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The Friendship of Grief

August 13, 2012

“The Friendship of Grief” 2 Samuel 18:33-19:8a © 8/12/12 Ordinary 19B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Grief and loss are no respecters of persons. It doesn’t matter to them who you are. Richer, poorer; older, younger; healthy or chronically ill; city or country; illiterate or educated; black, white, yellow, red or brown; believer, agnostic or atheist; gay or straight; male or female. They set their sights on you and strike, sometimes without warning.

Maybe they make little raids, just to shake you up, leave you off balance. Even slightly wounded. Your favorite TV show, also popular with the critics, gets cancelled for no reason you can understand, while some dumb reality program continues to gain an audience. You pay a premium price for the tickets to a play or concert, only to be underwhelmed by the performance. You find out some secret about a person you thought you knew well, and the whole relationship is suddenly up for grabs. The quiz paper comes back bleeding a sea of red ink from the corrections, despite a hard night of study. The doctor adds yet another prescription to the bewildering number you’re already taking. Your perfectionist “to do” list for the day is not finished by lunch, and you feel like a failure. You were making progress with the diet or the exercise program, only to be seduced by a package of cookies or a pint of ice cream. Some slip of the tongue, perhaps revealing a confidence, starts an argument or offends a friend, and you kick yourself for being so insensitive or indiscreet. Maybe none of these is particularly large or lasting, but each can rob you of sleep and peace for a while.

But then there are times when grief and loss lay siege to your soul. They leave you starving for hope and thirsty for God’s life-giving water. The situation gets so bad you just want to give up. The continuing bad economy or the conflicted situation at work finally makes you its victim, and you lose your job, with little prospect of another on the horizon. You get a call telling you that your teenager’s driving while texting has caused a fatal accident. You and your spouse decide that the public charade of happiness, but private hell of suspicion and hate or maybe just boredom and indifference, all of that finally has to come to an end; your marriage is over. You get the report back from the doctor; it doesn’t look good: your cancer has returned. Your spouse or sibling or best friend dies, and it seems that all the meaning is drained from life. Strong losses, grief deep as an abyss.

It is that sort of feeling that’s laid bare in the morning’s text. Absalom, David’s son, is dead. David begins to wail and cry after hearing the news. It’s a striking and poignant picture, one of those which bears witness to the accuracy and honesty of the Bible about the human condition. Here is one whose name became a hook for the hope of Israel, yet he is pictured as vulnerable, hurt, and troubled. He is not afraid to express and show deep emotion.

The David before us now is not David the king. He is David the father. All that matters is that he has lost a son. He doesn’t even ask how it happened or who killed Absalom or why his explicit order was not followed. The loss is too great for those questions now. They can come later; now is the time to weep and mourn, to anguish over all that could have been and was not.

David’s tortured longing touches us deeply and personally. His story conjures painful memories of the times we have abandoned any hope of control. But I dare say it was right that we did let emotion take over, for loss so great demands to be expressed. We can no more hold it back than we could the power of a rushing wind or a raging flood. It’s no coincidence, by the way, that an irresistible wind and flowing water are both metaphors for the Holy Spirit in the Bible.

Sometimes you or I apologize for our tears shed in public. They belong in private, we think, and we are embarrassed when they flow in front of people. Ironically, we seem to feel that the most inappropriate place to cry is in church. The hymn reminds us of a loved one or we remember the wedding ceremony with the one with whom we now have irreconcilable differences, and the tears well up. Yet we have been taught that those who do not openly mourn are examples of Christian virtue. If we have difficulty with public displays of affection, we have more with public displays of grief.

But to be human is to be a physical being, incarnate, in the flesh. And part of our reaction to loss of whatever sort is therefore physical as well. Tears. An emptiness in the pit of the stomach. Sleeping too little or too much. Loss of appetite or concentration. Nausea. Numbness. Bizarre behavior. When we feel or experience any or all of these things, it doesn’t mean we’re somehow less spiritual, that we don’t trust God. For all David’s many faults and sins, he was still the man after God’s own heart, the one whom God promised an everlasting dynasty. Yet the storyteller pictures him weeping and wailing for a lost son. And surely Jesus was in accord with God’s will. Indeed, he was the one in whom God was perfectly present and known. Yet he wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus.

Someone has written that willpower does not work for recovery. Only surrender does. Surrender to our feelings. Surrender to our humanity. Surrender to the knowledge that we cannot make it on our own. It is only as we sink into the arms of God in our desolation and pain that we will know God’s life-giving care that will lead us one day to wholeness.

Any loss is hurtful. Depending on what or whom we have lost and how, the pain may last but moments or it may go on for days or months. Even a lifetime. Our surrender to the hurt begins us on the road to newness. Grief can be our teacher, mentor, even friend, instead of the enemy we so often portray it to be.

I think that’s true in at least a couple of ways. For one, grief and loss can help us understand the pain of others that we may have dismissed or ignored. It’s easy, when you’ve never known great loss, to pontificate about how somebody ought to “get over it” or “grow up and deal with it.” But when it happens to you or me, we change our tune. We see how important it is to have friends, to have faith, how much it hurts to be deprived of something or someone we love.

Andrew Bacevich is professor of international relations at Boston University. He is also a retired colonel in the US Army. His son Andrew, Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the military. But unlike his father, the younger Bacevich did not survive his service. He was killed in Iraq in 2007.

