Week in the Word: Grief and Recovery, Part 3 — Rebuilding after Loss

hanks chapel easter

This is the message I preached on Sunday, July 22,  at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC   I hope it blesses you!  If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us!   Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC.

Psalm 40

1 I waited patiently for the Lord;

   he inclined to me and heard my cry.

sinking 22 He drew me up from the desolate pit,[a]

   out of the miry bog,

and set my feet upon a rock,

   making my steps secure.

3 He put a new song in my mouth,

   a song of praise to our God.

Many will see and fear,

   and put their trust in the Lord.

 

4 Happy are those who make

   the Lord their trust,

who do not turn to the proud,

   to those who go astray after false gods.

5 You have multiplied, O Lord my God,

   lovingkindness-picyour wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us;

   none can compare with you.

Were I to proclaim and tell of them,

   they would be more than can be counted.

 

6 Sacrifice and offering you do not desire,

   but you have given me an open ear.[b]

Burnt offering and sin offering

   you have not required.

7 Then I said, “Here I am;

   in the scroll of the book it is written of me.[c]

8 I delight to do your will, O my God;

   your law is within my heart.”

 

9 I have told the glad news of deliverance

   in the great congregation;

see, I have not restrained my lips,

   as you know, O Lord.

10 I have not hidden your saving help within my heart,

   I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;

I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness

   from the great congregation.

 

11 Do not, O Lord, withhold

   your mercy from me;

let your steadfast love and your faithfulness

   keep me safe forever.

12 For evils have encompassed me

   without number;

my iniquities have overtaken me,

   until I cannot see;

they are more than the hairs of my head,

   and my heart fails me.

 

13 Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me;

   O Lord, make haste to help me.

14 Let all those be put to shame and confusion

   who seek to snatch away my life;

let those be turned back and brought to dishonor

   who desire my hurt.

15 Let those be appalled because of their shame

   who say to me, “Aha, Aha!”

 

16 But may all who seek you

   rejoice and be glad in you;

may those who love your salvation

   say continually, “Great is the Lord!”

17 As for me, I am poor and needy,

   but the Lord takes thought for me.

You are my help and my deliverer;

   do not delay, O my God.

Still-speaking God, open the eyes of our mind and ears of our heart, that we might see and know what words you have for us in these words of Scripture.  Amen.

The last two weeks we have been exploring God’s message to us in times of grief, loss, and trauma as we journey together to heal and rebuild our lives and communities after loss.   We’ve focused on the message of the Psalms, which include model prayers that grief cyclewalk through the whole journey of loss and recovery. Our first week we looked at a psalm or prayer of orientation written from a point where the Psalmist was in a state of grace before suffering and loss, and we discussed the lessons such prayers teach us when we are going through loss ourselves, losses that make their easy optimism ring hollow.  Last week we looked at a psalm or prayer of disorientation, written from a point in which the Psalmist felt life had become unravelled and they were drowning in their overwhelming experience of grief. We explored what that prayer teaches us about our times when we, too, are overwhelmed by the experience of grief and loss.

This week we turn to Psalm 40, a prayer or psalm of reorientation, written from a point when the person praying has finally begun to find their footing and embrace life again after loss.  While we found last week that the experience of grief and loss can feel like sinking into deep waters in which we are drowning, here we see what follows when you begin to lift out of this into a time reorientation, when you can rebuild after grief and loss.

  • What does this Psalm teach us about the process and perils of rebuilding life again after loss? (allow discussion)

First, I want you to notice that, just as the experience of grief and loss was overwhelming in Psalm 69, so to the Psalmist, the experience of embracing life again can also be overwhelming.   The Psalmist feels as if they have been lifted out of a sinking pit, which had offered no hope of rescue — a fitting image for how grief and loss can feel. Now, he or she feels exultation and freedom — having been brought by God out of their painful peril to a position Job 36:16 calls a “spacious place where there is no cramping”.

One of my favorite poets, Rumi, pictures what this spacious place without cramping can feel like in his poem, “ A Great Wagon”:  “Today, like every other day, we wake up empty open door 4and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument. Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground. ‘Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase each other doesn’t make any sense.”

Through our experience of grief and loss, we can feel our life seem to narrow, to shrink, feeling powerless over our lives.  Then as we make our first stumbling steps to embrace life after our loss, we can feel ourselves begin to open up again. We can start to see all kinds of opportunities and possibilities we would not have expected before.  It is like walking into an open field after feeling lost in dark woods that were crowded with trees and thickets. This too can be overwhelming, for often when life opens up into this open space, this field, it does so in surprising ways, where our old sense of “right” and “wrong” don’t fit, where we have to learn our way again, as for the first time.

In my own life, I experienced this as I began to embrace life after being widowed.  My identity had been as husband, first in terms of a partner to my late wife and then in terms of her caregiver.  After she passed, I felt I lost a part of who I was. I was not a building-home-construction2husband any longer. As I began to embrace life again, it was an adjustment to face what it meant to live life fully now as a single person, without her there, neither as my partner in life nor the sick person I cared for.  Even when I began to be able to feel happy again after that sadness , sometimes it threw me off guard. I even felt guilty that I was having these moments of joy without her in my life.

  • What have been people’s experience of this?  What surprises lay in your own path of rebuilding after loss for them?

The Psalmist also teaches us that, just as the journey through grief is one God does not intend us to do alone, neither is the journey of rebuilding after loss.   We still need to reach out to God and others; and those of us who have supported others through their initial time of loss and grief still need to be available as a support to them through their  times of rebuilding, not assuming they’ve arrived.

The fact this Psalm is a prayer means, by definition, the one praying it is reaching out to God.   Like the others Psalms we have read, it is recorded in our Bible and this alone shows its words were not just prayed alone by the Psalmist in their own home, but prayed with others who heard him or her and wrote down their words.  That the Psalm mentions them sharing their story of deliverance with “the congregation” shows even talking with others who support you about your journey to recovery is so important.

It is easy to assume in our success-oriented society which tells us to “just man up, just move on, just get over it”, that the need to lean on God and others only comes when we are deeply hurting, and ends as soon as we begin to rebuild our lives after grief.  But all saints 2even as our life begins to open up, it can still be hard to know which way is up or down, as we learn who we are on the other side of loss. Whatever your loss, do not be surprised if you find, though you eventually begin to have more happy days than sad, you take a while to fully embrace the new identity you have after loss, and feel a little flummoxed or overwhelmed by the options that lie in front of you — and so need support.  It is important to still be willing to reach out to God, friends, others, and realize it is ok for even these positive experiences that come as you embrace life again after loss to be a bit overwhelming.

