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Grief Ministry 101

June 10, 2013

“Grief Ministry 101” Luke 7:11-17; 1 Kings 17:8-24 © 6.9.13 by Tom Cheatham @ First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

There’s a saying among ministers: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” I wish I had heard that in seminary, either time, or from the senior minister in my first church. I might have taken it to heart, and thus avoided a great many mistakes, become and been a better pastor all these years, and concentrated on learning how to relate to and help people rather than always having my head in a book. What was sometimes hard experience has taught me the solid truth of the old saw.

Still, if we are to care well, specifically for those who experience loss, there are some things we do need to know. The texts for the morning can instruct us in and introduce us to the fine art of ministry with those who grieve.

In the first story, a widow in the town of Zarephath is bewildered, angry, and afraid. She has fed and sheltered the prophet Elijah, and look what she has gotten for her trouble! Her son is sick, and the popular wisdom held that entertaining a prophet of God had brought too much attention from the deity on her household. People definitely wanted to stay under the radar as far as divine surveillance was concerned. But all the woman’s sins are now known to God, and he is punishing her by killing her son. Pretty horrible view of God, but that was the belief. Once her boy is gone, there will be no one to take care of her when eventually she reaches old age. But before that, and daily, she will have the burden of guilt that somehow she was responsible for her child’s death, all because was kind and helped a man of God.

Some eight hundred years later, a funeral procession comes slowly out of the town of Nain as Jesus and his disciples are entering. Again a widow meets a man of God. The woman’s only son, an adult in this case, has died an untimely death, and like the widow of Zarephath, she too will now be on the economic margins. As if that were not bad enough, her neighbors are whispering about what extraordinary sins she must have committed to bring such tragedy. We have to ask that age-old question: what is it with people?! She felt hope was lost, the future closed and dark. Surely God had forsaken her, or if he were with her, it was only to show his wrath.

Our hearts ache for these women. They remind us of the people we have known who experience that complex set of emotions collectively known as “grief.” And we cannot help but recall our own sorrows and losses. How do these stories guide us when we struggle with what to say and do to help friends and neighbors who have known loss, especially of a loved one?

Let’s look first at Luke’s account. It is on the initiative of Jesus that the funeral procession and the disciples come into contact. Perhaps they would have simply passed by each other, going about their business. Maybe somebody would have thought or said “Isn’t that sad?” or “I wonder who died” and that would be all. But Jesus pays attention to one needy person, whatever other pressing concerns he may have had. It’s as if Luke forgets the disciples and the crowd for a while, and the little scene with Jesus, the mother, and her dead son becomes the only reality.

Here then is the first lesson in what you and I can do to help in times of grief. We give the gift of attention to someone who has experienced loss, separation or disappointment. If you are helping yourself through loss, then be good to yourself, do something nice for yourself, give yourself attention. If we seek to give care to another, giving attention doesn’t mean you or I should smother someone with calls and visits. But neither should we let him or her fall through the cracks created by our responsibilities, schedules, and seemingly pressing engagements. As the weeks and months go by, it’s typical to forget those who are grieving. Some will say, “Well, it’s been x number of months; she ought to be OK by now” or “I’m certain Bob is fine; I saw him at Food Giant, and he was smiling.” But in fact people still need support long after the funeral or the surgery or whatever the loss may be. We can hang in there for the long haul and make contact, not waiting for the call in response to the common thing people say, like “let me know if there is something I can do.” We can be there after others have long ago gone about their business and they no longer pick up the phone or send an email or Facebook message or mail a card. We can listen to the hurt or on the other hand, the great memories, maybe for the umpteenth time. We can share our own experience with loss and change. We can be available to talk. And even if we don’t feel like we have much to say, we must never discount the value of the gift of our patience, presence, and attention. As a an elderly member in Alabama said time and again, those mean “more than [we] will ever know.”

Let’s go back to the story. Luke says that Jesus had compassion on the woman. In other words, he suffered with her; that’s the meaning of the Latin root. In that moment, our Lord revealed the kind of God we worship. As someone once wrote, this is no “Benevolent Despot who will kindly take away human problems” but a “Divine Lover who is completely involved in the creation and who will be found fellowshipping incognito with the lowliest of creatures. God is sooner found standing at the bedside of the dying than sitting on the heavenly throne removed from us and our lives” (Stephen D. Bryant, “Letter to a Friend,” Weavings, May/June 1989: 24). This is a God who shares our pain and struggles, even as he grants his power to help us through them.

