Two years ago, as I was just starting out as your minister, I preached a sermon on death. I thought it was a good sermon at the time. In fact, I still think it was a good sermon... well, at least I don’t disagree with anything that I said. My approach went something like this: “Death, and more precisely, dying, is a necessary and inevitable part of being alive. As a part of living, death is something that we can prepare for. And since statistics tell us that deaths rarely come as a total surprise, that means that for the majority of us there are all sorts of things that we can do to prepare ourselves. I then enumerated a checklist of things to do to prepare including creating living wills and specifying end of life wishes, settling affairs with loved ones, even communicating your wishes to your religious home… my message was this: ‘To die well requires the preparation of a well-lived life.’” [I owe a debt of gratitude to my fellow seminarian Rosemary Lloyd for inspiring that sermon.]
I don’t disagree with any of this, but upon another reflection, I think the flaw and the tragic hubris of this message was the hint of the notion that we might be saved by our doing. Unitarian Universalists are, if nothing else, doers. With James, we would boldly proclaim that faith, without works, is dead. We are empowered people: we take action within the congregation and outside of it. An Episcopalian Priest once remarked, “God Bless the Unitarians. They always show up even though they never seem to be able to explain why.” At SMUUCh, every Sunday we say that “service is our prayer” which is a good thing, except when it would really be nice if prayer was our prayer.
Let me be clear on this: it is wonderful to be around a community empowered to do good works. But the tragic hubris of such a faith is that life inevitably brings all us – well, most of us – challenges and tribulations that cannot be faced solely with a checklist of things to do.
The inspiration for this sermon was a conversation I had with a congregant who gave me permission to share his story. In 1999, his father died of a sudden heart attack. A few months later, his mother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, and by September of that year, she too had passed away. In the midst of such sudden and profound loss, grief, tragedy, and pain there was also a desire, a longing, a need for a religious answer. Why? How?
On top of this, the religious comments that others offered to him did not sooth and were not healing. You know these comments, these bromides: “God does everything for a reason, and you may not be able to see it, but you have to just trust.” Or, “God needed another angel.” Or, “At least they are in a better place.” Or, “God has given you this trouble because he knows you are strong enough to handle it.” Or, “This is a part of God’s plan for you.” You know about these comments and you know that for some people they seem to offer comfort and assurance, but they fail to offer you succor, even though they are offered in sincere compassion. And maybe you become envious because those for whom these sayings work seem happier and all-together and these words just don’t have the same kind of magic for you, and you long for something that will, but you’re not sure you believe it exists.
Once a Unitarian Universalist facing a scary operation and a potentially devastating diagnosis said this to me about the stress and anxiety she was facing, “I feel like I am holding an empty bag.” My challenge this morning, Dan’s challenge to me, is to say something about grief, about loss, about death, about pain, about anguish… to say something about facing the really tough stuff so that we don’t feel like we are holding an empty bag in our faith lives. How do we respond to the really tough stuff?
As Unitarian Universalists, we do not usually think in terms of suffering and hardship as being a part of God’s plan for our life. That’s not the way most of us think. But for many Christians, the idea that suffering and pain is a part of God’s plan for their life is a comfortable idea. They need look no further than the central, dominant symbol of their faith, Jesus, God, on the cross, a suffering God, in order to feel connected in the midst of despair, pain, and death. The thinking goes, “If it was part of God’s plan for his own son to suffer, than surely my own suffering is part of his plan as well.” Rationally, theologically, we Unitarian Universalists tend to reject this idea. But, what is left for us in place of this way of thinking?
So, where do religious liberals, who have difficulty with the notion that hardship is part of God’s plan for our lives, find succor when the going gets rough?
Let me say that not everybody here struggles with this. Some people face hardship, loss, pain with an attitude of “that’s life.” Life goes on. I think we can learn something from them, but I’m not sure it is possible for everyone to emulate them. For the rest of us, where is our good news? And where is the good news in our faith tradition? How do we fill our empty bag? How is it that we receive bread instead of a stone?
I want to suggest that there are three things that we can do in the face of grief: First, we can move in the direction of things that restore our soul and away from things that are destructive to our soul. Second, we can move towards community and away from isolation. And third, we can move towards an embrace of mystery and away from the need to control.
Moving in the direction of things that restore our soul and moving away from things that are destructive to our soul. I once had the privilege of visiting several times a man dying from cancer in the last days of his life. He had fought the disease for a good long while and made the conscious decision to stop fighting. Desiring to die at home and in the company of his loved ones, he began to gather around him everything and everyone that gave him joy and brought light into his life. He surrounded himself with all sorts of things that held memories and created a poster, on which visitors could write messages. Every time I visited, more and more had found its way into the room. More pictures, more books, more sentimental items, more messages on the poster. There was a sense of the sacramental in this – he was embracing the things that restored his soul.