Because of this, when you  are supporting someone else through their grief journey you need to realize that even as they begin to open to life, they still need others to support them. Even the new good things they experience on this side of their journey can be overwhelming, and even the steps forward embracing new life can have an element of uncertainty which your friendship and support can help make easier for them.

The Psalmist shows us that embracing life again after loss can brings a changed or renewed vision of life.  We see this when the Psalmist talks about rejecting the false promises of idols or false gods and proud people who promise more than they can deliver.   This experience of loss can lead us to reconsider what really matters and leads to a deep, rewarding meaningful life. In the face of sickness, death, divorce, loss of a job, breaking up of a family or a church, God can use these experiences to help you see life more clearly.

In a book on this process of loss and renewal called Falling Upward, Christian writer Richard Rohr puts it well: ““Sooner or later, … some event, person, death, idea, or relationship will enter your life that you simply cannot deal with, using your present richar rohrskill set, your acquired knowledge, your strong willpower.  Spiritually speaking, you will be, you must be, led to the edge of your own private resources. At that point you will stumble over a necessary stumbling stone, as Isaiah calls it; or to state it in other language here, you will and you must ‘lose’ at something.  This is the only way that …God… can get you to change, let go of your egocentric preoccupations, and go on the further and larger journey. I wish I could say this was not true, but it is darn near absolute…

“There is no practical or compelling reason to leave one’s present comfort zone in life.  Why should you or would you? Frankly, none of us do unless and until we have to. . .

“Any attempt to engineer or plan your own enlightenment is doomed to failure because it will be ego driven.  You will see only what you have already decided to look for, and you cannot see what you are not ready or told to look for.  So failure and humiliation force you to look where you never would otherwise. … ‘God comes to you disguised as your life,’…

“So we must stumble and fall, I am sorry to say… We must actually be out of the driver’s seat for awhile, or we will never learn how to give up control to the Real Guide.  It is the necessary pattern. This kind of falling is what I mean by necessary suffering, … In the spiritual world, we do not really find something until we first lose it, ignore it, miss it, long for it, choose it, and personally find it again — but on a new level”.

Loss, failure, and grief then can open you up to new ways of looking at and living into your own life.

These new values and way of looking at life that come when we truly engage the work of grief can lead you to start to see yourself and what has happened to you as somehow fitting into how God is working in your world in a way you can better accept it and see where you fit into the rhythm of life again.  This is why the Psalmist says God has opened their ear, and helped them see themselves in God’s scroll. The opening of the ear is the image of wax being flushed out of our ear so we can hear better. Pain has a way of clearing away the distractions if we let it, helping us to more fully connect with what God jewish prayeris saying to you through your life. Finding ourselves in God’s scroll is a symbolic way in the Psalms of talking about finding ourselves in  God’s plan or purpose. Our embracing life again comes in part through coming to see ways what has happened, what it is doing in our lives, and we ourselves are somehow a part of how God working out God’s plan in our lives, so we can trust God and life again. This doesn’t mean you necessarily have to believe that what happened was good or even that God planned or caused it, but it means learning to trust again the promise of Romans 8 that God is working all things out — even what you have been grieving– for your good and the good of others.  And though you may not ever be able to say why your loss happened, you may begin to see ways it taught you lessons, ways it opened you to new values, opened you to new people, or opened you to new opportunities you never would have before.

This process often leads people  to make life changes, which have at their center not simply holding onto what has been but embracing life as it is present right in front of you.  This is part of why the Psalmist says God does not want or desire sacrifices. Sacrifices and religious rituals can easily become the kind of bargaining that, though natural in times of grief, can long term hold life back.  If you will just do this for me, God, I will change my life in some way– I will give up this or embrace that.  Such bargaining is usually aimed at halting or turning back the clock,  ways of dealing with grief that can leave us stuck if it becomes habitual.  Ultimately as we heal from grief, we make changes aimed at living out the new values our grief journey has taught us, embracing the life that is in front of us, and opening us up to new lifegiving possibilities.  As I mentioned last week, some of the choices we make while in the bargaining mindset of grief which can keep us stuck: to travel, to exercise more, to eat more healthy food, to learn a new hobby or take a new class, to get involved in church or spirituality, to start new projects or new relationships, or even to work out problems in relationships or communities with which we’ve connected — can be the very same choices we might make as a way of moving on and embracing life. But now we are doing them to open ourselves up more to our lives: to the joy, challenge, and opportunity of each day, each moment, and each person, in ways that fill us with more joy and life.  

The Psalm also makes it clear embracing life again does not mean you do not struggle or hurt anymore.  Rather, you are learning how to deal with this hurt, and to integrate what has happened into your own life in a way that helps your move life forward, rather than staying stuck or going backward.   This is why the Psalm abruptly turns from gratitude at grief patternbeing freed and having embrace life again to again expressesing again despair, loss, and helplessness. Grief does not ever completely leave, even after you’ve embraced life again.  There will still be places you go that always bring a stab of pain. There will always be moments on some days and some days you have in each year that bring up memories that shake you and might bring tears. The Psalmist’s example shows this is normal and not a sign anything is wrong.   

I close with words by Jurgen Moltmann: “For a long time I looked for you within myself and crept into the shell of my soul, shielding myself with an armour of inapproachability. But you were outside – outside myself – and enticed me out of the narrowness of my heart into the broad place of love for life. So I came out of myself and found my soul in my senses, and my own self in others. . . When I love you, my God, I want to embrace it all, for I love you with all my senses in the creations of your love. In all the things that encounter me, you are waiting for me.” Amen & Amen.

 

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A Week in the Word: Grief and Recovery, Part 2- Reaching out When Things Fall Apart

hanks chapel easter

This is the message I preached on Sunday, July 15,  at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC   I hope it blesses you!  If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us!   Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC.

Reaching out When Things Fall Apart

Psalm 69

sinking1 Save me, O God,

   for the waters have come up to my neck.

2 I sink in deep mire,

   where there is no foothold;

I have come into deep waters,

   and the flood sweeps over me.

3 I am weary with my crying;

   my throat is parched.

My eyes grow dim

   with waiting for my God.

4 More in number than the hairs of my head

   are those who hate me without cause;

many are those who would destroy me,

   my enemies who accuse me falsely.

What I did not steal

   must I now restore?

5 O God, you know my folly;

   the wrongs I have done are not hidden from you.

