Romans 8:24-27; Ecclesiastes 3:1-4
The Rev. Tom Herbek
September 25, 2016
Sometimes the losses keep piling on, one after another. In his letter to the people in Rome, Paul says that there are times when we cannot express in words what we feel inside, what we need. Paul says that, at such times as these, God’s spirit, which is within each of us, enables us to communicate with sighs too deep for words. And God hears these sighs. In such times, we are immersed in a time for weeping, a time for mourning, and it is hard to imagine what the writer of Ecclesiastes says is the other side of life: a time to laugh, a time to dance. In the midst of the overwhelming reality of loss, it is not easy to move even one step in the direction of laughing and dancing. We feel like the ancient Greek character, Prometheus, having to spend all of our energy pushing a huge rock up the hill, only to have it come tumbling down again.
In the midst of his grief when his mentor died, author Mark Nepo wrote the following:
My teacher appeared to me in the midst of my grief for him.
I was on a bench in a park in the city.
Buses were coughing by and small shops were opening.
And since my teacher no longer has hands,
he swept a bird in my face to break up my sadness.
And since he no longer has a mouth,
the light off the windows twenty stories up drifted through the leaves.
I said, “I miss you.”
And I thought I heard him say, “Do everything while you’re here.”
Then it began to mist though the sun was shining.
As if the Universe were crying at what it does to us in order to keep going.
Just then, a child lost a ball. It bounced my way.
Now my teacher was in the bounce and I thought I heard him say,
“Enough of this. Pick up the ball and live.”
When our own sighs are too deep for words, the spirit of God comes to us, when the time is right, and says: “Enough of this. Pick up the ball and live.”
In earlier generations, there was an expected period of mourning for any loss. There was a period of wearing black. There were accepted rituals to signify the period of mourning, and then, there were rituals to signify that the period of mourning was over. Although I am sure that the official mourning period was too long for some people, and far too short for others- because, after all, we are each unique individuals- there was some value in the clarity of the time of mourning.
In our society today, there is not much tolerance for mourning, and once the funeral is over, everyone is anxious to get on with life, and uncomfortable with anyone who still is grieving their loss. And yet, we must each be aware that there is value in mourning, in actually feeling our loss. But there is also a time to “pick up the ball and live.” Our life needs to go on.
Our family, our friends, would wish us to go on. I often use something written by David Harkness, and used at the funeral service for the Queen Mother of England, in the memorial services here in this sanctuary:
You can shed tears that she is gone
Or you can smile because she has lived.
You can close your eyes and pray that she will come back
Or you can open your eyes and see all she has left.
Your heart can be empty because you can’t see her
Or you can be full of the love you shared with her.
You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday
Or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday.
You can remember her and only that she is gone
Or you can cherish her memory and let it live on.
You can cry and close your mind, be empty and turn your back
Or you can do what she would want: smile, open your eyes, love, and go on.
There comes a time when we must pick up the ball and live. And it is what our loved ones would want. Mark Nepo calls his book The One Life We’re Given, and he finishes the introduction with this paragraph:
When I think of those I’ve loved and lost, of all the kind pilgrims I’ve journeyed with, when I think of my wife, Susan, and my closest, oldest friends, I’m drawn to say that there is nothing as messy and magnificent as the incarnation of being human. And the one life we’re given is more than enough, if we can help each other through the storms that time can bring. Though we shake our heads, admitting on bad days that it’s all too hard, if some legendary film director were to offer you such a part, you’d think it the role of a lifetime – and it is.
Indeed, our unique life is the role of a lifetime, our own role to play as only we can, in our own special way. Sometimes we find parts of ourselves, parts of life, on the other side of loss, that we never knew were there. Loss of a job, loss of a marriage, loss of a loved one may allow us to find something in ourselves that we never expected.
Krista Tippett describes what happened after her divorce:
When my marriage ended, I walked into a parallel universe that had been there all along; I became one of the modern multitudes of walking wounded in the wreckage of long-term love. Strangest of all, on this planet, is the way we continue to idealize romantic love and crave it for completion – to follow those love songs and those movies.