I have observed that the those who fare the best in times of loss and pain are those people who gather around them things and people and practices that help to restore them. That may sound a little materialistic, or a little odd, but I think this is true. It can be a pet, a plant, a relationship, a hobby, an activity, a piece of music, an art, a craft, a spiritual practice - whatever it is, I find that those people who face grief the best are those who have made space in their lives for these sorts of things. I’m not talking about replacing. This isn’t about replacing your loss, distracting yourself. This is about something else: it’s about strengthening yourself around that place of emptiness. Our own life force becomes more resilient when we move towards things that restore our soul.
I think that is why people who face grief, loss, hardship turn to addictive behavior – drugs and alcohol, work, compulsive sex, destructive behaviors, risky behaviors. A hole has opened up in their life and they want badly for something to fill it, make them forget it. But the secret isn’t filling the empty space. And the secret isn’t forgetting it. The secret is having a larger wholeness around that empty, grieving space.
It is important to offer this warning though: anything can be lost. The people who manage the best, in my experience, are the ones who surround themselves with friends and family and pets and plants and arts and crafts and activities that restore the soul – but do this even though they know none of these things are guaranteed to last. Loved ones may pass away; friendships may sour; we may become too immobile or too arthritic or too weak to do those life-enhancing activities we love; our material treasures may be destroyed. We hear of athletes who suffer career ending injuries, artists who lose their vision. I think one key is finding a diversity – like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, there is a danger in having only one precious, one thing that makes you whole. I think another key is finding restoration in things that are more difficult to lose. Although faith can be lost, I imagine that in the face of loss the ability of a person to say, “The lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” “Hail Mary full of grace,” “Precious Lord, take my hand,” or “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound” is a kind of restoration. What hymn, what poem, what prayer, what song carries you?
Move towards community and away from isolation.
In the Bible, the story of Job is probably the most poignant story of loss. You know the tale: a fallen angel tempts God to test the faithfulness of a man named Job, a man with wealth, success, family, and robust health. Systematically, God sends famine to his fields, levels his home, kills his family, and afflicts Job with horrible disease. What many people don’t know about Job is that a good deal of the story deals not with the relationship between Job and God, but between Job and his friends. Job's friends leave him hanging. One friend says he is bad luck. Another friend advises him to figure what he has done to incur God’s wrath, and repent for it. A third friend sees the devastation and sides with God, shrugging “Well, God is just.” His friends treat him like bad news. Job responds to his friends’ unsatisfactory advice by calling them on it. “Your maxims are proverbs of ashes, your defenses are defenses of clay.” It is the type of thing we might be tempted to snap back at a lame sayings that do not give us comfort. Don’t give me those proverbs of ashes!
“Proverbs of Ashes” is also the title of a book by the Unitarian theologian Rebecca Parker and Christian theologian Rita Brock. It is a book about what really saves us in the midst of hardship and suffering. These two women argue that conventional Christianity promises salvation through the experience of violence, suffering, and the isolation that comes from being a victim. The central image of this, again, Jesus on the cross, suffering, mocked, and forsaken. Brock and Parker argue against this theory of salvation, suggesting instead that salvation is found in the community that comes together in response to violence and isolation. Brock and Parker write about their own first hand experience with abuse, depression, oppression, and violence and about the saving communities they have found or formed.
Move towards those things that restore your soul, and away from those that destroy the soul; move towards community and away from isolation; and move towards mystery and away from control.
My first experience living in Baptist-land was in 2001 when I spent a year living in Dallas, Texas. I was serving a Unitarian church, but through a hospital ministry and just being in the community I met my fair share of Baptists. And one of the things that was most shocking was the Dallas practice of making providential pronouncements about the affairs of the world. If you hit a home run, it was God who gave you the strength. If you won an election or got a promotion, God was blessing you. (And if you struck out, lost, or got fired, it was part of God’s greater plan for your life.) These kind of providential pronouncements were common. If you were in a car accident and lived, God had protected you. If you were sick and got better, God had healed you. If you didn’t survive, or didn’t recover, God was still acting, it was part of God’s plan. At a funeral, there was supposed to be a pronouncement about whether the person was saved or not.
When others found out I was a minister, I was expected to offer such pronouncements. This was something that I was uncomfortable doing. So, what I could say, I pondered, I struggled, and finally it came to me, to say, “God’s ways are a mystery.” “God works in mysterious ways.” “How mysterious are the ways of the Lord.” And although that sounds a little contrived, I was serious.
I think you’re better off not making pronouncements about the way God works. You’re better off saying what God is doing or causing. Maybe that sounds like a cop out to you. I don’t think that it is. As Roy Phillips says, "we’re living in the midst of mystery," and our response to that fact should be one of awe, reverence, and trust. We’re living in the midst of mystery and God works in mysterious ways that we may never fully understand and certainly not control. In times of grief, loss, pain, we are better served to embrace the mystery rather than bristle at it, rather than think that we can control it, manipulate it.
Find and practice what restores our soul, and do not practice what destroys it. Move towards community and away from isolation. And stand in awe of the fact that we are living in the midst of mystery, for it would be less if we could control it. May these words I have spoken, these ideas I have shared, be helpful and healing to you in times of grief and in the midst of death. Or, may they be forgotten, for something else that works. So may it be.