6 Do not let those who hope in you be put to shame because of me,

   O Lord God of hosts;

do not let those who seek you be dishonored because of me,

   O God of Israel.

7 It is for your sake that I have borne reproach,

   that shame has covered my face.

grief8 I have become a stranger to my kindred,

   an alien to my mother’s children.

9 It is zeal for your house that has consumed me;

   the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.

10 When I humbled my soul with fasting,[a]

   they insulted me for doing so.

11 When I made sackcloth my clothing,

   I became a byword to them.

12 I am the subject of gossip for those who sit in the gate,

   and the drunkards make songs about me.

13 But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord.

   At an acceptable time, O God,

   in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me.

With your faithful help 14 rescue me

   from sinking in the mire;

let me be delivered from my enemies

   and from the deep waters.

15 Do not let the flood sweep over me,

   or the deep swallow me up,

   or the Pit close its mouth over me.

[ 16 Answer me, O Lord, for your steadfast love is good;

   according to your abundant mercy, turn to me.

17 Do not hide your face from your servant,

   for I am in distress—make haste to answer me.

18 Draw near to me, redeem me,

   set me free because of my enemies.

19 You know the insults I receive,

   and my shame and dishonor;

   my foes are all known to you.

broken heart 220 Insults have broken my heart,

   so that I am in despair.

I looked for pity, but there was none;

   and for comforters, but I found none.

21 They gave me poison for food,

   and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.

22 Let their table be a trap for them,

   a snare for their allies.

23 Let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see,

   and make their loins tremble continually.

24 Pour out your indignation upon them,

   and let your burning anger overtake them.

25 May their camp be a desolation;

   let no one live in their tents.

26 For they persecute those whom you have struck down,

   and those whom you have wounded, they attack still more.

27 Add guilt to their guilt;

   may they have no acquittal from you.

28 Let them be blotted out of the book of the living;

   let them not be enrolled among the righteous.

29 But I am lowly and in pain;

   let your salvation, O God, protect me.

30 I will praise the name of God with a song;

   I will magnify him with thanksgiving.

31 This will please the Lord more than an ox

   or a bull with horns and hoofs.

32 Let the oppressed see it and be glad;

   you who seek God, let your hearts revive.

33 For the Lord hears the needy,

   and does not despise his own that are in bonds.

34 Let heaven and earth praise him,

   the seas and everything that moves in them.

35 For God will save Zion

   and rebuild the cities of Judah;

and his servants shall live[c] there and possess it;

36     the children of his servants shall inherit it,

   and those who love his name shall live in it.  ]

Still speaking God, who speaks to us not just in the noise of other’s advice and sermons, nor just the bright days of promise nor in the pages of Scripture alone, but even in the silences of our life and shadow times of loss and grief, we pray you open the eyes of our mind and ears of our heart, that we might see and know what words you have for us in these words of Scripture.  Amen.

 

We continue our series on Grief and the book of Psalms.  Last week we talked about how the Psalms in our Bible reflect the full range of human emotion and are in Scripture to jewish prayerhelp us find words for prayer when our words fail.   We saw the Psalms follow a movement from prayers of orientation, spoken and written during a state of grace before losses and tragedy; prayers of disorientation, spoken and written during the midst of life-altering loss and pain in which our easy answers to life’s problems don’t make sense any longer; and prayers of re-orientation which are spoken and written as people begin to rebuild their life after loss.

Today’s Scripture, Psalm 69, comes after everything has fallen apart for someone and life appears to be coming unglued.

The Psalmist pictures this time as a time in which she or he is drowning, being overwhelmed by what she or he has been through.  This feeling of drowning is an experience that anyone going through grief understands.

On the one hand, the tasks alone that come to us after loss can be overwhelming: We can feel we are being drowned in all that has to be done, so drowned there is no time to even get a grasp on our own feelings and make sense of what has happened.  It can seem like in the midst of loss we are pummeled by just one thing after another: from paying bills from the hospital, to planning funerals, to working out details related to finances and legal processes, to working out life insurance, to sorting out people’s things to be give them away to family members, friends, or groups in the community that can re-home them.  This too can be true with griefs related to other kinds of losses – divorces, the ending of other intimate relationships, loss of a jobs, conflicts that break up relationships in churches and communities. In any of these experiences of loss and change, we can feel like we are drowning with all that needs to be done practically in the fallout of it all, paddling just to stay above water.  At times, others show up and lend a hand to make this journey easier. This, church, is something we ought to strive to do in these times of loss others face around us. But, even with others’ help, the journey is not easy and can so easily be overwhelming.

Yet, it is not just what concrete tasks that must be done which leave us feeling like we could drown in times of loss.  Also our emotions can hit us hard – they can be like summer stormcloudbursts overhead, so that without warning, overwhelming bursts of feelings of all kind hit us.   In her classic work on grief, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross describes many who experience grief as passing through 5 different emotional states, each of which can be full of overwhelming emotions:

First, we have the state of denial.  In denial, we might feel numb and unable to connect with life, as if we are experiencing it seen through a sheet.   We can also actively have our minds convincing us this loss – be it illness, a break of a relationship, someone’s passing, the end of career, whatever – is not real, to protect us from the pain really facing into it will produce.  We can wake up expecting to see that person who has died or who left us through ending our relationship with them, thinking if they are an intimate partner, we will turn to see them laying beside us, or if they are a close friend, family member, or church member, we can call them and talk as we always did before this loss that pulled them from our lives.  We can convince ourselves that the person diagnosed with illness who we care for is not really sick or will get better after the diagnosis makes clear they won’t – or that the relationship we’ve lost with another person isn’t over when it is, or even that the church or community can simply turn back the clock to where it had been before. Denial isn’t all bad.  In the short term, denial helps protect us from the pain of losses that otherwise can be overwhelming, keeping you numb enough to keep going with your daily tasks for awhile. Long term, though, denial can overwhelm us like waves, pushing and driving you to act as if nothing has changed even when it has, and if it continues long term such denial will only leave you stuck.

Anger is another side to grief that can overwhelm us.  The unfairness of the loss, the hurt, and pain can produce sudden outbursts of anger, where ordinarily soft-spoken people rage, lashing out in anger either at others or sometimes themselves.  Helplessness at our inability to change the situation or at our pain at our loss, can cause us to have short fuses. It is normal in grief to look for someone to blame, either ourselves or others, and often even at those closest to you or offering the most help.   