Two years after the young man’s death, Colonel Bacevich was still struggling to come to terms with the loss of his son. But his reflections taught him something important. In an interview, he said: “When you suffer a loss like I did in my son’s death, it really does give you a deeper appreciation of… a lot of other people whose lives are ripped apart. When you suffer pain in your own life I think you do appreciate how much pain there is in existence…. [I]’m a slow learner. Why did I have to lose my son to develop an appreciation of that? Why did I incline to be oblivious to the suffering of others until I experienced my own kind of suffering?” (Wendy Murray, “U.S. Delusions,” The Christian Century, August 11, 2009: 26).

Why, indeed? The colonel’s questions are important one’s we could all ask ourselves. But if grief can teach us to appreciate the pain of others, so can it make us sit up and take a hard look at our relationships with those still living. So much of David’s strong grief came from guilt and regret. David and Absalom hated each other or perhaps it was only Absalom who despised his father so. But in any case, the two were bound together, invested in each other’s lives. David did not grieve so, or he grieved differently, for the newborn child that he and Bathsheba lost. He never had a chance to know that son. But there was a lifetime with Absalom in which to love and be loved, to give and receive, to share and care. None of that happened. Instead, there was recrimination and hatred and thick silence. David is consumed with regret because he knows his relationship could have been so much more. It’s there in his cry for one who is now not “the young man Absalom,” but “my son, my son.” The son with whom he cannot now be reconciled, whom he cannot prepare for rule, cannot tell how much he loved him.

There is a scene in the classic adventure Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in which Sean Connery, in the role of Indy’s father, has watched his son plunge off a cliff to an apparent death. The elder Jones’ life has been consumed with his archaeological search for the Cup of Christ, the Holy Grail. He never had time for his son. Now, believing Indy to be dead, Henry Jones says: “I never told him anything,” meaning about his father’s feelings. It turns out that Indiana Jones is well-nigh invulnerable and has not died. But for a moment, his father had to contemplate the consequences of a life spent ignoring his son.

There will come a time when it’s too late to say or do anything more. Jessica Ghawi reminded us of that in a blog. You may know she was one of the dead in the Aurora shooting. Only couple of weeks earlier, she had survived a shooting at a Toronto, Canada mall that left two dead and several wounded. She wrote that the experience reminded her “how fragile life was… that we don’t know when or where our time on Earth will end. When or where we will breathe our last breath” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/28/jessica-ghawi-matt-mcquin_n_1713244.html). Echoing the theme of fragility, her brother Jordan encouraged everyone at her funeral to act on their dreams (http://www.sacbee.com/2012/07/28/4669469/colorado-shooting-victim-mourned.html).

How tragic if we forget the fragility of our own or someone else’s life, and let our fear or embarrassment or anger or distraction or apathy or busyness stop us from speaking from our hearts or doing the things we wanted to do. How much better, trusting God for strength, to say and do those things for and with others that express our love! Is not today the time to be reconciled with your enemy? Is not now the occasion for me to apologize to one I have hurt? Can we not redeem—make the most of—the time, as the Scripture says, by living in peace and with justice and compassion, so we do not come to the end of our lives or face the end of someone else’s saying “I wish…” or “I regret…” or “If only”? One of the sentences in a funeral prayer can be our philosophy. It says: “Help us live as those prepared to die.”

Loss is a fact of life. But is does not have to be the final fact. Nor does it need to rob us of our ability to go on with life. We leave a bit of ourselves at each of the mile markers on our journeys where life has said “no”. And we call the name of what or whom we no longer have with us. But the journey does continue. And it can go on with meaning, perhaps with even greater significance than before. Joab tried to force David to put aside his public grief too soon. And maybe he had to do that for the good of the nation. David was after all a public figure, and his demoralization was affecting the security of his land. Joab had the right idea—that grieving must not ultimately debilitate us—but his timing was wrong for David personally. Waving to his troops did not mean David was recovered from his bereavement, only that he bracketed his pain long enough to do his duty. The real process would take much longer.

For all his harshness, though, Joab was a resource to David. That’s what we need too. Friends and family who will be God’s agents to help us to new life. No one can truly understand our uniquely personal losses. And sometimes we simply want to be alone. But God has given us this gift called “community,” folks who love us, who will be there to care for us or to listen carefully as we tell our stories for the umpteenth time. Indeed, study after study has shown that what makes the difference in whether or not a person weathers a crisis and starts on the road to wholeness is the presence of resources. Sometimes that implies money or inner psychological strength. But usually “resources” means wise and available people who can care and support, saying and doing what is needed, and refraining from saying and doing things that are not helpful. They can be our companions or even our guides.

The greatest of companions and guides is our Lord Jesus Christ, who has shared our losses and walked the sometimes lonely roads of our journey, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. He is Emmanuel, God with us, whom theologian Douglas John Hall has described this way: “…a person who is capable of a great range of emotions, from tenderness toward women and children to anger in the face of self-righteousness; a person who is vulnerable to the insults of his enemies and the false expectations of his followers; a person who is able to weep over the death of a friend and to share meals with strangers and to argue with the learned; a person who knows hunger, thirst, weariness of body and spirit, and who may become impatient, even frustrated, even angry enough to curse nature; a person tempted, and therefore knowing at least the mixed motivation of human goodness and evil; a person crying out, at last, in the face of terrible abandonment” (Professing the Faith: 542). Such a one who understands us completely is our friend, our advocate with the Father, our faithful comforter by the Spirit. His touch can heal our sorrow, his guiding hand can bring us through the darkness to a new day.

So in our time of loss and grief, perhaps the best prayer we could make would be the words of the old spiritual: “Precious Lord, take my hand. Lead me on, help me stand. I am tired, I am weak, I am worn; through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light; take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home. When my way grows drear, precious Lord, linger near; when my life is almost gone, hear my cry, hear my call, hold my hand lest I fall; take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.”

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