Our Master Class on Grief
May 03, 2020
Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came so that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
I begin with a prayer that Dr. Rueben Varghese, Director of Public Health in Arlington County, Va., recently shared on social media:
O God, keep my anger from becoming meanness.
Keep my sorrow from collapsing into self-pity.
Keep my heart soft enough to keep breaking. Keep my anger turned toward justice, not cruelty.
Remind me that all of this, every bit of it, is for love.
Keep me fiercely kind. Amen. (1)
While we were not strangers to grief before the pandemic, these last weeks have been something of a master class. “Each person’s grief is as unique as their fingerprint,” writes grief counsellor David Kessler. “But what everyone has in common is that no matter how we grieve, we share a need for the grief to be witnessed.” (2)
We are witnesses of one another’s grief.
In our witness, we must acknowledge that loss is not equally distributed among us. The greatest disparities fall along long-standing inequities and injustices, and they are the direct result of policies and priorities that deem some sectors of the human family expendable. Those of us with privilege have allowed this to happen, and we have much to answer for before God and so much that we must work to change. And we don’t have all the time in the world.
For today, I’d like to consider what grief does, which is to break our hearts. I am persuaded that there is more hope for finding common ground and common purpose among us, as a people, in the solidarity of suffering than in proving one another right or wrong.
As the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai so beautifully reminds us:
From the place where we are right,
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves (and I would add grief - MEB)
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood. (3)
Globally, we are living in a ruined house now. There is a voice whispering. What do you hear?
I hear voices, both human and divine, that point us toward reservoirs of healing and deeper meaning that can emerge from this loss--if we choose to heed those voices.
I don’t mean to gloss over the magnitude of loss and we ought never give thanks for it. I’m reminded of what Rabbi Harold Kushner said about how he was changed for the better by the death of his young adult son. “Yes, he said, I am a more sensitive person, a more effective pastor than I would have been had my son not died. But I would give up all those gains in a second if I could have my son back. If I could choose, I would forgo it all. But I cannot choose.” (4)
None of us can choose the grief we must endure. But we can choose to cultivate what lies within us through the mystery of grace and the power of love: our God-given desire to make the world better in the wake of ruined houses, to make meaning from the most painful of losses. It’s not the loss itself that becomes meaningful, but how we live and who we become as a result of it.
In this master class we’re in, I’ve noticed a particular expression of grief that naturally leans us toward this making better and meaning-making side of ourselves. It’s the grief we feel when we cannot spare those we love the suffering they are experiencing.
I hear this empathic grief in parents who can’t spare their children the sudden disruption of their lives and the loss of rite of passages which they have been preparing for years. I hear it in children of elder parents who are sick with worry, and in family members of those deemed essential workers and who, by choice or compulsion, risk their lives each day. I hear it in the business owners doing everything they can to keep employees on the payroll; in teachers, caregivers, advocates, my fellow clergy. I hear it every day in people like you.
This grief propels us like no other to do whatever we can to make things better and to offer hope and meaning for those we love. So we see spouses standing outside of nursing home windows with signs that say ‘I love you,’ and long lines of cars driving by the house of a child celebrating a birthday or graduation. Last night I watched a concert that our unemployed music producer son organized via Instagram so that his fellow musicians could perform live from their homes. The love expressed on the chat bar was palpable.
And then there’s the woman in my neighbhorhood who has been involved for years in the sanctuary movement, an effort to protect undocumented families from being deported. In her heartache for how undocumented families in our region are suffering now--and their suffering is severe, with no safety net to fall back on--she has almost single-handedly formed a volunteer network that provides food and essential supplies for hundreds of housholds each week. This is grief mobilized for good, helping us all to do something to redeem the time we’re in.
These are the stories we’ll remember when the pandemic has passed--not that we got through it, but how--how we loved and cared for each other, how our hearts were broken open, and how we resolved to change things. A poet I admire, David Whyte, asked a question last week that I’ll pass on to you: how can you live now such that your future self, and all who come after you, will look back with gratitude? How, in other words, can you become now the blessed saint of your future memory? (5)
There’s another form this empathic grief can take--whenever we monitor or regulate expressions of our personal pain and fear for someone else’s sake, particularly those who are looking to us for stability and reassurance. If you have someone coming up behind you or who in any way depends upon you, you know what I mean. This is when we need to find a place inside to hold our emotions--not deny or bury, but hold them in such a way that they are available to us but not so front and center that we can’t be fully present to those looking to us for direction.