The next side to grief is bargaining.  A normal part of grief is trying to regain some sense of control at what is happening through going through times of bargaining.  We may say to ourselves if only I and my ex could sit down just one more time and talk through things, even though a thousand other times before didn’t work and they don’t show any openness to fixing what became broken, maybe – just maybe – this time we can save the relationship, long after it is gone and done in the eyes of anyone not feeling this grief.  We might say if only I give myself or the one I love this homeopathic treatment or that experimental drug, we will save them. We can say if only I do this or that, perhaps we can get the people who pushed away from us in the community or the church to come back. We can sit and bargain with God about the loss of one we loved, even though such bargaining cannot bring back the one we loved.   This bargaining can even be jumping too quickly into a new church, a new career, a new project, or a new relationship to regain the feelings and sense of identity you had before your loss, without dealing with the pain, questions, and heartache you must pass through. The key thing is such bargaining is aimed at turning back the clock, trying to get things back to how they were before our loss, even though the clock of life can only go forward, never backward.   Bargaining is trying to not face into the depth of the loss. Falling into bargaining is natural, and flows out of a desire to have something you can do to make things better rather than being a powerless victim.  Ironically, though some changes people try to make as a bargaining tactic that are clearly unhealthy in the moment – like jumping into a relationship immediately after burying a spouse or before the ink on the divorce papers are dry often is unhealthy – there are also some changes we might try to make as a part of our bargaining while in grief as a way of turning the clock backward that can increase your pain when done to hold onto a past that won’t return, that in another context will be life-giving: when those same changes are a part of moving life forward for you as an individual and a part of envisioning a new future.  It is important to be aware of what you are feeling and going through, to not rush through the pain and thus sabotage your own healing; and important for us not to be too hard on others when their feelings push them to bargain as a way of rushing out of pain. Patience with yourself and those in grief is key.

Depression is another side to grief. Feelings of sadness, emptiness, heartache, and pain are also normal.   When I went through this side to grief during the loss of my late wife, I had trouble getting out of bed.  I joke that my dogs kept me going – their wet nose on my leg in the morning, calling me to get them out on their morning walk kept me from staying in bed   When experiencing this side of grief, you can feel a lack of motivation to do basic things. You can feel hopeless that you will ever get through this time of loss.

A final side of our grief process, according to Kubler-Ross, is acceptance.  At this point we begin to embrace the reality of our loss, our inability to change it, and begin to accept the pain we’ve gone through, the change the loss brings, as a part of our new life.  We begin to accept the illness or disability we or another face as something we have to accept; the ended relationship as a part of our past we must make peace with rather than fight against to move on; the fact nothing you do can bring back the one you’ve lost and that new relationships or projects which are worth embracing when you are ready and then may bring new joy in your life also won’t ever bring back what you lost; the fact that your career can open up in new ways after loss; the fact your community or church can not turn back the clock to how things were before but can learn new lessons from the loss and begin to build a different future out of what the experience teaches you.

A lot of times these elements of grief are sometimes called “stages”, as if you pass through one, then another, and finally others, until finally you don’t grieve any more.  Now most counselors and chaplains who work with grieving people recognize these are more “sides” to grief, which you can experience at once – feeling both down and angry, bargaining while also being in denial.  And that even while you go through these painful emotions some sides of grief produce, you can at the same time be accepting what has happened and integrating it into your life. They also recognize now that one rarely arrives.  Rather, even years later, these feelings can return. The journey through grief is different for each person and it is normal to still feel each of these sides of grief years later, even as your life moves on. But each of these sides of grief can also be overwhelming, coming in wave upon wave.  Even the experience of acceptance and of seeing new life on the horizon can be overwhelming in your feelings of relief, acceptance, new-found happiness and, at times, even guilt at the thought you are now enjoying this new stage of life but someone else who is not with you anymore is not sharing in this joy with you due to your loss – whether that is one whose death or illness puts you in grief, or even one you are no longer in touch with through your romantic relationship ending or friendships breaking apart through community or church conflict.

We don’t know who wrote this Psalm – some think King David, others think it is Jeremiah or an anonymous author after Israel is Exiled from the Holy Land by invaders from Babylon or Assyria, or even as they return afterward to resettle and rebuild.  So we don’t know quite what loss, trauma, or grief is being faced. But we see that the author of Psalm 69 goes through many of these feelings of grief and loss, with almost each side reflected. She or he is overwhelmed, expressing feeling drowning.  She or he expresses not being able to feel God’s presence, feeling God has turned God’s face away, like someone going through the numbness of denial or depressed sad feelings in grief. She or he tries to make sense of what has happened through taking account of her or his failings, admitting real and imagined sins, crying out for forgiveness, and committing to change: all things that people do sometimes in the midst of bargaining in grief to turn back the clock and which we also sometimes do as a part of accepting the offer of new life on the other side of grief, when we embrace what has happened and choose to build a new life beyond our loss.  The Psalmist even rages, crying out to God to act against those who have hurt her or him, calling down curses and judgment in ways that it is hard to imagine talking to God in prayer outside of the experience of deep pain and loss.

What does this Psalm teach us about our experience of grief and loss?

First, the full range of how you feel is normal.  Each part of the grief experience is touched on here.   By inspiring each part of that experience to be included in the Psalm, the Holy Spirit is showing us that each part is normal and, however painful, you and I can get through it.

Second, though it is normal to feel alone, you do not need to go it alone.  

The Psalmist reaches out to God, being completely and shockingly honestly with God about her or his feelings.   Prayer may be hard, words difficult to come, and God might feel distant. Yet God is with the Psalmist as she or he feels these feelings and speaks these words.   And ultimately by opening up to God in the midst of our experience, we can find help in our journey.

The fact this Psalm is one Jesus also prayed, in fact prayed so much that his followers quoted it to explain Jesus’ journey to the cross, suggests Jesus knows and understands all you are going through.  You are not alone. God walks with you, God knows, God sees.