So here is a second lesson: we enter the pain of the grieving. It’s OK to be sad; that doesn’t reflect on our faith. A compassionate caregiver who cares as Jesus did does not try to fix things or set a timetable for healing. That’s the temptation in our technological, hurry-up world with its nanosecond computer calculations, 30 minute sit-com solutions, and nearsighted vision. And when we see something broken, we act to fix it, whether it’s a leaky faucet or a problem with our cars or a bad switch in a lamp. But people are different from a computer or a lamp. We can’t always fix what’s wrong with folks, at least not quickly or easily, and besides, wanting to fix them is more about our own anxiety sometimes than it is their need.

To care like Jesus would is to refrain from making light of a person’s suffering, our own or someone else’s, pretending or insisting that things aren’t so bad. To care like Jesus is to help another find meaning in and through pain. It is to accept deep and difficult and powerful feelings as OK, with you and with God. That kind of action is true to the God of the Bible, who is with people in the valley of the shadow of death, whose son Jesus wept at the grave of a friend, and finally stretched out his hands in suffering on the cross. The God who loves us enters into our plight and casts his lot with humanity. He’s in this thing for the long haul, and it’s his tenacity that will bring victory.

Let’s go now to the story of Elijah and the widow. Remember how angry she was, as well as afraid? She blamed the presence of the prophet and thus God for her son’s death. Elijah did not walk away from her anger, but even shared it in his complaint to God. Unlike us, the Hebrews felt free to express the full range of emotions to God and hold him accountable for his promises. They boldly confronted God with what they believed was unjust and wrong.

The widow’s anger is by no means unusual. People who have experienced loss—including you and me—want redress of their grievances and restitution for what has been taken. When the storm or fire devastates your home, when the drunk or careless driver texting on a cell phone kills your child, when an institution like the church betrays your trust, when the boss says “You’re fired,” there’s real and intense anger, among other feelings. When someone has died, those now without their loved one may be mad at the doctor for failing to find a cure, at the minister for saying the wrong thing in the hospital or at the funeral, at friends for their lack of understanding, at God for being so unjust and far away. And yes, at the friend or spouse or parent or child for dying. They’re angry at the whole stupid world and the scheme of things that’s so unfair.

Our tendency is to suppress such feelings in ourselves and in others. We see a potentially destructive emotion like anger as always bad. But anger can be a positive force for recovery, if its energy is channeled and harnessed. The third lesson to be learned about how we can help, then, is to accept and bear the anger. Someone once put it this way: “When the pain and anger of grief are allowed to take their course, they will eventually join the gamut of other feelings of grief, including joy and hope as well as sorrow, to focus on the true enemy, death, and the true goal, life. Recovery, after all, can be seen as life’s bold act, affirming itself in angry defiance against death. The pain that leads to anger at the violation inflicted on one’s meaning and purpose becomes the will to find a new meaning” (Ira Nerken, “Making It Safe to Grieve,” The Christian Century, 11/30/88: 1094).

So those are the lessons for this session of Grief Ministry 101. We have seen how Jesus paid attention to a widow and had compassion for her. We have witnessed a scene of anger and found that Elijah took even that feeling to God. Let me bring it all together now. In the texts, both Elijah and Jesus were the presence of God in a very concrete form through their attention, their compassion, their anger, their prayer and their raising of the dead. The widow of Zarephath moved from hostility to hope, from skepticism and fear to faith. The crowd in Nain praised God for sending a prophet and for bringing salvation. God was known as coming not in judgment, but in grace, with healing and peace.

Here then is our special calling with those who know loss: to offer the assurance of the presence of a God who is a gracious and loving deity, one who does not will death and despair but hope and wholeness and life. Death and loss of any kind have said that hope is lost, God is gone, there’s nothing much worthwhile anymore. But through our attention, our compassion, our affirmation of feelings, we literally become the presence of God to the grieving. Our ministry is potent evidence that God is still around, that hope lives. We become the body of Christ: his voice that speaks good news, his hands that touch, his arms that hug, his feet to go to those in need. We can’t bring back the dead or restore what was lost, but we can be such effective instruments of God to raise the living, that the next time someone needs a visit from God, we get the phone call.

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