“The Gift of Grief”
“The Gift of Grief”
2 Samuel 1:1; 17-27
Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert June 27, 2021
This past Wednesday I was leading the Growing in Grace writing class here at FPC, and one of our writing prompts for that gathering was to write a letter to someone or something.
You could write to your younger self or future self or a family member or God…wide open. I wrote to my childhood house. 543 Chisholm Trail in Wyoming, OH. I wrote about all kinds of memories in that house. I asked the house if it remembered when my knee punctured one of its doors during a particularly spectacular dunk over my brother.
And then I shifted into this space where the house became a metaphor for my family. And then I wrote about the time that the garage caught fire – and it was a metaphor for my parent’s divorce and how things were never the same again. I didn’t mean to go those places – didn’t even have them on my radar in the least.
After 10 minutes of writing our letters, we then all shared our letters with one another. When it came time for me to read, something very unexpected happened.
I felt my face filling with an almost tingling sensation as I was reading these words about watching the fire from the street, this sense of loss that I was watching but could not control. And then when I found I could no longer read aloud the last sentence I had written, it became quite obvious to me what this tingling sensation was: Tears.
Tears from somewhere I didn’t know was there, somewhere that was not on my mind in the least that morning but tears flooding to my face, breaking my voice. Ask the class – it took everything within me – after a very long pause to pull it together – to then finally read the final line of my piece of writing that morning.
I find in our society we don’t care to talk much or think much about grief. If you saw that this Sunday’s sermon was focused on this theme, I imagine you may have thought – maybe going to skip this one. Kind of a downer. I know the thought would cross my mind.
And if and when we do talk about grief, we sometimes talk about it as something we look to get past. Or over. Or perhaps even at times not even acknowledge.
Which is in some ways where our story from 2 Samuel begins today.
A messenger arrives to David after three days of hasty travel – his clothes torn, dust covering him, and he falls to the ground to tell David that King Saul and his son, Jonathan (David’s dear friend) are both dead. And as proof, this messenger has brought Saul’s crown and the band that Saul wore on his arm indicating his kingship.
Without going into all of the detail about this interchange between David and this messenger that happens before the reading you heard this morning from 2 Samuel, it is rather clear that this messenger likely expects to benefit from being the one who tells David this news. For surely, he assumes, David will be pleased to hear this. “Yes, they are dead but…now you, finally, have your chance to be king. Here is the beautiful crown. Here is what you have been waiting for.”
In the face of tragedy, in the face of death, in the face of loss of any kind…how often it can happen that that shiny thing is quickly placed before us.
- “Ah, but though she died, how good you no longer need to be the caretaker.”
- “Ah, but though you lost that job, now look at the opportunities you can pursue.”
- “Ah, but though the storm damaged and destroyed so much, how good and all-the-better we shall restore everything.”
It’s not that the shiny thing isn’t true or won’t be true someday. David will be king because Saul is now dead. But neither then nor now have humans been mere machines that can or should flip a switch and go from “Oh, here is this loss but….now here is this next good thing.”
Even Jesus – who himself is the good news of life and life eternal. When he heard the news that his friend, Lazarus, has died – there is not an “oh but you just wait…he’s going to come back alive. You just wait how glorious God’s promise is for him.”
Rather, “Jesus wept.”
David and those with him immediately tear their clothes, mourn and fast. Then David has the whole of Israel learn the extended Psalm of lament, which is what you heard read by Babs.
What we begin to see in this scene is that for David and his people, there is a known rhythm, a known liturgy for how a people deal with loss – the tearing of clothes, the fasting, the shared song of lament.
And actually what eventually emerges in Judaism is a whole ritual or liturgy around grieving that is honored by many today – and some of you may be familiar with it.
It’s a liturgy that includes “sitting shiva” -referring to the seven days after burial where the one or ones who are mourning sit in their home alongside others in the faith community for seven days – modeled after Job and his friends who sat for seven days in silence after Job lost everything.
After that, there is a thirty day period of mourning called “shloshim” (‘thirty’) where certain things are done and not done so as to continue honoring the grieving process.
Then beyond that, there is a full year of mourning – a period designed especially for those who mourn their parents. In that time, there is a particular prayer of praise to God call the Kaddish that the mourner is to say twice a day: “Magnified and sanctified may God’s great name be.”
A prayer of praise is given not because you feel that praise deeply or even trust it at the moment of intense grief, but because even so the praise is still true and in time this can help one return to trust that truth quite deeply.
Notably, the saying of this prayer requires that a quorum of 10 adults be present in the room to say the prayer with the one who is mourning. This means twice a day the mourner must go to synagogue (and so too others in the community) to do this. (As an aside, you can find fascinating articles online about the ways Judaism has navigated COVID realities where these 10 could not gather together).
There are more details we could explore, but the point is this: this full liturgical calendar for grieving in all of its various stages and forms makes clear two things:
- Grief is fundamentally understood to be a communal endeavor.
- And, grief takes time.
Much as we want to cling to the shiny silver lining and brush past the rest, it just takes a lot of time… still those tears can and do sit but a 1/2 millimeter away, and they can be unlocked without our permission if we come upon a certain smell or photo or song.