The fact this Psalm is one Jews, Christians, and Muslims have all turned to for inspiration as a model prayer ever since it was written, also suggests you are not alone.  Many countless others have felt these same feelings. When say such words to God, you are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Though it is hard to reach out to other people, these words challenge you to do so.  Despite the way our grief can push us to pull away from others, we don’t have to go it alone

For those of us who see others going through grief and loss, these words also challenge us to not forget them.  It is easy to turn away, feeling uncomfortable with another’s sadness or pain. It is easy to for us to show up with the intent to fix them – as if the pain of loss is something we can fix through 5 easy steps, or which they can just choose to turn off like a light switch.   It is easy to, when folks stay hurting a long time, to forget their pain and move on, leaving them alone, before they themselves have moved forward in their lives. Our call as those who support those in grief is expressed well by the late Henri Nouwen when he writes: “When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”

The Psalmist ultimately ends in hope, imagining the future that can come on their other side of pain.   Their imagining of hope points us to hope, too. As I said, the Psalms clearly follow a journey from a state of grace untouched by pain – prayers of orientation; through experiences of loss and grief – prayers of disorientation; into prayers from times of rebuilding – prayers of reorientation.  The whole of the Biblical story is this. Israel begins in the land of promise, experiences the loss of their homeland and temple; and ultimately experiences God bringing them home again to rebuild in Ezra and Nehemiah. Christ begins with the words “this is my Son, the One I love, in whom I am well-pleased”, moving forward full of the Spirit.  Yet he then is betrayed, crucified, and killed. Ultimately, this leads to Easter morning.

We have an Easter faith.   At times nothing we can do can stop our Good Fridays from coming.  At times we will never understand this side of heaven why certain losses come.  But even in the darkest night of grief, we can know we do not walk alone. God walks with us, the same God who promises to bring beauty from ashes, joy from pain, resurrection morning from Good Friday betrayal and death. Amen and Amen.

A Week in the Word: Grief and Recovery, Part 1 — Blessed Beyond our Brokeness

hanks chapel easterThis is the message I preached on Sunday, July 8,  at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC   I hope it blesses you!  If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us!   Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC.

Psalm 113

1Praise the LORD! Praise, O servants of the LORD; praise the name of the LORD. 2Blessed be the name of the LORD from this time on and forevermore. 3From the rising of the sun to its setting the name of the LORD is to be praised. 4The LORD is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens. 5Who is like the LORD our God, who is seated on high, 6who looks far down on the heavens and the earth? 7He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, 8to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people. 9He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. Praise the LORD!

 

Would you pray with us?

May our still-speaking God open the eyes of our hearts and ears of our minds so we might see and hear what word God has for us in these words of Scripture.  Amen.

griefMany of us have gone through significant losses, changes, and griefs.  And our church too has gone through loss, haven’t we? The next three Sundays we will be exploring a message from Scripture each Sunday which speaks to our experience of grief.  Next Sunday, July 15th, we also will have Ann Ritter from UNC hospice sharing some about grief and recovery briefly at our 10 AM service, with a class on grief and recovery in our fellowship hall at our 9 am Sunday school hour.

Our Scripture today and the Scriptures we will read the next few Sundays come from the Psalms.  The book of Psalms is included in our Bible as a collection of model prayers, which can help us find words to pray when our emotions run so deep words are otherwise hard to come by.  When we turn to the Psalms, we can find that we are not alone in our sorrow and loss, anger and sadness, numbness and confusion, even our joy and gratitude. When we pray the Psalms, we pray together with others who have also felt all these same emotions.  In the Gospels Jesus also prayed the Psalms. So, when we turn to them to express our deep joy or deep grief and sorrow, we can remember that we are not alone. Not only do those who prayed them before us stand with us, but so does Jesus. In Jesus we have a mediator with God who was tested and tried just as we are, yet without sin.  Jesus has felt and understands whatever you are going through. And in Jesus, God stands with us, ready and willing to walk the full journey with us.

Because of this, of all the books of the Bible, the Psalms most clearly reflect our journeys from loss and grief to recovery and rebuilding.  United Church of Christ Bible scholar grief cycleWalter Brueggemann says the prayers in the Psalms generally fall into 3 categories: 1) prayers from points of orientation, when those praying them are at a point where they were untroubled by trials and their faith innocent and unshaken; 2) prayers from moments of disorientation, when it is harder to understand where God is working, so those who pray them feel shaken and unsteady,  and their normal easy answers sound hollow to their ears; and 3) prayers of reorientation, from times after loss when they begin, with God’s help, to rebuild their lives and faith. Each week during our series on grief and recovery we will look at one of these types of prayer, asking what it teaches us about the grief journey.

This movement of prayer in the Psalms mirrors almost word for word our journey of grief, loss, and rebuilding after, doesn’t it?  Like the Psalms do, we often begin our grief journeys in times when things make sense: we have someone we love by our side, a job we enjoy we can show up at everyday, a community that makes sense to us, our physical health.  In such moments we have no question about it: God is on the throne, in God’s good heaven and all seems right in our world. Then we feel the rug pulled out from sinking 2underneath us through our experience of loss – whether through losing someone we love through death, through experiencing illness or some disabling condition, through going through a breaking up of a partnership or marriage, through us losing a job, through having to support someone we love through such a time, or through changes that  bring painful loss in our community, church, neighborhood, and family. Often it is hard to understand why these things happen. We question. We search. We wonder. Our normal answers we have turned to for comfort in the past are no comfort any longer. They echo hollow in our ears. We wonder where God is, how God can be in charge if such hard things have happened. For a long time we may not know which way is up or down. Then, as we slowly begin to walk again, sometimes limping at first, through our journey of grief, bit by bit we find our way again and, with the help of God and of others, begin the painful work of rebuilding our lives again after our loss.

Our reading today, Psalm 113, is a clear example  of prayers of orientation. It is a prayer First spoken from a time of grace before the kind of losses that might lead you to feel life unraveling & certainty becoming shaken have happened.

In Psalm 113, the one who prays knows and has no difficulty seeing that God is enthroned securely in God’s good heaven, looking down upon all of us like one might see the landscape for miles and miles around from a Jesus in Heavenmountaintop, so they know God can look out and see all the affairs of our life.  There is not an area of our lives that they feel God doesn’t see or intervene in to bring blessing or overturn injustice. Unlike some psalms of orientation which suggest if we succeed, it is always because we’ve followed God well, and if we suffer we must have sinned, Psalm 113 clearly recognizes that suffering like poverty or childlessness happen and are not God’s judgment on you for some failing of your own, but rather struggles all of us can face that may be no one’s fault.   Yet it’s clear the one praying is not struggling now. Psalm 113 tells us these are struggles from which God can and does set people free. Here God is the one who always stoops down, leaning down from God’s height in heaven high above where God could choose to go untouched by our struggles to right each wrong. God chooses instead to be touched by our pain and dive down into our less than perfect lives, rolling up God’s sleeves to tirelessly work to make all things right again when they have gone wrong.  God is the one who lifts the poor out of their poverty each time, and again and again puts the childless into families, helping them build home and family where none existed. God will not stop until every wrong is righted. The Psalmist knows we can trust injustice will not stand but for a moment, and believes God will set all things right if we just reach out to God. Every injustice will be overturned and all set right if we just reach out and take God’s hand, this Psalmist says.

