I have a few psalms I have been praying through this experience of grief and this one in particular is poignant to me. Psalm 24 has always been a favorite of mine, but it is one I often pray with hospice patients and now as I am a grieving widower.
This week not only did I pray it at home many mornings, sometimes shaking and in tears, sometimes quietly when the words would not come, but also our pastors used it as a text to study in our mid-week Bible study.
Each time I pray a psalm, different aspects stand out. What stands out to me in this moment is how we are told Yahweh, a name for God meaning something like the Living One (as opposed to a lifeless statue or idea), holds the whole world as God’s own. This includes me in my suffering. I am ever embraced by this God. So are you. My pastor pointed out during our study that in the Jewish mindset in which this Psalm was written and still is a living guide for prayer, “the earth is the Living One’s and the fullness therein” included the earth and sea, and those buried beneath it in death. It was one of the first psalms used to present a hope that yes even the dead are in some way made alive in their passing by an ever-embracing love. God holds them as a mother holds her newborn.
I have often thought as I work as a chaplain that the process I help patients through of facing grief, healing wounds, reconciling people, facing deep existential questions, is like a kind of labor. It is painful, trying, and who would want to do it? Yet childbirth in mothers is what ushers their children fully into our world. On good days in my job as a chaplain it does feel as if I am a midwife working with families and patients to learn how to breathe, where and when to push their souls, to read themselves for this labor that I believe launches them into a new world.
Near the end of my wife’s life, she launched a website, http://questionsyoucouldntaskinsundayschool.wordpress.com/, where she was posting questions, fears, doubts, which made many longstanding beliefs she had as a Christian minister and believer which were caused in part by returning to theological education and in part by her experience of pain and illness. I remember her expressing consternation that many long-time friends from her days as a fervent earnest evangelical Christian before coming out as a queer woman who were questioning now again her relationship with God, her eternal security, her salvation. At the time I shook my head. I had been through the same process of questioning, doubting, and feeling like my belief system was no longer adequate but squeezing tight like clothes I had outgrown at every stint of my theological education. I remembered wondering as she did if perhaps she really was losing the faith which she loved so deeply and to her dying day devoted herself to passionately. I would assure her that few honest Christians who study theology or endure pain do not go through this, and that is why God chose to inspire the psalms of lament and imprecation, the book of Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Job.
But now that I know my wife was dying – something neither of us thought since though her pain had gotten worse the last few months of her life in every other respect she was improving from the stroke-like event over two years ago that caused her to lose her speech, all strength in all her limbs, the ability to read, and many other capacities for several weeks. Everything seemed outwardly on the up and up. But I recognize what was happening now, for this same process she endured of questioning, deconstructing, doubting, laying aside, embracing, which I saw at work on her blog is the same process I walk hospice patients through as a chaplain. I have learned not to fear that they are losing their faith when such patients in their pain find the words of faith that carried them so far meaningless and empty. For, in truth, compared to what they are about to experience, it truly is. St Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13 that eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, what our Living Savior has in store for those who enter through the labor pain of suffering, death, doubt, and fear the new world ensured for them which my wife now has entered.
I have begun to think of this time of questioning which every patient I have ever worked with in hospice or as a pastor working with the dying goes through, in their own way, even if they never directly question but couch their questions in words of assurance, as a reflection of the great mystic and thinker Meister Eckhart’s words “I pray God to rid me of God that I may know God”. Eckhart meant that when we say God, so often we mean a word, an idea, a doctrine, which is but a child’s cartoon drawing of a reality far deeper, wider, true, more life-giving than any human words could express. He prayed for us to go through the dark valley of deconstruction, doubt, questioning, uncertainty where we laid aside every image, idea, doctrine of God which we cling to for safety so that stripped of those we might encounter the One they point to in deep communion.
I believe in death we all go to this Living One known by many names but encountered in my life as the Creator, the Christ, and the Cosmic Spirit who together are One God whom I know through the face of Jesus. I believe Kat has graced us in this blog at a glimpse of her process of preparing for the same. Of realizing that she had to lay aside all of the garments she clung to for safety, like a newlywed readying herself for her first night with her beloved. And I believe the One she encountered fulfilled all her questions, doubts, and longings as I’ve seen this Sacred Spirit do for so many a patient I sat with as they transitioned out of their bodies into glory
I also am drawn to the image of all things being built on this tumultuous sea. I feel often as if my life right now is tumultuous. I do not know whether I will cry, scream, rage, whimper, shut down, or go numb next. I sometimes lose track of where I am and what I am doing, so overwhelmed by my loss. But yet on the foundation of the seas God has built the goodness and beauty of the world in which She has breathed the breath of life. Our Father shall likewise transform my sea of pain so that out of it beauty beyond naming may be born.
Thank you for accompanying me on this journey of grief.
Your progressive redneck preacher,