first realization of communal grief. My first was as a second grader on the playground in Fort Worth, Texas, when the announcement came that the president, John F. Kennedy, had been shot and killed in our neighboring city, Dallas. Our children and youth today have witnessed with us too many of these communal/national/worldwide events of grief in the last several years.
Grief is a part of life. Sorrow is a part of life. Do any of us like this? No. Our culture considers grief to be the enemy of joy in our lives. How can anything be right, be okay, be normal when we are grieving? The pain is too great. It hurts too much. So, if you are anything like me, perhaps, you sometimes try to deny the grief, compartmentalize it, to move through it. You push it aside to find meaning in your work or in helping other people, or in your family, your hobbies. We can focus on anything, even to the point of addiction, to avoid grief - work, entertainment, volunteering, exercise, relationships, substances from coffee to sugar, to alcohol. Anything to not feel the pain. So that we can make it through another day. We may run from grief, but we cannot hide because we hold grief in our bodies no matter how hard we try to ignore it. And grief comes with every change in life, every change. Even good change.
The prophet, Jeremiah, whom scholars call the “weeping prophet,” lamented all the changes coming to the people of Israel, with their idolatrous ways, as Jerusalem was invaded, and temple torn down. His world was drastically changed…we might being feeling the same as we grieve with the people of Ukraine and as we come to grips with climate change. “The mountains are quaking; all the hills were rocking back and forth. … there is no one left; every bird in the sky had taken flight. …the fertile land is a desert; all its towns were in ruins…the earth is grieving.” The psalmist cries out for us, “Holy ONE, listen closely to me! …. Guide me. … I entrust my spirit into your hands… My vision fails because of my grief, as do my spirit and my body. [Yet]I trust you! … My future is in your hands. …” The psalmist’s Hebrew name for God in this song is,” el emet, the God who can be relied on and believed in, trusted in.”[i] When I feel my deepest moments of grief, I cling to trust in this same God, trusting that she will continue to be who she has steadfastly been revealed to be through the changes of millennia.
Change is always with us. Grief at some level is always with us. What are we to do but soldier on, gritting our teeth? I have felt this way….have you? So much so that I was surprised to read an essay by social activist leader, Malkia Devich-Cyril, former executive director of MediaJustice, inviting me to befriend grief. What if grief is not the enemy? What if we can learn about change and joy in the very middle of grief? This is what Malkia learned about the death of her mother from sickle cell anemia and the death of her wife from cancer, both at ages way too young.[ii]
Prompted by the experience and work of Malkia Devich-Cyril and adrienne maree brown, her colleague and friend, I am learning that grief is holy and necessary for real change. “To have a movement that breathes,” writes Malkia, “you must build a movement with the capacity to grieve.”[iii] These two women of color have been working for and in social change movements for over twenty-five years, so I trust their observations along with the words of the ancient prophet and psalmist. We live in and work with this beloved community of faith, which is also a social change movement. We are the movement of the kingdom, the kin-dom of God. Jesus, our movement leader, knew that grief was a skill for change. He wept at the death of this friend, Lazarus. He wept over Jerusalem, the City of God, that struggled with oppression, with greed, with poverty. Jesus knew that grief is holy. Grief is a friend of God. And grief can be our friend, if we allow it to move through our bodies, teaching us to embrace change, to love and serve with more compassion, to see each other and the earth as God’s beloveds.
To begin, we remember that grief is non-linear. It is a time-traveling emotion that appears again and again in our lives in new and old forms, for new and old reasons. It is iterative and repetitive. It spirals through life even when things are going great, even when we are rejoicing, even in our joy.[iv] Joy is not the opposite of grief. It is a beloved sibling of grief. The opposite of grief is indifference. If we truly do not care, we will not grieve. Grief is a profound out-pouring of love and in love there this always joy, even if it is sitting right next to grief.
If understanding grief is a skill for understanding life, for understanding change, for understanding more about faith, what do we need to know?
This is what we learn when we befriend our grief. We learn that If you don’t really care about something, if you are indifferent to it, you don’t grieve when you lose it. So, I suggest to all of you in this room that because you have chosen to come to worship in a faith community, to be in community, if only for an hour, that you are not indifferent to Life. You love Life. You are working to love yourself in God’s image and to love others. You are not indifferent. And so, you are most likely bringing your grief here with you, large or small, personal and/or communal. And you are bringing your greatest joys which may be closely bound to your grief. A community of faith is a safe place to become grounded in our grief. This is a place where we learn with others to grieve, to lament, to rejoice and to give thanks. I’m glad you are here today.
That was a lot of information about a subject that we don’t like to talk about – grief. Take a moment and let whatever you need to hear, sink in. As the psalmist reminds us, this is a place of refuge in the presence of the Holy and one another. Remember that you are breathing. (pause)
After the service today, as a way of continuing this service and grieving together, you are invited to make a prayer flag and place it on our tree there in the yard. You will find the flags or streamers and markers in the Fellowship Hall. Write your grief, your prayer, your lament, your joy on the flag and place it on the tree. This is an act of mourning that can take the grief you feel and move it through your body. It can be an act of memory and thanksgiving that we do together on this day that we remember grief.
Let’s pray together: Holy ONE, you are with us before we call your name. Teach us to grieve so that we can in turn give and receive your love. Teach us to befriend the grief of life’s changes that we may be agents of your change for justice and love in our world. Amen.
[i] James L. May, Psalms, INTERPRETATION, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (John Knox Press, Louisville, KY: 1994, 143).
[ii] Malkia Devich-Cyril, “To Give Your Hands to Freedom, First Give Them to Grief,” ed. adrienne maree brown, Holding Change, The Way of Emergent Strategy Facilitation and Mediation, (AK Press, Chico, CA: 2021, 64-79).
[iii] Ibid., 79.
[iv] adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy, Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, (AK Press, Chico, CA: 2017, 105-107).
[v] Devich-Cyril, 78.
[vi] Ibid., 75-78.
[vii] Ibid., 78.