Psalm 113 reflects an easy, childlike faith that God is in control of every aspect of our lives, with nothing falling through the cracks.  Its words are ones we want to be able to say Amen to, but which it might be hard to say Amen to in our darkest moments. Its words remind me of true-isms we often say in church in the face of life’s problems: Don’t dying child 2worry about the future, because God is already there.   God won’t put any more on you than you can bear. Trust God’s plan, because nothing happens God didn’t plan. God did this for a reason. Have you ever heard these said to you when you were suffering? If so I bet you can admit though sometimes they helped, there other times that they were very hard to say Amen to, right?

Such sayings – like Psalm 113 —  make the most sense when we ourselves are not struggling with situations that seem to fly in the face of their message.  When we feel clear which is the right path to take, with no grey areas, when our family is faring well and our job is steady, then it is easy to believe God is sitting on God’s throne in heaven, seeing everything, keeping everything well-ordered.  When life does not feel it is unraveling around us, these prayers are easy to say. It is easy then to believe God has our future under control, that God won’t put more on us than we can bear, and that everything that happens is part of God’s plan.

As we will talk more about next week, our experience of loss, trauma, and grief can shake up our hold on these simple comforting beliefs.   It can unravel the easy answers we have been taught over the years. Suddenly we might be able to look at our lives and say “I’ve been following God’s Word as best I can all these years, but I don’t see God bringing any deliverance despite my prayers, nor see how God can be seeing this from heaven and still letting it happen.”   Elsewhere in the Bible, we find the righteous man Jsitting in despairob said as such, when his life fell apart around him and his deeply spiritual friends quoted the same sort of true-isms we often say in the church and are often quoted in psalms or prayers of orientation. Deep down Job knew what our experiences of grief and loss teach us: that ultimately such words, on their own,  leave out a big part out of our picture of God’s plan. During his time of suffering, trauma, and loss, Job cried out to God in ways that made it clear it was hard for him to see God as sitting on God’s throne, seeing every part of his life, righting every wrong as Psalm 113 described. He cried out because of that to God and all who would listen, even though his friends worried his crying out meant he was losing his faith. Yet by the end of the book of Job, we find God answers Job, but not in the way Job or anyone else would have expected.  And God lets us know in God’s answer to Job that Job was not in the wrong, showing us when we find these easy answers from prayers and Psalms of orientation, from churchy trueisms, sounding hollow when we are in our pain, that does not mean we have lost our faith or lost our way. Everyone can go through such dark nights of the soul.

When we go through loss, trauma, and grief, we like Job can have a hard time seeing God as still on the throne, and our lives as taken care of by God in the way Psalm 113 describes.   Even though we might pray words like Psalm 113’s which proclaim that God reverses the situations of the poor and oppressed, we can begin to wonder how long we will continue to see injustice, have unanswered prayers, or wade through what feels like a deep and abiding darkness. If that is where you are, know you are in good company. It is not the final word nor does it mean you necessarily are losing your faith though it may feel like it.

With that backdrop, is there anything we can we gain from reflecting on these prayers of orientation, prayed originally from a state of innocence and grace, that can help us in those dark times when their words sound hollow?  I think there are.

First, such prayers remind us of the original blessing we have which predates our loss and cannot be taken from us, no matter how painful the experience we face.   Theologian Matthew Fox says that often as Christians we are too focused on original sin, which is the many different ways we become quickly broken by life from the start, tending us toward this or that sin, damaging us deeply before our choice or our say.  In over-emphasizing Youre-Not-Brokenour brokenness and original sin, Fox says, we Christians often fail to recognize we also begin life under an original blessing:  When God made all life, what did God say about it? God called it good, very good! This Good, very good, applies not just to all creation but also to you and me, to each and every one of us. Scripture says every person whom God made is made in the image of God and yes that includes even you and me.  The Psalms tell us in Psalm 139 that we can praise God because we are each fearfully and wonderfully made.

What a promise!  However we become hurt or broken in our lives, however we might lose our way, sin, or fail, this original blessing cannot be broken.  These words remain true of us. We each remain ones full of potential and hope, ones who can reflect God’s image in a way no-one else can.  We each continue to be worthy and of worth in God’s eyes.

Our experience of grief and loss can leave us, on the other hand, feeling washed up, worthless, and no good.  We can feel broken beyond repair. Yet what we have gone beloved (1)through, however painful, does not change who we are: children of God who in Christ are called God’s very own, ones whom God loves, and ones in whom God delights who also deserve delight ourselves.   This is who God says you and I are and nothing, absolutely nothing, can change that. This original blessing rests on us and it that which prayers like Psalm 113 remind us of.

Such prayers also can act as a lifeline in the midst of difficult times.   I see this time and time again in my work as a chaplain. People will say to me, “chaplain, I do not see where God is here in this situation. Chaplain , I don’t understand how God can allow this, and oh the pain I face! Yet I won’t give up. I know whom I have believed.  Yet,” they say, “I will trust this is in God’s hands, though it take all I have to do so. I will believe God can work good for me and others out of my pain. I know God will make a way when there seems to be no way.” These folks who are suffering cling to the reality that is truer than the true-ism but which these trueisms point to. Such words become a seed through which their future of a restored faith and a rebuilt life can grow, that future which can lay ahead for them and us, sprouting up on the other side of pain and loss

With July 4th having come right behind us this past week, there is an example of this in our nation’s history.   When the founding fathers wrote all men were were created equal by God, born with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, were those words automatically treated as true for all people?  No, in many ways these words were words of orientation too. Those words in fact seemed originally to only to apply to a select few people whose lives were comfortable

amistad

One example of the abolitionist work of Congregationalist-Christians was their rallying to help with the legal work that freed those enslaved on the Amistad.