And even while much good and resiliency has come from this pandemic, also we have to admit we have known much loss these many months: loss of life, job loss, loss of special events or graduations or annual gatherings, loss of peace in the household, loss of health, loss of a relationship, the loss of fellow congregants alongside whom we used to sit…
And insofar as any of that is true for us, then we must also recognize that for all the excitement of seeing friends and family and church for the first time in so long…we must recognize, too, that we’re hardly out of a natural grieving period.
And that’s ok – “blessed are those who mourn.”
And that acknowledgment may prepare us to appreciate all-the-more David’s Psalm of grief in 2 Samuel.
Certainly, we hear the mourning and deep sadness come through in some of his words. But then also we notice in this lament some pretty raw language too.
We hear David curse down upon the enemies of Israel: “Let there be no dew or rain upon you nor bounteous fields…” Reminding us that one of the more visceral ways that our grief is made known is through anger.
I remember when I serving as an Associate Pastor in a congregation in Atlanta, and one day a congregant came into my office quite abruptly and said, “Who’s in charge of that sign out front?!” He was talking about a sign we had put up advertising one of the worship services of the church. “Uh – buildings and grounds put it up.“ ”Oh, pass the buck, huh. Did you drive by that sign this morning?!“ ”yes.“ ”Then you must have noticed it looks terrible. Are you going to go and do something about it? (he gives me no time to respond). Does no one here care how this church looks to other people? Apparently, the pastor is too important to think do lowly tasks like cleaning up a sign!”
I feel lost and honestly, no words come out in response. And he just leaves.
About an hour later I get an email from this him as he continues to share how upsetting this sign ordeal is and then he ends the email: “I’m going to tell everyone I run into about your arrogance.”
A week later we had a great conversation in which we reconciled everything… but before that conversation, I was a mess. What had I done? What had I not done? What is wrong with our sign?
And a mentor of mine asked me, “Bobby, do you think it was the church sign that had him upset at that level of anger – that he takes the time to blow up in your office and then the time to write this kind of email?”
What he was getting at is that perhaps the fact that no one had noticed the sign and thought to fix it, perhaps that was not the most fundamental issue.
Perhaps it was this long-time member who had poured his heart into the church, was wondering if anyone was going to carry the church after he was gone…wondered if all he had poured into the church meant anything…wondered if anyone still noticed him in all of his brokenness. Perhaps, my mentor was nudging, perhaps the anger was an expression of grief.
I wonder if we took notice of where we have felt ourselves grow with anger in recent days…and is it possible that part of that – may be a lot of that – is a grieving because we have known a loss?
David makes clear that one way grief is manifest is in anger – and God can take that raw honesty just fine. Along with his sadness and his anger, this is one more notable aspect. David’s grief for us to consider because it offers us a hint of what is possible when Jesus meets us in our weeping and walks that road with us.
Amid the swirl of tears and anger and heartache, we also hear this in David’s Psalm:
- “they (Saul and Jonathan) were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.”
- “(Saul) clothed you (women of Israel) with crimson, in luxury, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel.”
- “(Speaking of Jonathan) greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful; passing the love of women.”
In other words, even in this raw moment of grief, we hear the first expressions of gratitude for who these two men were. And so we begin to see where – in time – the grief can may go.
One of the books I most appreciate when it comes to grief was published in the mid-90s and is entitled Tracks of a Fellow Struggler: Living and Growing Through Grief. It’s by John Claypool, and really the book is a compilation of four sermons he preached on grief as he navigated his 8-year old daughter, Laura Lue, getting cancer and then dying from it two years later. Three sermons were given before she died, and one was given 18 months after she died.
And near the end of that sermon, he begins to speak of what he calls “the road of gratitude” and he says this: “I am here to testify that this (the road of gratitude) seems to me to be the best way down from the Mountain of Loss. I do not mean to say that such a perspective makes things easy, for it does not. But at least it makes things bearable when I remember that Laura Lue was a gift, pure and simple, something I neither learned nor deserved nor had a right to. And when I remember that the appropriate response to a gift, even when it is taken away, is gratitude, then I am better able to try and thank God that I was even given her in the first place.”
Or, as the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once observed in a very similar vein about gratitude’s power: “…Gratitude transforms the torment of memory of good things now gone into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.”
Rarely do we want to confront or walk through grief. Far more appealing to stuff it down, set it aside, get past it as quickly as possible, or perhaps take the shiny thing that lets us just not think about it since we now have this good thing.
But Jesus wept.
And Jesus meets us in the space of grief’s extended journey. He meets us in that long, Holy Saturday that sits between the loss of Good Friday and the resurrection of Easter Sunday…and what we discover in this most necessary time is that the grief’s gift is it can awaken us to a profound level of gratitude (for we were given something in this life that was worthy of such an ache).
In time, grief can awaken us, to the very heart of our faith: that all that we have, and all that we are – it is all a gift.
None of it earned, accomplished, or deserved.
All of it God’s grace in Jesus Christ made known to us in abundance.
“Blessed are those who mourn. For they will be comforted.” Amen.