After my divorce, I created a welcoming home and took great delight in my children. I cooked dinner for gatherings of friends old and new, invested in beautiful far-flung friendships, and drew vast sustenance from webs of care through the work I do. Yet I told myself, for years, that I had a hole in my life where “love” should be.
This is the opposite of a healing story – it’s a story that perceives scarcity in the midst of abundance. I have love in my life, many forms of loving. As I settled into singleness, I grew saner, kinder, more generous, more loving in untheatrical everyday ways. I can’t name the day when I suddenly realized that the lack of love in my life was not a reality but a poverty of imagination and a carelessly narrow use of an essential word.
And here is another, deeper carelessness, which I am absolving in a spirit of adventure: I came to understand that for most of my life, when I was looking for love, I was looking to be loved. In this, I am a prism of my world. I am a novice at love in all its fullness, a beginner.
The intention to walk through the world practicing love across relationships and encounters feels like a great frontier.
We all go through loss in our lives. We all go through terribly difficult experiences in life.
Somehow we must come to terms with our history, with those terribly painful parts of our life’s path. One of my heroes, Joan Chittister, had an earlier life that I never knew of, until recently. She writes:
How would I ever “come to terms with my history?” As in put it aside as if it had nothing to do with my future. How would I “make sense” of two such different lives? The first as an only child with a dead father; an alzheimer’s mother; an alcohol dependent stepfather; and an institutionalized existence since the age of sixteen underlies another whole life entirely. The second life, this one, has been rich, kind, good, meaningful, steeped in God, and crowded with people of quality. So the first one couldn’t have been that bad, could it? Somehow, it must have prepared me quite well, in fact, for the rest of life. Clearly, we cannot too quickly cross off anything in life. It all goes into the pattern at the end.
She goes on to say:
Life either dwarfs us or grows us. There is no in-between. There is no standing still in the spiritual life. There is only the unending opportunity to become or to die. We see people die spiritually every day. Sometimes they look very religious in the doing of it, in fact. They go on believing, reading, praying, thinking what they have always thought. In the face of new questions, they dare no questions. At the brink of new insights, they want no insights.
I believe that Chittister is right, that there is a part within all of us that would prefer not to have to grow, not to have to face the challenges of change. When we experience deep loss, the energy to move on- to live life again- seems to be so hidden away that we doubt that it is there at all. When we lose a person we love, a job we enjoyed, a marriage that helped to define who we were, then we lose a part of ourselves, too.
When we lose a piece of ourselves, we lose a much larger part of our identity than we ever realized was possible.
But, as Joan Chittister says:
And yet, there is a resurrection that comes with loss. People can no longer see in us the person they saw before, true. But that is one of the gifts of loss. Loss frees us to begin again, to be seen differently, to tap into something inside of ourselves that even we were never really sure was there. But, whether we knew it or not, did badly want.
We can now – perhaps must now – be ourselves but in some very different ways.
-Between the Dark and the Daylight
But we must also remember that we are not alone in the darkness of our loss, in our days of mourning, any more than we are alone in the days when we begin to walk into the sunshine.
There will be children whose ball bounces our way, and friends whose hand we can hold, and the sighs that go beyond words that God can hear and love us through. Within all of the conflicts and losses of life, we discover – over and over again – that everyone and everything is connected. And when someone asks us out of their grief, their pain and their loss, where God is, we must be the reminder to them that they are not alone.
Krista Tippett once interviewed a Maine game warden who had just helped find the body of a child that had gone missing in the forest. The game warden (who is also a Unitarian minister) made a comment that is full of great wisdom. She said:
If someone asks, “Where was God in this?” I’ll say, “God was in all the people that came to try to help, to try to find your child.” This helps people, it really does.
You know, the question isn’t whether we’re going to have to do hard, awful things, because we are. We all are. The question is whether we have to do them alone.
At least in this church family, the answer is clear that we are here for each other. We utter the sighs too deep for words at times, not just for ourselves, but for the others in this larger family. We offer a hand to hold, a shoulder to lean on and a respectful willingness to help. We all have to do hard and awful things, but we do not have to do them alone.
And God, whose spirit is within us, enables us to be God’s hands and feet and voices on this earth.