and made sense. And yet they included in them the seed of something better, an original blessing which made something better possible through what it pointed to.  Many of the Congregationalist-Christians who helped start many of the churches which later became our United Church of Christ , including our own Hanks Chapel, pointed out, that as a nation we were acting like these words weren’t really true — that instead some men are more equal than others – particularly white men with land. They said we were acting like they alone were deserving of freedom — while women and people of color could be mistreated: with Native Americans’ land being stolen and handed over the white settlers, and black folks from Africa being sold as slaves.   These Congregationalist Christians pointed back to our founding fathers’ words as a rallying cry, a call to live out the full promise of our country – let us truly treat all equal, all as having inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That rallying cry led our Congregationalist-Christian forefathers and mothers of faith to fight for the rights of Native Americans, for the end of slavery and fair treatment for all, and eventually even for the rights of women to vote. It martin luther kingis their a cry which Dr. Martin Luther King and others made their own when they lifted up cries for justice and freedom for people of color in the Civil Rights movement.  In words reminiscent of Psalm 113, Dr. King both told the nation that the check of this promise included in the words “all are created equal” was past due for people of color, women, and many others and also that it needed to be fulfilled because “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. In other words, King and others trusted we would ultimately learn to treat all people as equal because the God of Psalm 113 would lift up the oppressed, marginalized, and cast aside to stand on equal footing. Both those words penned by our forefathers and the words of Psalm 113 included the seed of the promise of freedom for all, pointing to a blessing God wanted to offer that could not be over-ruled by those who tried to bend it to keep some people from sharing in the full blessings of freedom.

Just as these words of our founding fathers included a seed from which freedom for all could grow, so these prayers from before our loss, from places of innocence and a state of grace, are important because these include the seeds from which our rebuilding or recovery may come after loss.  Just as “all men are created equal” has a deeper richer and meaning in our country following our fight for Civil Rights, so on the other side of grief, the words of prayers like Psalm 113 take on new and richer meaning. Again and again through the experience of grief and recovery we may return to those promises that God will work out all things for our good, bring blessing out of heartache, walk with us on our journeys which previously sounded hollow and begin to see ways they are still true now, if not in the way we would originally have expected.  Though we may not be able see any truth in these words in this moment in our grief journey, we might see truth in them further on in our grief journey as we look back on it, more healed and steadied.

In closing, let me share the words of Henri Nouwen from his book Here and Now: Life in the Spirit, which express the value of these kinds of prayers— “My friend’s joy is storm cloudcontagious.  The more I am with him, the more I can catch glimpses of the sun shining through the clouds.  Yes, I know there is a sun, even though the skies are covered with the clouds. While my friend always spoke about the sun, I kept speaking about the clouds, until one day I realized that it was the sun that allowed me to see the clouds.  Those who keep speaking about the sun while walking under a cloudy sky are messengers of hope, the true saints of our day”.

The original blessing pointed to by such prayers from our state of grace before our loss, prayers like Psalm 113,  are like this sun which keeps shining through the dark clouds of our pain. Though they may be hard to glimpse now, their words echoing hollow in this moment, the blessing they point to continues to shine and cannot be eclipsed by any pain and darkness. In time we will see and discover it again, even if it is hard to imagine in this moment.

clouds

May God open our eyes, during times of clouds and darkness, to get glimpses afresh of the sun of God’s original blessing of us and ongoing presence with us that shine out through the clouds and darkness that surround us!

Amen & Amen.

Week in the Word: Feasting on the Word

hanks chapel easter

This is the message I preached on Sunday, July 1,  at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC, for our Homecoming Service.   I hope it blesses you!  If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us!   Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC.

 

Feasting on the Word.

 

Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”

5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11 and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”  12 Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

 

Colossians 3:15-17

15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

 

Would you pray with me? O Still speaking God who we hear not just in the pages of Scripture, but who we encounter in the blowing wind, the whispers of love and compassion from caring neighbors and friends, the cries for justice from the oppressed, forgotten, and forsaken, and throughout our lives, open the eyes of our hearts and ears of our minds that we might see and hear what Word you have for us in these words of Holy Scripture.  Amen.

This week we conclude the series we have been exploring as a church entitled “Drinking Deep of the Waters of Life”.  In the face of stress and trials, hard work and difficult callings, if we are not daily connected with the Spirit we can reach the limit of our eaglespowers, yet when we are connected with the Spirit, we can find strength and wisdom beyond our own which  Isaiah 40 promises, saying God “does not faint or grow weary” but instead “gives power to the faint,  and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,  they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary,  they shall walk and not faint.”

This past month we have looked at different practices that help us connect with the Spirit and the strength and refreshment the Spirit gives — meditation and communion; various kinds of prayer; listening for God’s still-speaking voice; and practices of letting go like sabbath, simplicity, solitude, and fasting.   Our Scripture readings today point to another place we can turn to to experience God’s Spirit in fresh ways: God’s Word.

Before I look at what these texts say, do any of you have ways you can share that turning to God’s Word has helped you connect to this strength and renewal promised in God’s Spirit when you needed it?

In our Gospel reading, Jesus faces down the ultimate in temptations and is able to resist each one by staying connected with the Word of God.  In fact, when tempted, Jesus makes temptation of jesusa challenging claim: we cannot live on bread alone. Our true nourishment cannot come from simply food, water, and shelter, but  also has to come from the Word of God. Jesus’ experience suggests some ways in which the Spirit can strengthen us through us taking time to connect with God’s Word.

First, when we bathe ourselves in God’s Word as Jesus did, we remind ourselves of who we are and whose we are in God’s eyes, and what God’s purposes in our world are.   Ultimately these truths are what Jesus points to again and again as he resists temptation. Right before these temptations, Jesus is baptised. All the Gospels tell us that, when Jesus is baptised, God speaks over Jesus “this is my child, the one I love, the one in whom I am well-pleased” and the Spirit rests upon him like a mother dove sheltering her baby bird under her wings.  When we are baptized, we claim for ourselves those words as also true of us personally through Christ, and we invite the Spirit to embrace us as a mother does her children, just as the Spirit embraced Jesus. Through Christ, we are ones whom God loves unreservedly and unconditionally, and upon whom the Spirit rests. Think of it! Through Christ you and I are — and all people can be — God’s very own children.  Through Christ, you and I are — and all people can be — ones in whom God is well-pleased before we can do anything right or wrong, regardless of our Baptism-of-Christ (1)mistakes or failures, but simply because we are God’s own.

In our Gospel, Jesus is tempted first and foremost not to make this or that choice, but to forget who God said he is.  “If you are the Son of God…” then prove it! . Ultimately our first temptation is often the same:  to forget who we are — to forget we are loved without condition, to forget we are embraced without question, to forget that we are a delight to God and deserving of delight, to forget that God is not far off but always embracing us through the Spirit; and to forget this is true for all we meet.  We are tempted to act as if we and as if they are undeserving, unworthy, less than who God says we and they are. We only embrace self-destructive choices, only live up to less than the fullest life we are made for, by forgetting who we and others are in God’s eyes. Staying rooted in God’s Word helps us, helps you and me, remember and live into who we truly are and all the best God has for us.

