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
1 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.
8 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.
20 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 help 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 cloudbursts 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.