Rabbi Edwin Friedman popularized the phrase, “being a non-anxious presence,” which isn’t easy to pull off when you’re feeling anxious yourself. But he also said this: “If you can manage to regulate your anxiety enough to keep the outward expression of it just a notch or two below that of the group you’re in, you’re helping to bring the collective anxiety level down.” (6) This is one of the most needed attributes of leadership--for parents and presidents, as Friedman used to say, and it can be learned. We all need to learn and practice it, because we all have someone coming up behind us.
In the fall of 2001, our older son entered 8th grade, which was the highest grade level of his school. So it was a big year for him and his classmates, and they entered it, his teacher later told me, with some apprehension. They kept on looking around, she said, wondering when the real 8th graders would show up, you know, the ones they had always looked up to.
On the morning of 9/11, as the terrible news of that day reached our Minneapolis neighborhood, the parents on our block decided that it was best for our children to go to school. I volunteered to drive some of them. Our older son was in the front with me, and in the back sat his younger brother and others, all very quiet. At one point I looked over at our older son and said something to the effect of, “Try to be kind to the younger kids today. They’ll be looking up to you.”
Later I learned that the 8th grade class went to the principal and asked if they could organize a prayer service for the entire school. To her eternal credit, the principal said yes, and they did, tending to every aspect of the service themselves. From that point on, my son’s teacher told me, “they never questioned who the real eight graders were.” You see, there’s something about acting on behalf of other people that makes the energy of our grief an offering with which God can help create meaning.
In the Gospel passage for today, Jesus speaks of himself as a shepherd who calls us each by name and whom we follow because we recognize his voice. He also speaks of himself as a gate through we enter and find salvation. Here’s the line I invite you to dwell upon in the days to come: Whoever enters by me will be saved. . . I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly.
I wonder where and how do you need to be saved? What would it look like and how would it feel like to experience being saved now?
It’s a risky question to ask. But if we don't ask it, how can we enter a conversation with the One who calls himself our Good Shepherd, and who promises salvation in the midst of our lives as they are and our world as it is?
This is what salvation looks like for me: when Jesus comes to me as the whispering voice, the presence of divine love. And when he encourages me and teaches me in a way of love that is merciful, forgiving, sacrificial and universal.
I believe that in Jesus' life, his suffering, death and resurrection, God reveals and invites us all to join in the divine mystery of bringing life out of death, and meaning from grief.
I believe that salvation is deeply personal, but not individual. “We will walk in the Kingdom of God together,” wrote the priest activist Daniel Berrigan, “or we won’t walk in at all.” (7)
Followers of Jesus are not immune to human suffering, nor are we spared anxiety or grief. He never promised us that; in fact, he prepared us for the exact opposite--that like him, ours would be the way of the cross, which is the way of salvation through suffering, not around it. In our master class on grief, he is the master teacher.
Here’s the point: We are closest to him and most like him in our grief for those we love in their suffering. That’s what propelled him to the cross--his love and his grief for us all. This grief propels us to take on, gladly, whatever is needed to make things better, to wrench whatever meaning we can from this ruined house for love’s sake.
So listen for his voice. It’s the one that rings true--not with false promises of escape but with the real promise to see you through what you did not choose. Lean on him now, because he loves you. He is on the side of making things better, bringing meaning out of this mess we’re in. When you, in your love for others, join in that making better, making-meaning work, you are the embodiment of his love. You are.
There are surely easier ways to live, but there are none more meaningful, and none more needed now.
May God keep your heart soft enough to keep on breaking
And your anger turned toward justice.
May all that you do now be for love.
And may God keep you fiercely kind. Amen.
(1) Posted on the “Sad Jesus” Facebook page, written by Laura Jean Truman.
(2) David Kessler, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019)
(3) “The Place Where We Are Right,” in The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, (Berkley: University of California Press, 1996) p.34
(4) Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (First Anchor Books, 1984).
(5) David Whyte, as part of a three-week online class, “The Courage in Poetry.” https://www.davidwhyte.com/. With reference to the poem, “Coleman’s Bed,” found in River Flow: New & Selected Poems, 1984-2007. (Langley WA: Many Rivers Press, 2007) p. 288.
(6) Edwin Friedman, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue (New York: Guilford Press, 1985)
(7) I couldn’t find the citation for this line that I have carried with me since I first read it in the mid 1980s. A good source for an overview of Berrigan’s work is Daniel Berrigan: Essential Writings (Orbis Books, 2009).