Also, the fact the Tempter quotes Scripture to tempt Jesus suggests what feasting on God’s Word is not.  It is not, as we might mistakenly make it, just about knowing and being able to quote specific Scripture verses.   You see, though we often fail to recognize it, according to Scripture itself, the “Word of God” is more than the words of Scripture bible not a weaponwritten in black, white, and red in the pages of our Bible.  Just as the Tempter can quote Scripture verses, throughout history there is a long and sad history of people joining the Tempter in misusing Scripture. History is littered with examples: those who claimed to be feasting on the Word while choosing to mis-use Scripture to justify racism, to justify slavery, to justify marginalizing and mistreating women, to justify putting down and pushing out gay people, and even in NAZI Germany quoting Scripture to justify breaking up the families of our Jewish brothers and sisters, throwing them out of their homes, shipping them away in trains, and casting them into gas chambers.  Even today some claim to feast on the Word while using Scripture to justify breaking up immigrant families both at our borders and in our neighborhoods, even though Christ warns in Matthew 25 that on Judgement Day how we treat so-called foreigners in our midst will determine how we are judged by Christ himself, for in Christ’s eyes, whatever we do or fail to do to the least of these , we do or fail to do to Him.

The words of Scripture can be misunderstood, twisted, and misused, but the living Word of God itself cannot be twisted, for that Word is the heart and mind of the  One the Scriptures proclaim and point to. This is why Hebrews 4 tells us “ the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword,it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart”.  This is why John 1 tells us that in Jesus “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” As CS Lewis once wrote, “It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, bible not wordwho is the true Word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers will bring us to Him.”  Ultimately the Word of God in which we are to bathe ourselves and upon which our souls can feast, is not just empty words on a page but the heart and mind of the living still-speaking Christ to whom they point: the One in whom we live and move and have our being, that One who is still active in our lives and world,  guiding and leading all who look and listen for him in all places and times.

When we connect with this living Word of God through our time in Scripture, letting the still-speaking presence of Christ open us up to who we are in Christ, and to where Christ is working and acting in our lives and world, we too will be able to see through the false promises of our temptations, say no to them, and say yes to God’s best.  We will be able to see through those misusing Scripture for their own ends, not giving into their temptation.

This requires connecting with God’s Word in the way Psalm 119 suggests when it says “I have hidden your word in my heart  that I might not sin against you”.  In his book Here and Now: Life in the Spirit, Henri Nouwen likens it to letting God paint pictures on the walls of your heart, so that you carry upon the walls of your own heart a picture of who hidden-your-wordyou are, whose you are, and what God is about in your world.  Whenever you become tired, weak, and worn — thus easily tempted — you can pause and look within, to where God’s Word has been painted and be reminded what counts, and what doesn’t.

This painting on the walls of our heart with God’s Word’s of who we are, whose we are, and what our world is for is what Colossians means when it talks about letting the Word of God dwell in you richly.   I want to spend my remaining time today talking about practices we can engage in throughout our daily lives to help let’s God Word dwell in us, so the walls of our heart and life are decorated with God’s message to us about ourselves, our place in God’s plan.

 

What are some ways you connecting with God’s Word that help you “feast on the Word”?

feasting on the word

The first practice of feasting on God’s Word I want to mention is regular devotional reading of Scripture.  Devotional reading of Scripture is just reading a short passage maybe every day or every few days for inspiration, without digging any deeper.  That alone can connect you with God’s Word.

 

Next we have study of Scripture.  This is reading the Bible in a careful, systematic way.  Instead of reading a few verses every day or two (or maybe week, for some of us), you carefully read through the Scripture: reading bit by bit through a book of the Bible, seeing how its verses fit together.  You pick up commentaries, Bible encyclopedias, whether in print or online, and look into the history, context, background. You read how different people have interpreted it, and compare what makes sense and what doesn’t.  In studying a Scripture, you can get a deeper understanding of it, and see what it means in context instead of picked up just to argue a point.

 

The next practice is praying the Scripture.  This can be picking a line of Scripture you have been studying like “be still and know that I am holy”, “not by might not by power but by my Spirit saith Lord” or something else, and repeating that line word by word as a prayer, letting the meaning of each word speak to your heart, and talking to God about what each word brings up.  It can also be doing that one line or a time through a longer part of Scripture, like a Psalm, the Lord’s Prayer, or another section in the Bible.

 

Then we have Lectio Divina, which is a kind of meditation on a section of Scripture.  Here you take a short section of Scripture and read through it multiple times, slowly paying attention to each word and asking God to guide you to what you need to see.  The first time through, just sit with the whole section and what stands out. Then, on your second reading of that Scripture, pay attention to a word, image, event, or experience that stands out to you, looking for what it brings up in your heart or mind and praying about that.  Then read it again and pay attention to what response you feel called to as you read it, and commit to that with God. And in your final reading pay attention to how God’s presence is evoked by the passage, and rest in your sense of God present to you. In a related form of Scripture meditation, Gospel contemplation, you do practically the same thing but instead of focusing on a word or image, you imagine yourself as if you are a different character within the Bible story you read in each reading, asking what it would feel like to experience what it describes from their point of view and what that teaches you about yourself, others, and God.

 

A final way of experiencing the Word Colossians speaks about is in song — Colossians tells us that singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs throughout our day is one way we can invite God’s Word to dwell in us richly. St. Augustine once said that to sing to God is to pray twice — both with your mind  through the words you sing but also with your heart, your feelings, and your soul as those words are sung as music. Listening to Scripture set to music in hymns, praise songs, and other kinds of music — let alone singing it yourself – can help it come to rest in your heart in a powerful way.  In my work as a hospice chaplain, I am always amazed at how people with Alzheimer’s or dementia can forget their name and struggle to speak but still sing along with hymns they were taught in the church over the years when I sing those song with them.

 

In closing, I want to challenge you to pick one of these practices of connecting with God’s Word and try them regularly this week, daily if possible, and see what ways it opens you up to God’s presence.

 

  As we conclude this series on Drinking Deep the Waters of Life, let us continue to remember the true source of our life and strength: the living presence of God which can lift us up, giving us new strength, new energy, and new direction throughout our lives.  Amen and Amen.